Friday, April 11, 2014

AMERICANS HATE IT, BUT BRITS LOVE IT. THEY THINK IT'S . . .

. . . A NATIONAL TREASURE

Salty and pungent, it has the appearance and consistency of axle grease, and smells and tastes like no other food on earth. The few Americans who have tried this British savory spread think it looks and tastes disgusting. Yet in Britain and many of its former territories, despite its unappealing appearance, it’s held in high esteem.
They call it Marmite, and it would be true to say that it’s as much a national institution as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or fish and chips. Babies love it, usually spread on finger-size strips of toast that are, for some reason, called 'soldiers', and kids take sandwiches spread with it to school in their Spider Man lunchboxes. I recently dug up a whole collection of recipes using the stuff.  They include commonplace snacks such as Marmite, Sausage and Baked Beans, Marmite and Hummus Crumpets, Marmite and Carrot Soup, and also more ambitious if not exactly haute cuisine dishes like Marmite Chicken, Marmite and Banana Grill and – no, I’m not making it up – Marmite and Rice Crispies.
There's a national affection for Marmite in Britain that Americans, especially the ones who were brave enough to sample it, simply can’t fathom. Earlier this Year the New York Times quoted an American literary agent who recalled, “In 1961, I was on the deck of the Queen Mary when they came around with Marmite sandwiches. I literally gagged on one, and I think I even threw it overboard.”
But to millions of Britons the product’s very name conjures up homey scenes of winter teatimes with the drapes (well, we call them curtains) drawn closed. They hear the rain pelting down outside, see a roaring coal fire in the grate, and a plate of Marmite sandwiches alongside the teapot with its floral tea cozy, and willow pattern cups and saucers. Those with longer memories may recall breakfasts in the kitchen with the nanny or a maid in their early years, dipping their ‘soldiers’ into soft-boiled eggs, while Daddy sat with Mummy in the dining room and read The Daily Telegraph, tucking into tea and eggs and bacon.
The Australians have their own version of Marmite that they call Vegemite. I once tried both in a blind tasting down-under, and confess I couldn’t tell the difference.  Down there they’ll swear blind that there's no comparison between the two, that Vegemite is the true product, and that Marmite is for the birds. The Aussies eat their imitative version in much the same way as we Brits do our own original product, and they regard it with equal respect.
Even at home on its own hallowed ground, Marmite is not so sacred a national treasure that it’s immune to a little caustic comment, even from the BBC. In a radio program this year, a commentator dared to say that, “viscous in consistency, Marmite is deceptively like crude oil in appearance. Indeed, this is what many would believe it to be, were it not for its list of ingredients. After all, the main ingredient in Marmite is spent brewers yeast. How on earth the inventor decided that spreading fungus on a piece of toast may in fact taste quite nice is a mystery.  However, considering that it’s a by-product of the fermentation of sugars into alcohol, one theory is that the inventor was drunk, and that it probably seemed like the right thing to do at the time."
But disregard this beastly blasphemy. The important point is that Marmite tastes delicious and that, more importantly, it’s so full of good things that it must be good for you. Look at the ingredients listed on the little pot-bellied brown bottle: yeast extract, vegetable extract, niacin, thiamin and salt, which means it contains five kinds of B vitamins, including B12.
In wartime, Marmite made an important contribution to preventing vitamin deficiency diseases such as beri-beri among the armed forces, civilians and prisoners-of-war, especially in Europe, North Africa and Asia.
A while ago, along with the late Queen Mum’s, the makers of Marmite celebrated the spread’s 100th birthday amid a deluge of press coverage and hype that would have astonished but gratified their long dead founders. At about the same time, Britain’s once notorious insularity and standoffishness came to the fore when a former government minister, Tony Banks, drew the anniversary to the attention of his fellow members in the House of Commons. “We take intense satisfaction,” Banks said, “from the essential Britishness of the product, and its lack of appeal for the majority of the world’s population.”
All right, then. We may no longer be a superpower, but you have to admit that we can still tell a good thing when we see it.


                              * * *

Saturday, February 15, 2014

AUTUMN FLIGHTS

I've never posted any verse on this blog but, just for a change of pace, here's a  poem.  But wait! It's not some soppy Moon-in-June jingle, but something I wrote only a few years ago as a memory of the Nazi Blitz on England during World War II. 

