Don’t bring back the Ministry of Food

Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall (yes, Hugh’s mum) has written an interesting history of food rationing during the Second World War. But bizarrely, she is nostalgic for that period.

Rob Lyons

Topics Books

A book called The Ministry of Food written by a Fearnley-Whittingstall sounds like a ghastly Channel 4 campaigning food series tie-in. But this isn’t about ‘Jamie’s Ministry of Food’, it’s about the real one set up during the Second World War to organise the rationing and distribution of food. And the author is not River Cottage celebrity chef Hugh, but his mum, Jane.

The Ministry of Food is part potted history of the experience of rationing, part cookbook, part beginner’s guide to growing your own. So alongside the discussion of rationing, there are recipes for such delicacies as ‘Mock Duck’ (sausage and apple meat loaf devoid of duck) and ‘Household Soup’, plus tips on how to set up and run an allotment. The book is itself a spin-off from an exhibition on the same subject at the Imperial War Museum in London, which opened in February and runs till January 2011.

In the run-up to the Second World War, Britain’s relationship with its empire had allowed it to become dependent on food grown elsewhere. Fearnley-Whittingstall notes that more than 60 per cent of the country’s food was imported. Despite the lessons of the First World War, when Germany had attempted to disrupt supplies, little had been done to make Britain more self-sufficient. But by 1939, it was clear that conflict was inevitable. Land previously used for grazing was ploughed up to be planted with wheat and potatoes, crops which could feed many more people than the animals that roamed there before. By April 1940, an extra two million acres of land had been turned over to arable crops.

One obvious problem was who was going to actually produce all this food. Out of a population of 48million people, just one million were employed in agriculture. But a substantial chunk of that labour force – 98,000 – were called up into the armed forces. The result was the Land Army, employing a total of 117,000 women over the course of the war in jobs previously regarded as suitable only for men. Fearnley-Whittingstall describes how this process was far from smooth. Some women gave up jobs to be trained for farming, only to find that farmers wouldn’t take them. However, the advent of the Land Girl was one of many ways in which the needs of servicing a war economy drew women into the labour force in vast numbers.

For the Land Girls, life could be very hard. Living conditions were sometimes rough and it was backbreaking work, far from the glamorous life suggested by the recruitment posters. But they did have the advantage of having easy access to plenty of fresh food, something not always possible for those left behind in the cities. And the disruptions of war also opened up other opportunities. Fearnley-Whittingstall writes about one 18-year-old Land Girl who became engaged to an Italian prisoner of war. But her affection had nothing to do with sympathy for his plight, it seems. The diarist who tells the tale notes how the Italians were regarded as ‘wonderful lovers’ and the ‘Land Girls go down like ninepins before them’.

But if some women found new opportunities, for most the war only intensified the drudgery of domestic life. Fearnley-Whittingstall quotes another writer on the war, Gwen Millard, describing what life was like for her mother living in the English midland town of Leamington Spa: ‘How can I get across how hard she worked during the war? A house that contained her family, soldiers billeted on us, and evacuees. She and millions of housewives like her were the unsung heroes of the war… I am ashamed to say now I took her for granted. She was my mum and that’s what mums did.’

Even the simple business of obtaining food was a tedious process. Then again, it had been even before the war started. Fearnley-Whittingstall notes how ‘most women dreaded the drudgery of wartime shopping. It’s difficult to imagine just how different buying food was in the 1930s and 1940s. Instead of stocking up weekly at the supermarket, women walked or cycled to their local high street to call at the butcher, the baker, the grocer, the fishmonger and the greengrocer. They invariably had to queue for anything up to an hour, come rain or shine, snow or sleet. And shopping was almost a daily occurrence; without fridges or freezers, perishable food that might “go off” had to be bought in small quantities.’

None of this was helped by the monotony of the food. Rationing of butter, bacon and sugar started early in 1940, soon followed by a variety of other basic foodstuffs including meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, milk and canned fruit. For example, typical adult weekly rations were: four ounces of bacon and ham; two ounces of butter; two ounces of cheese; four ounces of margarine; four ounces of cooking fat; three pints of milk; eight ounces of sugar; two ounces of tea; one shell egg per week, where available, alongside one packet of dried egg (imported from America, equivalent to 12 eggs) per month; 12 ounces of sweets per month. Anything not rationed, but more exotic than bread, potatoes and vegetables like carrots, was provided on a points system. Even white bread disappeared, replaced by the heavy, wholemeal ‘National Loaf’.

