Waste Not, Want Not: Feeding the British Home Front: Women’s Interconnectivity in the Second World War

By Kelly A. Spring

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the start of food rationing in Britain during the Second World War. On 8th of January 1940, the British government instituted a system of food controls, which was all-encompassing for the home front population. Items such as meat, cheese, tea and butter were put on the basic ration, while other foods such as tinned goods, rice and cereal could be purchased through a points system, whereby individuals received 16 and later 20 points per month to spend on these foods. Goods were assigned so many points by officials in the Ministry of Food, depending on availability of supplies, offering consumers a measure of flexibility in their diets beyond the basic ration.[1] Ration amounts fluctuated throughout the war as supply levels rose and fell according to shipping losses from U-boat action, domestic agricultural outputs and the needs of the military.

Queue for food rations, London, 1945. Image credit: Wikimedia commons.

The nature of the restrictions and their pervasiveness in society required everyone to use food resources wisely to feed the home front. But it was primarily to housewives that the nation and the government turned to make the ration programme a success. Through food rationing propaganda, officials called on married women to use their cookery skills to sustain their family’s consumption needs under the food controls. Such propaganda suggested that women, who could effectively provide nutritious meals to their loved ones by stretching limited consumables, were fulfilling the idealised domestic role in wartime.[2] However, in reality, not all housewives took up domestic roles with gusto, nor did they act alone in the battle on the kitchen front. Other women within the home and in the community often assisted housewives in their task of providing meals in the domestic environment. As a result, women’s responses to the food situation were much more diverse in scope and complexity than the image of the ideal housewife would lead us to believe.

The weekly ration for two people, UK, 1943. Image credit: Wikimedia commons.

My paper, ‘Feeding the British Home Front: Women’s Interconnectivity in the Second World War’, presented at the conference, ‘Waste Not Want Not: Food and Thrift from Antiquity to the Present’, explored the links between sustainability and women’s roles in wartime Britain. Using oral interviews, my research demonstrated that through associations both within and in connection to the home, women utilised their interconnectivity with other women to successfully sustain the consumption needs of home front families in a time of conflict and food insecurity. My paper illuminated the multifaceted work of grandmothers and single women in conjunction with housewives to facilitate and maintain the food levels in the home during the Second World. Overall, this paper provided a more nuanced understanding of the intricate structure of women’s food interactions. It showed that the British food rationing programme relied not simply on housewives’ individual efforts, but it depended on the cookery interactions of a community of women, who creatively pooled their culinary knowledge and resources to successfully maintain the food security, health and nutrition of a nation at war.  

[1] For a discussion of the points system and the foods included in it, see: Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World War (London: Pimlico, 1971), pp. 141-142. 

[2] Kelly A. Spring, ‘“Today We Have All Got to be Fighting Fit”: The Interconnectivity of Gender Roles in British Food Rationing Propaganda during the Second World War’, Gender & History, 32/1, March 2020, pp. 1-27 (early view online February). 

Waste Not, Want Not: Physics and Fruitcakes

By Simon Werrett

In 1767, the Winchester writer Ann Shackleford gave a recipe for clear fruit cakes in her Modern Art of Cookery Improved (1767). A candied fruit juice should be placed ‘upon glass plates, or pieces of glass’ and dried in a stove or oven, ‘or by setting them in a window where the sun comes, keeping the window shut’.  In 1666 Isaac Newton bought a triangular glass prism and after darkening his room, he let in a beam of light through the window shutters and passed it through the prism. This created a spectrum of colours, and when Newton passed one coloured beam through another prism, with no change, he concluded that white light was made up of a series of fundamental colours.

Newton’s scientific experiment. Light dispersing through a triangular prism. Image credit: D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons.

What is the difference between these two performances? In one sense the answer is quite obvious – one is a cookery recipe, and the other is a famous scientific experiment. One is not very interesting – unless you like fruitcakes – and the other is a profound moment of human discovery. As Alexander Pope famously wrote, ‘Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light’. But there are many similarities. Both happened at home – Shackleford’s recipe would presumably be done in a kitchen and Newton did his experiment at home in Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, and in Trinity College, Cambridge. Both made use of glass items that were ready to hand (prisms were a toy and Shackleford was probably using pieces of old bottles or glasses). Both used a window to manage light, either in terms of generating a beam of light or to dry out the fruitcakes. Both Newton and Shackleford wrote accounts of these events so that someone else could repeat them.