In the early 1940s I was about ten years old, living in farming country in the south-east England county of Kent. The Kent coast was only 21 miles across the English Channel from Nazi-occcupied France, and we were on the most direct route for German bomber planes on their way from France to their devastating raids on London.




Autumn Flights

That place was paradise,
there were owls at night, and foxes barked.
By day we walked among the orchards
under leafless apple trees that smelled of tar,
their fresh-sprayed bark a milky blue.
Too late now to search the lush grass
for mushrooms big as dinner plates.

At other times we’d stroll through empty woods,
ankle-deep in crispy autumn leaves.
High in the leaf-lorn trees hung empty nests,
the crows’ a careless mess of sticks and,
lower down, the neat painstaking weavings
of more patient birds.
Elsewhere stood dormant hills of wood ants,
three feet high, like miniature volcanoes on the leafy floor.

But we always stayed close to home, for things could
happen suddenly. One never knew.
We were at war when, bound for London,
German bombers ran the gauntlet
of Spitfires and Hurricanes like angry hornets,
and sandbagged batteries of guns.
Mostly they came at night, but sometimes,
staring into a summer sky, we saw it black with
bombers heading west, always in orderly formation,
their escort fighters twirling and
weaving on their flanks

When they came at night we’d hear the banshee
siren call. Rising, we’d drag on warmer clothes,
and pick our way unsteadily down unlit stairs.
Out in the chilly garden, we headed down the gravel path,
between the cabbages and Brussels sprouts,
to clamber down our shelter’s narrow steps,
and heave open the heavy steel door.
Once inside, our father, fumbling with
damp matches, lit a candle.
It was frigid in that little cell, with its
floor of bare cement, and an arched ceiling
of corrugated iron. Two double-level bunks,
fashioned from unfinished pine,
stood side by side.
We’d sit, two-and-two upon the lower bunks,
our shoulders draped with blankets,
facing each other across the narrow space
between them.
David, my older brother, with my father,
their faces blanched in candle light,
and me with Mother.
She talked incessantly, part because of nerves,
and part to occupy our minds.

Yet we were safe enough, ten feet down
in solid Kentish chalk, under a concrete roof
topped with earth, beneath a neat rock garden.
Out there, beyond the bolted metal door,
we knew that searchlights pierced the late night sky,
their beams swept, crisscrossed and swung apart.

First came the sound of Nazi planes.
“Those are Dorniers!” my brother said,
his pale face turned upward.
So distinctive were their throbbing engines
that even a child could tell their signature.
And then we’d hear the anti-aircraft guns,
first some single sighting shots, and then
when the sky was full of spot-lit silver planes,
a crescendo of thumping, pumping volleys.
On and on the firing went, at wave after wave
of planes, until the sky was quiet again.

Then we’d wait an hour or two,
taking edgy naps, awaiting their return.
They’d fly faster on the homeward run,
having spent their bombs on London, lightening their load.
Or else, harassed by gunfire,
seeing their comrades plunging to the ground,
they’d turn about and flee,
and jettison their lethal load like ballast
on towns and villages, or empty countryside
-- our woods, our orchards.

Finally, we’d hear the reassuring all clear sound.
(Sixty years on, it’s still here in my head.)
Unlike the warning call, the siren played a single,
constant note, mournful, note
carried over frosty fields.
So we emerged, breathing the fresh, early morning air.
In the garden, jagged silver shrapnel lay around.

As time passed, often, playing in the woods,
we’d find a fallen plane, unguarded, its crew gone,
buried or imprisoned.
We’d scramble in, awed by the alien language
on the cockpit’s controls and dials,
with little swastikas and eagles.
Crouched in the pilot’s seat,
we’d re-fight the battle, yelling oaths
and orders in invented German.
One village boy, finding an airman’s damaged glove,
slipped in his hand to find a putrid severed finger.

So life went on: the autumn plowing; the pruning
and spraying of the last fruit trees;
the drone of tractors in the fields; convoys of
horse-drawn carts clopping to market,
loaded with beets and turnips, and baled hay.
And the last geese, in orderly formation,
this time flying south.