Lord Woolton, the minister of food, created a ‘propaganda machine’, as Fearnley-Whittingstall describes it, to promote those foods that were available, to discourage waste and to encourage people to grow their own food. This has provided us with a legacy of quirky and colourful wartime public information posters, which feature widely in the book. However, while we might find the messages from ‘Potato Pete’ and ‘Dr Carrot’, or the admonishments to ‘Waste not, want not’ and ‘Eat greens for health’, amusing today, they were simply designed to make the best of a bad lot.

It’s true that rationing worked. Nobody starved and everybody got the various nutrients they needed. But that didn’t stop them craving those things that they had to do without. What’s really surprising is how long it took to unwind rationing. The cheers that went up on VE-Day and VJ-Day in 1945 were as much about the end of the grinding war at home as about knowing that the men would be coming home safe. Except that the war did grind on at home. Far from ending rationing, 1946 brought the start of bread rationing, which did not end till 1948. The points system did not end till May 1950, while various other items came ‘off the ration’ bit-by-bit till meat and bacon rationing was finally ended in June 1954, over nine years after VE-Day. A group of housewives burned a symbolic ration book in Trafalgar Square on the day rationing was finally ended.

The Ministry of Food is a useful history lesson, a reminder of a period when food really could not be taken for granted, when getting by was particularly difficult. It also reminds us of a time when thoroughgoing state intervention in society was still a novelty. But what is perverse about the book is that it tries, as is the fashion these days, to sell us the notion that there was actually something worthwhile about those days of dull food, hard work and long queues.

For example, we’re constantly told that the war diet was far healthier than the one we consume today. Yet praising this tedious life of eating your spuds and greens and getting lots of fibre from your National Loaf demands in reply the old joke, ‘I don’t know if you’ll live longer, but it will certainly feel longer’. It’s nice to be able to pat oneself on the back now about how worthy one is for eating wholemeal bread, but it’s interesting to note that when people had no choice but to eat the high-fibre stuff, they craved soft, light, white bread.

Much the same half-baked nonsense is written about the fashion for growing your own food. As Fearnley-Whittingstall declares: ‘Dig for Victory is strikingly relevant today, when so many people are keen to grown their own food, albeit for rather different reasons… People are discovering that growing, cooking and eating their own food saves money, keeps the whole family fit and is an ecologically sound way to live.’ Having an allotment can be a nice hobby. It can even be an interesting educational exercise for children. But as a means of actually feeding yourself, it fails miserably in the face of modern, industrial agriculture. If we really did have to grow our own, most of us would starve. Moreover, do we really want to reimagine backbreaking labour as ‘keeping fit’?

The facts of wartime shopping are a stark reminder of why supermarkets are so popular. Yet Fearnley-Whittingstall seems oblivious to this. ‘Today we still need to be as flexible in our shopping as wartime housewives became, and apply the same principles of common sense and thrift. The reward is satisfaction from buying fresh fruit and vegetables, locally sourced if possible, and varying our menus with the changing seasons… Local shops may not be able to compete with supermarket prices, but the small extra cost can be offset by saving on fuel costs. And it’s impossible to put a value on the good relationship regular customers can establish with their suppliers.’

This is not a recipe for better living – this is a middle-class affectation. Yes, there’s still a place for the specialist butcher or fishmonger when you want something a bit different, and these small shops continue to thrive when they provide that service. But most of us do not want to engage with shopping as an experience – we want to fill our cupboards and fridges with food so that we can do something more interesting than shopping instead. Thanks to the supermarkets and the fridge-freezer makers, we’ve got that choice, something denied to the housewives of old.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of The Ministry of Food is the way it fits into a trend that wants to evoke the war itself as something positive. No, not the slaughter of millions on the battlefield, but the sense that those six years from 1939 to 1945 were the last time that society really came together in common purpose. We are told that we could tackle the problems of community cohesion, climate change, renewable energy, household waste and so many other things if we could just somehow invoke the spirit of the war.

While it is reassuring to know that there is still a sense that we can pull together in a crisis, we must surely be able to do better than the imposition of a semi-dictatorship – amusing, gaudy propaganda posters and all – to define a future vision for society. Yet that is the fantasy of many who believe that if we can’t be persuaded to live what they see as the good, low-carbon, small-footprint life, we should have it imposed upon us by the men from the ministry.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Ministry of Food: Thrifty Wartime Ways to Feed Your Family Today, by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today