In fact recent research by historians is revealing how early modern householders might not have viewed these two episodes as differently as we do today. People in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries viewed both Newton and Shackleford’s activities as ‘experiments’. Experimenting was something expected at this time of all good householders. Books of advice on ‘oeconomy’, or household management, encouraged ‘thrift’, which meant not so much saving money as finding a balance between buying new and making good use of the things one already possessed. Thrifty householders should make a point of finding out new uses for things and looking after them to ensure they could be useful for as long as possible. So men and women recorded recipes for cooking, cleaning, gardening, and making medicines which might be carried out by all the family. Contemporaries called this an experimental enterprise, because it involved trying out recipes, testing cleaning methods, trialling medicaments, and figuring out what you could do with old and broken possessions. In 1662, for example, the writer on oeconomy Hannah Woolley published a recipe book called The Ladies Directory, in Choice Experiments & Curiosities of Preserving in Jellies And Candying both Fruit & Flowers. Newton and Shakleford were both householders, and from this perspective of thrifty household management they were both experimenters. They were both finding out new uses for things (prisms, broken glass, light, fruit juice), and they both ‘made use’ of their homes (windows, sunlight) as a kind of experimental apparatus.

Kitchen ‘experiments’. Gerrit Dou, Woman Pouring Water into a Jar (c. 1655). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course we don’t remember Newton and Shackleford today as doing the same thing: far from it! Why is that? It seems that in the seventeenth century, some male householders decided to take these family experiments outside the home to new places like universities and academies where they argued that domestic know-how should count as a form of scientific knowledge. Science already took in things like mathematics and astronomy, but it was controversial to say that mundane everyday knowledge of the kind found in household recipe books should count as science. The seventeenth-century chemist Robert Boyle, for example, explored the optics of eggwhite bubbles and experimented with eggs, coriander seeds, distilled liquors, wine, beer, vegetables, jars of oil, and vinegar. Contemporary wags lampooned him for investigating the phosphorescence seen in rotting fish and meat because this wasn’t the sort of thing normally associated with doing science. Nevertheless, over time, men like Boyle divorced elements of domestic knowledge from their original homely settings and ‘experiment’ came to be seen as an exclusively scientific, and male, enterprise.

While most experiments happened at home in the seventeenth century, by the nineteenth this new profession of ‘scientists’ built specialised laboratories and insisted that kitchens, parlours and basements were no longer acceptable as spaces to investigate nature. Today we find it hard to imagine a time when cooking fruitcakes and studying light could be seen as a similar sort of inquiry. But for early moderns, household oeconomy encouraged making use of things to find out what they could do. That could mean exploring light or inventing new recipes for fruitcakes. Recognising this demands a new recipe for the history of science: if we want to understand experimenting, we’ll need to pay more attention to the home as a place where people studied nature, and we’ll need a bit more room for forgotten female writers like Shackleford.

Waste Not, Want Not: An Introduction to Histories of Food Waste, Thrift, and Sustainability.

By Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley

As awareness of global climate and humanitarian issues increases, a growing number of us are seeking ways to grow, buy, and eat food more sustainably – by, for example, using food sharing apps to prevent food waste, reducing our plastic packaging consumption, or switching to less meat-centric diets. In the world today, one-third of the food produced for humans is estimated to go to waste, with society throwing away ten million tonnes of food per year in the UK alone. At the same time, food systems contribute to 37% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. 

But how did societies think about food waste before these concerns earned a regular spot in the headlines? And what might we learn about the past – how people lived day-to-day, their beliefs, and the wider advances in industry – through this focus on food? This month’s thematic series, edited by Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley, explores the history of food waste, thrift, and sustainability from the early modern period to the present. The blog posts are based on a series of papers presented at the ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ conference at the University of Cambridge (September 2019), which brought together historians, sociologists, and industry experts to address these topical questions.

John Gilroy, We Want Your Kitchen Waste (1939-46). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Prior to the invention of artificial refrigeration, consumers themselves had to come up with thrifty ways to preserve food, which would otherwise quickly spoil or rot. Certain papers demonstrate how these kitchen experiments carried out by ordinary people (often women) might best be understood as scientific advancements. Others look at inventions in the packaging industry, from tin cans to plastic film, which have transformed the way that we eat today. ‘Thrifty’ foodways also demand particular attention in the context of conflict and war, when rulers used propaganda to enforce food rationing and new methods of collective cultivation on entire societies.

Moving from methods of preventing food waste to the food waste itself, several posts in this series explore processes that transformed waste products – like molasses from sugar or the ‘skim’ from milk – into viable and even desirable comestibles. The rise of veganism in recent years has seen similar developments, with companies transforming Aquafaba – the liquid gloop at the bottom of a can of chickpeas – into an egg substitute for baking, for instance. On the other hand, changing food habits have had the opposite effect: national consumption of offal (another ‘waste’ product) has declined dramatically in the past fifty years, from more than 50g per person per week in 1974 to only 5g in 2014.

Addressing themes of waste and sustainability in the history of food, these papers have made us think more about the historical relationship between cookery and scientific innovation, about the central role of food in wider social and political power dynamics, and about the enduring relationship between food and identity.