                                   

                                             ooo0ooo



Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A NICE CUP OF TEA

When things go wrong in Britain -- I mean really wrong, like widespread floods, transport strikes, a national outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, or a truly serious catastrophe, such as the defeat of Manchester United, or whatever your favorite team is, in a Cup Final -- we know exactly what to do. In addition to keeping calm and carrying on, we have a nice cup of tea.
            Somehow, tea’s much more significant to us Brits than coffee is to you Americans. It’s a pacifier, a cure for anxiety and depression, a panacea. The wisdom in Britain is ‘have a nice cup of tea, and everything will be all right.’ No panic, no histrionics. So jolly sensible.
            It has to be said that most UK visitors say about American tea exactly what American tourists say of British coffee, that it’s weak and tasteless and, well, a bit like brown bath water.
Both are true, actually. But it’s not surprising that the British revere tea in the way they do. Their history in the last few centuries has been steeped in the stuff. I’ll bet that when Sir Francis Drake saw the Spanish Armada hovering on the horizon at Plymouth, the last thing he thought of was finishing that silly game of bowls. No, he sat down on the grass and called for a nice cup of tea.
          It’s s a ruddy certainty that Lord Cardigan, standing knee deep in dead and dying redcoats after the Charge of the Light Brigade, invited Lord Raglan to his tent for a cuppa. And don’t believe that Sydney Carlton, the upper-crust hero of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, crouched beneath the guillotine, waffled on about it being a far, far better thing that he did. Of course not! He asked for, well, you know what he asked for. This is, as prime minister Margaret Thatcher once said about something entirely different, ‘The British Way.’
            We have to admit grudgingly that the Chinese discovered tea first, along with fireworks, medicine, astronomy, gunpowder, and a lot of other things. It was around 5000 years ago that the emperor Shen Nung inadvertently made the first cup of tea. While he was sitting in his garden, some camellia leaves blew into a cup of boiling water. I’ve always wondered what he was doing sitting there with a cup of boiling water, but never mind. Anyway, he was intrigued by its fragrant aroma, and soon decreed that drinking tea prevented illness.
            Then the Japanese copied Shen Nung, copying being something they’ve always been rather good at. Like the Chinese, they lauded tea’s efficacy as a cure for aches and pains, including headache, depression and constipation. They made quite a cult out of it with their tea ceremony. They also had tea-tasting gatherings, much like wine devotees do today.
It was 4500 years more before tea -- er -- percolated into Europe. It came from China in relatively small quantities by way of the Silk Road, via Asia Minor. Because it was scarce it was also ruinously expensive, so that only the aristocracy could afford it. Marco Polo had called tea one of the ‘world’s wonders,’ and it was the Dutch who, in 1606, really discovered what he was on about, did a deal with the Chinese, and established tea trading posts, followed quickly by the French.
The Brits, with their trading fleets such as the East India Company, were a year or two behind their European trading rivals, but then, as Eartha Kitt put it so pithily, ‘An Englishman needs time.’ It was largely the British who, with the help of the Dutch and the French, reversed demand with supply, making tea affordable for everyone. Tea quickly became the favorite English drink (at least for the upper classes) and the first teashops opened in London.
