Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Why rations should be back in fashion

I alluded to Bedlam in my last blog, and tonight I went there!

Bethlem Royal Hospital, to give Bedlam its proper name, no longer houses the insane, manacles them to the walls and invites in the public to gawp at them, thank goodness.  Today, the building houses the Imperial War Museum.  It still welcomes the public but now they gawp at fighter planes and cannons, the tools of humankind's insanity, rather than at insane humans themselves, one might say.

I was there for the launch of the Museum's latest exhibition, The Ministry of Food, which marks the 70th anniversary of the introduction of rationing and tells how Britain dug for victory during World War II.  There's a 1940s greenhouse, grocer's shop and domestic kitchen to explore.  Government information films play, gloriously dated in style and tone, denouncing, for example, the fecklessness of cutting a slice of bread when there are still potatoes on the table.  There are posters, too; in one, a glamorous, cloche-hatted woman is ostricised by her equally chic peers who have somehow discovered she's been profligate with the sprouts.  It's a splendid exhibition, bringing history alive for youngsters whilst providing bucketloads of nostalgia for their grandparents.

As is the way of these things, the great and the good gathered to graze, glug and gossip.  Betty Boothroyd, Patricia Routledge, Moira Stuart, Celia Imrie and TV gardener Monty Don were among the famous faces enjoying war-themed canapés like mini, open-topped Lord Woolton pies (wholemeal pastry filled with whatever Dad dug up from the vegetable patch that day) and chicken and Spam croquettes.  There was a chance to compare regular biscuits with the wartime, potato-based equivalent (not crisp); real cream versus margarine whipped with sugar (greasy and gritty); even real goose against vegetarian 'goose' (consisting mainly of potato and herbs, a very poor substitute centrepiece on Christmas day).

One inescapable conclusion of this exhibition is that there are lessons we can, and must, learn today from how food was produced and consumed back then.  It might not have felt like a whole lot of fun, but the diet 'enjoyed' during WW2 was the healthiest of the 20th century, high in fibre, low in fat.  Whilst our tastebuds might find 40s veg overcooked, at least the vegetables would have had real flavour. Processed foods hardly figured.  Children's teeth weren't rotted by sugary drinks and unlimited sweets.  Food, perforce, was as seasonal and local as possible.  Growing your own - the number of allotment holders more than doubled during the war years - provided physical exercise.  Left-overs were invariably used up.  Packaging was minimal and recyclable.

In short, just about everything we are entreated to do was being practiced back then.  Same tactics, different foes: our grandparents' enemy was Hitler, ours are climate change and obesity.  Let's hope our generation also emerges victorious against the odds.

(image courtesy of

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