A particularly successful feature of the conference was the conversation it sparked between historians and present-day policy makers. Pioneering initiatives like History and Policy and Cambridge Sustainable Food can use knowledge of past food practices to better understand the advent of present-day food sustainability issues, to inform the direction of food initiatives in the future, and to engage the public with these consequential topics.

In what follows, some of our speakers reflect on the key themes from their papers.

 

This conference was hosted by Cambridge Body and Food Histories group, co-convened by Lucy Havard, Philippa Carter, and Kylie Chiu Yee Lu, and gratefully funded by Cambridge AHRC-DTP.  For a full list of our fantastic speakers follow this link!

 

The funeral of Mrs Potato: a round-up of World War I recipes

A few days ago, while visiting the exposition ’14-18 – it’s our history’ at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History in Brussels, Belgium, one document particularly caught my attention: an obituary notice for the passing of Mrs Potato.

The French text reads as follows:

Announcement of the death of Mrs Potato, 1916
Announcement of the death of Mrs Potato, Brussels, 1916

Mr Joe SPUD, his wife Industry TATER [the word in the original is the dialectal Walloon word ‘crompire’];

Mr ONION, his wife Mrs LEEK and their children shallot and gherkin;

Mr CELERY, his wife Mrs CHERVIL, their child parsley;

Mr SPINACH, his wife Mrs SORREL, their children salt and pepper;

Mr CARROT, his wife Mrs TURNIP, their children green cabbage and cauliflower;

Mr GARDEN PEA, his wife Mrs FRENCH BEAN;

Widow CHICORY, born in Brussels;

have the great pain to inform you of the cruel loss they have suffered in the person of

Mrs POTATO

Born in Canada, piously deceased in Brussels

The funerals will take place every day at one (Central European time) in all homes where bellies go empty and cooking pots are in mourning.

Pray that her soul may rest in peace and that she may resurrect soon.

No flowers or wreaths.

Having never suffered from hunger, this satirical text brought things home for me. How does one cook without the most basic of ingredients? How does one go through their day without one of the cheapest source of carbohydrates? Here is a round-up of sites and blogs that may offer some answers to these questions.

Painting by R. Willems-Geurt on a sand cabine at the Belgian sea resort of Koksijde. Photo: Laurence Totelin, August 2014
Painting by R. Willems-Geurts on a sand cabine at the Belgian sea resort of Koksijde. Photo: Laurence Totelin, August 2014

The Telegraph tells us how to prepare a Trench Cake, which included currants, cocoa, ginger and nutmeg, perhaps to hide the fact that it was mostly made of flour and margarine – no eggs or butter in sight. Cookit! for its part gives us the recipe for a Trench Stew based on the recollections of a soldier from the 9th Bedfordshire Regiment. Beth Wilmshurst at greatfood mag reproduces several recipes from the 1918 British Ministry of Food, Win the War Cookery Book. The fish sausages are particularly intriguing –  might give them a try myself.

David Setevenson devotes an interesting post to the War effort at home on the British Library website, including information on food supply and rationing. Note at the bottom of the post the photo of the Belgian Cookbook (1915), which includes recipes sent by Belgian refugees. Edible Swansea had written a fascinating post on that same book a couple of years ago.

Painting by L. Ardaean at the sea-resort of Koksijde, Belgium.  Photo: Laurence Totelin, August 2014
Painting by L. Ardaen at the sea-resort of Koksijde, Belgium.
Photo: Laurence Totelin, August 2014

In the USA, the University of Wisconsin has an amazing collection of North American documents relating to food and cooking during and after World War I: Recipe for Victory: Food and Cooking in Wartime. The following title  by the United States Food Administration particularly caught my attention: Food saving and sharing, telling how the older children of America may help save from famine their comrades in allied lands across the sea, prepared under the direction of the United States Food administration in cooperation with the United States Department of agriculture and the Bureau of education (1918). The tract is 102 pages in length, showing that the Food Administration expected quite a lot from its ‘older children’. The National World War Museum at Liberty National in collaboration with American Food Roots has produced a series of videos on food, cooking and rationing. The Doughboy Cookbook, by the Quartermaster Corps Foundation, presents several adapted recipes (with no claim to full authenticity) that soldiers would have used. Note in particular the ‘Mess Sergeant’s Java‘ or ‘Black Jack’ a nauseating recipe for recycling coffee involving egg-shells and salt.

Finally, in Toronto a Symposium ‘Recipe for Victory – Great War Food‘ took place in September. It involved recipe testing and tasting, including a tasting of Canadian butter tarts, on which you will find more information here.

There is of course much more to be found on the web, but no orgy of blog-reading on war recipes will ever give me a full sense of what it really felt to be hungry and scared in a trench or on the home-front. Lest we forget.

NB: many of the links above were suggested by Amanda Herbert, who is currently on leave.