By the 1700s the national fancy for tea provoked excessive taxes, and tea smuggling became as common and as lucrative a booty as brandy or rum. And it was these taxes that provoked a slight altercation about tea in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1773. But let’s not talk about that.
It was, of course, the British who invented the real tea parties, which have no connection whatever with that vulgar incident in Boston. Before tea first arrived, the British had two main meals: breakfast and dinner. Breakfast commonly consisted of bread, beef and a flagon of ale. Yes, they had beer for breakfast, and nobody thought this in the least uncouth. Dinner was a protracted, massive meal at the end of the day. So it’s not surprising that aristocrats such as Anna, Duchess of Bedford, had a ‘sinking feeling’ toward the end of each afternoon at Belvoir Castle, and began to invite her friends to join her for an additional snack. She served little cakes, and ‘assorted sweetmeats.’ And what else? Tea, of course. It was made in a silver teapot down in the kitchen and carried up by a maid to the duchess, who presided over the fine china cups and saucers, surrounded by her twittering guests. Occasionally the hostess would top up the teapot from another, smaller one, kept hot over a small spirit lamp.
           The tea they drank at these gatherings would have been green tea from China and, later, Empire-grown teas from India and Ceylon and, later still, Kenya and Malaya. And it was in the days of the Duchess of Bedford’s parties that the ‘proper way’ to serve tea evolved. China tea, being so much more delicate than Indian, was (and probably still should be) drunk with nothing added, though it was not unheard of to add a little unrefined sugar. But for most Indian teas, which have more flavor, and much more tannin, a little cold milk was acceptable, providing it was poured into the cup first. Nobody has ever offered a rational explanation of why this is important, or whether it makes the slightest difference. The snobbiest way to drink Indian-style teas is with nothing more than a wafer-thin sliver of lemon.
The British think the American way of making and serving tea a little . . . how should I put this? Uncouth?  People in the upper echelons of society there still look on the teabag as an abomination, even though their supermarkets are full of them. Though, if pressed, most of them would probably admit they’ve used them on occasion. But no, those who truly cherish Britain’s favorite beverage use fresh leaf tea that’s been kept in an airtight tin container, protecting it from light, moisture, heat and anything that may contaminate its flavor. Indeed, the most pernickety tea drinkers warn the rest of us not to keep a batch for more than three months.
If you’re interested in how to make a perfect cuppa – unlike the millions content to dunk a tea bag in a cold mug of luke-warm warm water for a minute or so – there are one or two other things you should know. To begin with, buy a good teapot. The absolute ideal will be made of sterling silver, but a good earthenware pot will be fine, providing you warm it well with hot water before you begin brewing. Make tea with only the best water, because water tainted with chlorine, lime or iron, can make the finest, priciest tea taste like ditch water. Don’t over-boil the water, because this will evaporate its oxygen, making your tea flat and lifeless. Real gurus will advise you to wait a few seconds before pouring the water into the pot. They say that using boiling water when it’s ‘rolling’ will bring out too much tannin, making the tea bitter.
I’ll never forget an old radio jingle from Radio Luxembourg in the late 30s. It went like this:
“I like a nice cup of tea for my luncheon,
and a nice cup of tea for my tea.
And when I go to bed,
there’s a lot to be said
for a nice cup of tea.”

