Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Saturday 1 January 2011

What makes a good antidote to seasonal excess?

My eye was caught by a poster advertising the final days of the exhibition on the Second World War Ministry of Food, at the Imperial War Museum.

The Ministry led the drive to produce more food at home, to prevent waste and help people to make the best of what was available. In peacetime two-thirds of food had been imported: the consumption of meat and wheat had to be reduced, people had to be encouraged to eat vegetables rather than bread, to grow their own supplies wherever possible, using allotments, parks, gardens, back yards and the earth covering air raid shelters to raise not just vegetables but bees, rabbits, chickens.

It's often held that, overall, the rationing was so effective that the restricted diet of less meat, fat and sugar, and more fruit and vegetables, left the population healthier at the end of the war than in peacetime.

But, though the nutritional research underlying all that effort was the start of much of our modern knowledge about food and health, the exhibition focussed instead on the propaganda and promotional campaigns of the Ministry. There were plenty of the iconic posters, information films and snappy "Food Flash" announcements in the cinema, radio talks and recipe suggestions sent in by listeners (what on earth was in the pudding described as "Skinflint's Joy"? Probably something described, in a comedy sketch programme used to deliver nutritional advice and cookery hints, as "Another way to disguise parsnips"). There are recipes for lots of soups (so that people could use up the likes of pea pods and turnip tops), and ways to use hedgerow fruits (sloe and marrow jam, anyone?). A lot of this lasted well into my childhood - butter papers saved to grease baking tins, school mornings broken by free milk and fish oil capsules, and rose hip syrup to liven up boring milk puddings.

It wasn't all worthy nagging. The constant reminders employed a range of approaches, sometimes congratulating the audience when, for example, huge savings in waste were being trumpeted.

The style and language can grate a bit on modern ears. Anything to do with food, cooking and home was shown as a matter for harassed housewives, and shopkeepers as authoritative older men. Information films reminded people about the massive contribution of the Commonwealth countries, but the voices supposedly expressing the enthusiasm for the cause of the different countries are all from the British upper crust (even for the Gold Coast - now Ghana). The jokiness can be clumsy and some of the advice is gratingly patronising, even to the point of stating the bleedin' obvious:

But I could only silently salute the resourcefulness of people coping with such restrictions - and realise that the snacks I went home to make for our local New Year's Eve party would have been unthinkable then. So easy for me to make some pizza tartlets (onions - almost unobtainable for about 18 months after the fall of France, olives and tomato puree - rarely, if ever, available as imported goods) and some cakes from a magazine recipe (two weeks' ration of eggs, half a week's sugar ration, almonds and stem ginger - likewise, rarely available imported luxuries). We take so much for granted.

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