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.