What else can I say?
Cheers!































Friday, November 29, 2013

A CHRISTMAS TO FORGET

I PUBLISHED THIS PIECE HERE A COUPLE YEARS AGO, BEFORE MOST PEOPLE HAD BEGUN TO READ MY  BLOG.  SINCE IT'S A CHRISTMAS STORY I'M RUNNING IT AGAIN . . . 




A CHRISTMAS TO FORGET


I didn't know it that night, but this was the last time I’d ever see my father.
            We sat -- he, my mother, my brother David and I -- amid the overdone  decorations in the modest hotel restaurant. My father wore a dark gray suit, stiff white collar and the tie of the Durham Light Infantry, the only person among the forty or fifty others in the room to be so dressed.
          This was his way. It was how he'd been brought up. I can remember him even on sultry August days at Whitstable, our oyster-fishing town in south east East England,  sitting with knees drawn up on the crowded beach with a neatly folded copy of the Daily Telegraph. He wore a dark wool serge suit, black sock suspenders, and highly polished black shoes. He may not have looked it, but he was comfortable.
            But now it was Christmas Day, 1957. I was twenty-six, and he'd turned 70 a few weeks before.  Looking back, I find it hard to believe that this gaunt, burnt-out man was twelve years younger than I am today.
            It was an odd, superficially festive little gathering. We went through the traditional courses of soup, roast turkey with sage and chestnut stuffing, Christmas pudding aflame in brandy, and mince pies. We pulled the crackers and blew the whistles and read and laughed at the bad jokes that spilled out of them, and we raised our glasses to the future. But the sad truth was that the four of us were relative strangers to one another, and also that the old man had barely any future left.
            David and I never really knew our parents well. We were both sent miles away to a boarding school when I was eight. I don't remember ever sharing a feeling or fear with my father or mother. It's not that they weren't kind to us, or even that they didn't love us. It was simply that neither knew how to show affection.
           I always addressed my father as "sir," and the only time he and I ever touched was to shake hands whenever we met or parted.
           Nor had my brother and I ever known each other well, even though we were together for endless years at school. He was more than three years older than I, and while I had been outgoing, cheeky and garrulous, he was a quiet, solitary boy. My parents never seemed to notice that as a teenager, and later as a man, David had no women friends, and rarely brought home any of his many men friends, who seemed to have oddly diverse social and educational backgrounds.                  
            The meal ended, as Christmas and Easter family dinners always did, with what my father called ‘a nice healthy walk.' When he’d paid the check, counting out the pounds and shillings with care and attention like the bank clerk he’d once been, we faced into the cold sea air, heading for the beach.
            It was dark, unlit steep slope down to the concrete walkway along the sea-front.  The tide had turned, and was dragging on the coarse, flinty shingle below us. Out on the horizon the beam of a lightship pulsed. Ahead of my mother and me, David and the old man walked more briskly.
            As we strolled along together my mother turned to me. "So how do you like your new life, Johnny?"                   
            After nearly nine years in the British Army I was on leave, and in a few days would begin my first civilian job. In the service,  I'd always had a roof over my head, three meals a day,  the excitement of action, and the company of friends. It had been like living in an expensive gentlemen's club, as an infantry captain with my own driver, even a batman to do my chores. But suddenly I was alone, friendless in a little attic room in a none-too-classy part of London and about to start a new life. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it, I felt lost, and apprehensive about my future.  
              I lied in reply to my mother's question. "Fine, Mum. My new life's fine."
           "But are you happy?" she asked.
           "Happy enough," I said. "How about you?"
          My mother took my arm as we walked. It was something she'd rarely done.
          "No," she said. "I'm not happy really. But then I haven't been for years, not since I married your father. Surely you must have realized that?"
                I hadn't. I was speechless. Had this happened today, if she were still alive, I might have said, "Do you want to talk about it?" But I didn't. We walked on.
          "What are you thinking?" she asked.
               By now we'd fallen back some way behind my father and brother.
             "If what you've said is true, I'm wondering . . . well, why you married Dad," I said, "Were things so different then?"
                "Not really," she said. "I escaped, you see. You know the story. Your  grandfather had walked out on us years before.  There we all were. Mother and five unmarried daughters and a brother in that beastly cramped little house at North Foreland. It was like living in a pressure cooker. Then I met your father at a friend's house. It seemed  . . ."
              "It seemed what?” I heard a sharp, involuntary edge in my own voice.
           She looked up. "You're angry, aren't you?" She released my arm. "I'm so sorry, I've upset you. But, you see, marrying him just seemed to be the way out at the time."
             My mother changed the subject and we caught up with the others.
             "What are you two chatting about?" my father asked.
          My mother laughed. "Oh, you know. Shoes, ships, sealing wax . . .”
               Two days later David and I took the train back to London. For weeks I turned my mother's revelation over and over in my mind, but I never told David.
               My father died less than three months later. He went to sleep one night and never woke up, but the circumstances were odd. In their final years together, the old man snored heavily, and so my parents slept in separate rooms. At least, that was the reason they always gave for sleeping apart. And there was something else; he'd become quirky about money, and had for years locked the bedroom door behind him, hiding his billfold under his pillow. 
            Every morning, at seven sharp, my mother would make a cup of tea and take it to his door.  She'd knock and, waking, he'd rise and let her in. On that final morning, of course, there was no answer. My mother climbed a ladder to the open bedroom window to find him dead.
            Was it the wine on that Christmas evening that caused my mother's impulsive admission?  Or did she need the release of this tragic secret to unburden  herself, to share her load?  She lived for another 30 years, and died in her 90th year, but she never mentioned it again.
          Nor did I.                                                                                    


                                                                      oo0oo

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A NATION OF GARDENERS?


