Friday, 3 February 2012

The Ration Book Diet

Occasionally I check a book out of the library that I find I don't want to return.  I re-check it to the limit allowed and then reluctantly return it, sometimes even paying fines.  The Ration Book Diet was one of those.  Not that I'm on a diet or that we're rationing food around here.  I love it more for the history than the recipes, though they are good, too.  The wartime menus and their modern revisions are grouped by season.  I think I'm unlikely to use many of the recipes as they are in general highly calorific, designed to keep people well fed, full of energy and in good spirits.

This book is very much along the lines of Make Do and Mend, which I got for my birthday a while back.  I did my best at the time to make the information about clothes rationing into a strategy for a capsule wardrobe.  However, what one might end up with was too variable to characterise.  Even starting from scratch, the resulting wardrobe was entirely dependent on how clever a person was at knitting, sewing and re-fashioning garments.  There was a lot of wisdom to take away from the exercise even though I didn't come out with the answer I was seeking.

I love books about Britain's experience of WWII, not that I expect it was a very pleasant time. Nancy Mitford's letters (in, strangly enough, The Letters of Nancy Mitford) to friends and family provide me with a more chilling picture of the bombing horrors than movies ever have.   I think I like these rationing books because they make Britain seem more like my homeland, not that I ever experienced rationing, but certainly my Mom used all her skills to make our food budget go as far as possible.  I might add that I would be very sad if Britain were to be more like the US (and it does seem to be going in that direction, rather than towards Europe).  I would prefer that each culture managed to retain its own unique aspects, else what would be the fun in travel?

The Ration Book Diet makes the point that although Britain enjoys far more affluence than it did 60 years ago, this wealth has not resulted in better health.  This is largely true throughout the developed world.  (What on earth does that say about us?)  The British government learned some lessons from the first World War when many potential soldiers failed their physical due to conditions caused by malnutrition. Also, during that war the price of food rose by 60% and people with lower incomes went without; news about food riots was suppressed. The government plans rolled out during WWII were even more important with her capacity to import food and fuel under threat and so rationing and price controls were all put into place. My parents met and married during the war and Mom and my grandparents sometimes talked about their experiences of rationing in the US: sugar, meat and gasoline were things I heard about.   I have Grandma & Grandpa's old ration book around here somewhere. 

The captions read:  Do you remember what John Bull used to look like --  before he was invited to dig for victory and so forth -- and conserve petrol and all that -- and become a fitter Briton, etcetera, etcetera -- and go easy at meals times and that sort of thing -- and join the Home Guard and all -- and help with the harvest and this and that -- and do spare-time work on munitions and these and those -- and lend a hand with defence works and the like -- and be a good neighbour and so on -- and go to it and everything?  Well, just look at him now! 

When I first arrived here in 1995, it seemed to me that people couldn't spend their money fast enough.  I'd never lived in a society that went out to eat, to pubs, to plays or shopped and travelled quite so much.  When the nurses I worked with complained that they never knew where all their paycheques went, I kept my mouth shut.  I didn't know if I was stacking up my savings because I made that much more or because I didn't spend money on facials, convenience foods, a roaring night life or leg waxing (ouch!).    It was an alien culture to me on several levels and whilst I was fascinated, I didn't admire  all of it.  I've come to understand since that rationing here continued far beyond the end of the war and that there were economic hardships throughout the 1960s and into the 70's.  One could understand why people would take the view that 'make do and mend' was full of four-letter words they didn't want to know.  
However, when I read about the ingenuity of how Brits coped with the shortages during the war, it seems very much like the pioneer spirit that Americans are raised to appreciate, only moreso given the war here in Europe.  

We have food experiments at our house all the time!
I can't speak for the southern part of Britain, but from where I stand I wouldn't say there is a great deal of patriotism over here.   The world is changing and the old ideas of patriotism may not be as useful as they once were, but there is a lot to be said for having a sense of community.   

Given that Britain was fighting for its very survival as a nation, I imagine the sense of community was immense. 

I don't want to experience a war in the way that Britain did (or in any other way for that matter) and I'd prefer not to have enforced rationing, but I must say that I like a good challenge far more than I do having none at all.   Any one can spend money, but it takes a bit of creative imagination to solve problems in a different way.

I expect that's one of my definitions of frugality.


BigLittleWolf said...

Illuminating and thoughtful post. Much "food" for thought here, for all of us, on both sides of the pond.

Beryl said...

Those books sound interesting. I enjoy the life style advice from past eras. I used to have some of the series by Amy Vanderbilt with information on how to decorate, throw a party, cook, etc. in the US, during the 40's and 50's. In the party book, you are told to remember that your guests might want their cigarrettes with a filter, so be sure and supply both kinds. So cute.
But for British life style information, the Victorian age is my favorite. (Even though I know I would have been the lowest of the maids, if I'd lived in that time.)

Terri said...

I had an American rationing cookbook when I was a young married mother and it truly did stretch our food budget, as well as teach me alot about the realities of the war in the US. My knowledge of the hardships in Great Britain during the war is all from my reading, but I had vaguely known that the economy didn't really return to "normal" until the early 70s.

I wonder if you could find a copy of that book, used, on Amazon.

Carolyn said...

How interesting.
My grandparents cam over to Australia from London after the war, and talked occasionally of their memories of the blitz; it was a horrific time. They emigrated here very much with a make do and mend attitude that was also very strong here. But that attitude has been maintained in my country, and I find recent UK immigrants barely know one end of a needle from the other, which is quite weird in modern Australia.

Shelley said...

BigLittleWolf, thank you for the kind words.

Terri, I gather the strikes back in the 60s and 70s were really disruptive and sometimes violent. There are still one or two strikes a year these days, when everyone has to drive to work because the Metro workers are on strike, etc. I'd be annoyed, but it sort of amuses me. I never in my life experienced a strike action in Oklahoma or Utah! It just seems to be part of the culture here.

Carolyn, Bill's sister and his niece are both beautifully accomplished sewists (in Sydney) but hardly anyone I know here in Britain can sew at all, though quite a few of my friends in the US learned to sew in school and kept it up. I'm always astonished when I hear people say they 'don't cook'. I'm afraid my opinion of them plummets!

Rick Stone said...

We of our generation in this country are lucky we did not have to experience rationing. As my Dad outlined in his book, things dudring the U.S. depression and then the war were pretty dire, especially for people living in the cities and could not grow their own food in any quanity. Actually, looking back I think our generation was a bit on the spoiled side by our parents, trying to give us what they did not have. And now we have raised a real spoiled, "you owe me" generation.

Suburban Princess said...

I was just saying recently...the problem with society today is we have never had to get through a big war. People today have no idea what it's like to truly suffer. And when I say people I mean western modern cultures. I know my FIL went without meat for ages when he was little during the war...not that in today's society we need meat but back then it was a basic. Your post reminded me of a book I read a few years ago about a group of women growing a victory garden...I will need to try to remember the name of it.

Also...have you considered getting an ereader? I find it very handy rather than having to renew books and forgetting and getting fined etc etc. I dont begrudge the money to the library but it's the keeping track of someone else's book that stresses me out lol!

Shelley said...

Rick, I agree that we were a very lucky generation, coming along after WWII when the US economy boomed. I think every good parent tries to help their children achieve a higher level than they reached themselves. This may not be possible for the kids coming up in the present economic situation. Whether they feel owed or not, I can't say as I don't have kids.