Napoleon labeled the English “a nation of shopkeepers.”  But he was wrong – we Brits are a nation of gardeners. Gardening’s in our blood, we love it and we’re good at it. Ask any group of Americans which nation they associate with gardening, and more often than not the English and, OK, the Italians will be way up there in the poll.
I may be a trifle biased about the Italians. I’ve seen their gardens, and they’re nice enough, so include them if you must, but they don’t quite match up to the Brits’. The Italian talent’s limited to the villas and palazzos of the wealthy, while in England the passion transcends wealth, class and social status, which is a paradox in the world’s most snobbish and class-conscious country.
There are several reasons why we rate so highly in the gardening stakes. The first is that it rains a lot, and this is what makes the British Isles and Ireland so startlingly green, lending a chocolate-box beauty to even the humblest back yard, and making village cricket pitches look like billiards tables. Perhaps this is God’s compensation for dealing them some of the world’s most depressing weather.
Two other reasons are history and good soil. The British have been on their knees and up to their elbows in rich brown earth, sowing and planting and weeding their plots for at least two thousand years. The Romans, originators of the Italian garden, knew a thing or two about horticulture, recognized good soil when they saw it, and so became the founders of an ancient tradition in Britain. This was later nurtured by the lords of the manor and the aristocracy, and perfected by such gardening giants as ‘Capability’ Brown, once a gardener’s boy who, in the mid-1700s, rose to become the greatest landscape gardener of all time. It was he who created what the world chooses to call ‘The English Garden.’
        So what’s all the fuss about? What is a typical English garden, and  exactly what distinguishes it from those of other countries? Primarily it’s the antithesis of  the great formal, geometric gardens at the Palace of Versailles in France, or the lavish and incredibly beautiful spreads of the great Russians, Peter and, later, Catherine the Great near the Neva river in St. Petersburg. To begin with, there are no straight lines in the English garden, no neat rows or circles of identical plants, no disciplined box-tree hedgerows, and no rigid pathways. If you like, it’s the art of deliberately creating a disorder that is at the same time orderly -- a natural but deliberately balanced contrast of ying and yang.
If that’s too esoteric, here’s Dan Pearson, a London gardener quoted in a recent article in The New Yorker, who describes the English garden style with crystal clarity. He calls it “a juxtaposition of formality and informality . . . a controlled chaos, all tumbly and jumbly, where one plant is spilling and spraying over into the next.”  
In the same article Vita Sackville-West, author, poet, wife of writer Harold Nicholson and Virginia Wolff’s lover (and also, for decades, the gardening editor of the London Sunday Times) explained the difference in just ten words when writing years ago about her own famous garden at Sissinghurst Castle. “If roses stray over the path,” she said, “the visitor must duck.”
The British are pretty good at grass, too. As the originators of tennis, cricket and soccer, they became masters of growing the perfect lawn, which is evident not only in sports fields all over the country, but also in city parks and on village greens, and in every dwelling place from hundreds of stately manors and mansions to millions of modest suburban homes. You’ll find none of that bright-green plastic stuff on the pitch at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, or at the stadiums of top-class soccer teams such as Chelsea and Manchester United.
It should be said that gardening’s a great deal tougher in America, and even the most passionate and persistent American garden-lovers are up against natural forces about which their British counterparts know nothing. To begin with, there’s hardly a single four-footed species of plant-eating predator in England. True, there are wild deer in the national parks from the Lake District in the north to Salisbury Plain in the south, but they’re nowhere near as numerous or as voracious as their once-colonial brothers and sisters. They don’t sneak around the suburbs and open countryside by night and in broad daylight, gobbling up every new seedling and emerging shoot, or munching on hibernating flowering shrubs and newly-planted trees. The only groundhogs the English have ever seen were in a silly movie with Bill Murray, while rabbits have never proliferated in England since an outbreak of myxomatosis years ago. As if all this weren’t enough, American gardeners fight a perennial battle with the weather. It’s either too hot , too dry or too cold. Real droughts are commonplace over here, but rare in England.
There’s a story about an American tourist who stood amazed at the lushness and perfection of the lawns at King’s College, Cambridge. An aged gardener stood nearby, leaning on a fence, and the visitor turned to him.
“Gee, that’s mighty fine grass you got there, sir! I never saw nuttin' like it. How do you do it?”
The old man took his hat off and scratched his head.
“Well,” he said, “There ain’t much to it, really. First you rakes it well and puts down some seed. Then you spreads ‘orse manure and bone meal on it, and waits for a bit of rain. Then you rolls it . . .”
“And then what?” the visitor asked.
“Well, it’s easy after that. You just  go on rollin’ it an’ rakin’ it every day for four or five hundred years.”
And that says it all.

e n d


Saturday, August 31, 2013

WHEN NAZI U-BOATS MADE FOOD HARD TO FIND




At lunchtime on September 3, 1939 – the day World War II broke out – I clearly remember my father’s exact words as he stood at the dining-room table, his carving knife and fork poised over the Sunday roast.
“Well,” he said, “let’s enjoy this -- even if it’s the last meal we ever eat.”
I was eight at the time, and my brother, David, was eleven.  It wasn’t our last meal, of course, but that little family gathering marked the beginning of a time in our lives when food and its very availability became a daily concern.  Soon the Germans had occupied the whole of Europe, with the exception of a handful of neutral countries. With Junker dive bombers and Messerschmitt fighters based only twenty-one miles across the English Channel, and U-boats lurking off every beach, more than three hundred merchant ships had been sunk bringing food and other necessities to us in the two years before the United States entered the war in 1941.
Britain’s far-flung Empire on six continents had until that time provided much of the beleaguered country’s food supplies. Now its farmers simply could not grow enough food to feed the country’s fifty million mouths, and soon foods such as flour, meat and sugar were in short supply. The Government issued ration books shortly after the war broke out.  Butter, meat and fresh eggs were the first foods to be rationed, and the public were asked to use margarine, (available only in waxy, greasy-tasting yellow slabs half a century before I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter), canned corned beef and dried egg-powder.
Food rationing was tough. The weekly ration for one person in 1941 was one ounce of cheese, four ounces of butter, two ounces of tea (the British ‘cuppa,’ rationed, for heaven’s sake!), 12 ounces of sugar, three pints of milk, and $3.20 worth of meat by today’s price levels.  It got tougher when a further form of food rationing was introduced soon afterward for the majority of other foods. This involved a points coupon book, which allocated people a number of points which they could spend on any manufactured food they chose. Everything -- say, a can of tuna, jar of preserve, pound of dried beans, or a bottle of salad dressing -- was officially rated a certain number of points. If you felt so inclined, you could blow all your points on a sack of lentils, but the choice was yours.  Later, gasoline, clothes and even soap were severely rationed. The annual allocation of clothing coupons was sixty-six points, twenty-six of which would be needed to buy one man’s off-the-rack suit. So it was unpatriotic to be chic?
Soon rationing became so harsh that the British, once dubbed derisively as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ by Napoleon, became a nation of vegetable gardeners. Farmers ploughed their grassland and sowed wheat, oats and potatoes, and during this effort a fresh area the size of the whole of Wales was ploughed up. Market gardens forsook their rose beds and grew onions and carrots instead, filling their glasshouses with tomatoes in place of orchids.
Householders, too, took to the land in millions in their handkerchief-sized yards, encouraged by the Ministry of Food’s successful public relations campaign to grow their own vegetables and fruits. Newspaper articles, radio programs and pamphlets and booklets and documentary movies from the Government taught the public to recognize black-fly, how to feed tomatoes and make compost heaps. Suddenly gardening had become a laudable and patriotic activity.
         Parks, village greens, and even cricket pitches and soccer fields became ‘allotments;’ small pieces of land made available to local people. Even the moat at the Tower of London and one or two tennis courts at Wimbledon became allotments. Many of our neighbors kept pigs, rabbits and chickens in their back yards. 
 Britain’s fishermen, even off the remotest coasts of Scotland, where enemy submarines watched and waited, led a risky existence. One problem the fishing industry had, even when the population was at its most ravenous, was getting people to eat the more outlandish-looking but equally tasty fish that emerged from the day’s catch of more familiar cod, haddock and herring. Housewives had the shudders when ugly, bearded, spiking-looking denizens of the deep appeared on their fishmongers’ slabs.
In a less successful campaign than their classic ‘Dig For Victory’ posters, the Ministry of Food came out with a jingle that went down like the proverbial lead balloon. It went:
Handsome is as handsome does,
and though a fish looks funny,
it’s just as good as any cod,
and value for your money.  

Somehow, it never took off.           
         

รค