Feeding the Nation – the ingenuity of wartime chefs and how rationing helped to create the healthiest British public yet

It’s VE day today. It seems very appropriate, in the light of the empty-shelved supermarkets and notorious waiting time for delivery slots, not to mention dearths of black olives, garlic, tinned tomatoes and other essentials, to consider how the challenge of feeding the nation was tackled during the Second World War.

One of the most entertaining and informative accounts of this struggle, is William Sitwell’s Eggs Or Anarchy. It’s the heroic tale of how Lord Woolton, Minister for Food, managed to ensure Britons were fed and nourished against all the odds.

Woolton promised the nation, and particularly Winston Churchill, that food would be on the shelves each week. And he fulfilled his promise in the face of three main obstacles. In 1939 only about 30% of food in Britain was produced domestically – today it’s more, about 53%. So food imports were critical, but then supply routes were under greater attack by Axis powers – today’s Coronavirus restrictions are nothing by comparison; and farming methods then were much less sophisticated than they are today.

Woolton had other problems to deal with too. Being a grammar school boy, he stuck out like a sore thumb in the public school stuffed cabinet, and was treated to a diet of unfair and undermining criticism by his snobby colleagues as well as by the public and the press.


wartime food
Frederick Marquis, 1st Earl of Woolton, enjoying some rationed tea.


Dealing with the press

He had a novel way of winning over difficult journalists. One particularly rude and aggressive one is asked kindly, “Is anything the matter at home?”. Woolton recalls in his diary, “he blurted out that his wife was going to have a baby and she could not get orange juice and the baby would not be healthy.” Woolton asked the journalist if he thought his mother had had orange juice before he was born, adding, “I can assure you that mine didn’t and both you and I seem quite healthy”. Nevertheless, he ensures the lady gets the O.J. and then records, “I thought his articles lost a certain amount of their punch after that.” In fact, there were already special measures in place to ensure that young children, as well as expectant and nursing mothers, got extra rations of milk, cod liver oil, and orange juice.



One particularly rude and aggressive journalist is asked kindly, “Is anything the matter at home?”


Dealing with the farmers

At the beginning of the war the farmers considered Woolton to be, as he describes it, Public Enemy Number 1, but he managed to turn around that opinion too. Sitwell’s biography of Woolton tells us that on arriving at a key meeting with the farmers “inside he [Woolton] found a large number of men standing around and clearly waiting for a fight”. This attitude had been learned as a response to the aggression of a series of former Ministers of Food.

Woolton, by contrast, took a disarmingly friendly and refreshingly honest approach. “Whether you choose to attack me, or not attack me, is a matter of entire indifference to me, so long as the country wins the war. To this end you have a job to do. You must assist in feeding our country and feeding cattle and sheep and tending fields and harvesting crops”. This earned him the respect of the farmers, who by and large, supported him thereafter.



“Whether you choose to attack me, or not attack me, is a matter of entire indifference to me, so long as the country wins the war.”


Not keen on hoarding

Woolton clearly wouldn’t have had much time for today’s loo roll and pasta grabbers. The day after his successful meeting with the Farmers’ Union he told the press, “It is against the law to hoard, and if I find any hoarders I will deal with them relentlessly, ruthlessly, and with immense pleasure.” And he fulfilled his promise, on some occasions perhaps a little overzealously.


food in the second world war
Wolton wouldn’t have approved of today’s panic buyers. Image by John Cameron on Unsplash.


The importance of branding: British Restaurants, not ‘communal feeding centres’

Later on in the war Woolton began working on a scheme to launch 10,000 state-run cafés. These were not-for-profit eating centres, and the project was approved by Churchill, with the one proviso that they should not be named, as proposed, ‘communal feeding centres’. “It is an odious expression”, wrote Churchill, “suggestive of Communism and the workhouse, I suggest you call them British Restaurants. Everybody associates the word ‘restaurant’ with a good meal.”



“It is an odious expression”, wrote Churchill, “suggestive of Communism and the workhouse, I suggest you call them British Restaurants. Everybody associates the word ‘restaurant’ with a good meal.”



Woolton didn’t care that these ‘restaurants’ were called, but he was passionate about their purpose. “If every man, woman and child could be sure of obtaining at least one hot, nourishing meal a day at a price all could afford we should be sure of the nation’s health and strength during the war.”

He achieved his aim – what was on offer was certainly hot and nourishing, but it was less than attractive. Frances Partridge, a Bloomsbury group writer more used to dining out at The Ivy, and therefore not the target market of the British Restaurants, described one in Swindon, saying, “thousands of human beings were eating, as we did, an enormous all-beige meal, starting with beige soup thickened to the consistency of paste, followed by beige mince full of lumps and garnished with beige beans and a few beige potatoes.” Clearly not appetising, but even Partridge concedes that the meal was ‘very satisfying’.


wartime food
Beige, but satisfying, food in a British Restaurant.


Restrictions on restaurants – ice cream banned!

Restaurants, by law, had to limit what they could offer to one main dish of meat, fish, poultry, game, eggs or cheese. Icing sugar was banned and so was the manufacture of cream. Butter was a luxury. Milk and white flour was not allowed to be used in the making of cakes, biscuits or ice cream…. And then ice cream was banned altogether. Many children had their first taste of ice cream on VE Day, when freezers were briefly turned back on.



Milk and white flour was not allowed to be used in the making of cakes, biscuits or ice cream….



The ingenuity of chefs

Producing food which was edible under these circumstances required resourcefulness from chefs. It was choux pastry to the rescue – it could be made with dried eggs and filled with almost anything. The Savoy escaped having to resort to this because it had its own poultry farm.

Sometimes it was the kitchen equipment which was lacking. At the Ritz a gas main was damaged by bombs and the chefs had to cook on radiators!

With a little ingenuity rules could be bent. At the Savoy, crêpes Suzette were not allowed, but an inventive diner could order a pancake, some brandy, and a box of matches. Some items – lobster, shellfish, hare and game – weren’t rationed, so those lucky enough to have sporting estates were known to check into grand hotels clutching a brace of pheasants, a haunch of venison, or a fat salmon.



At the Savoy, crêpes Suzette were not allowed, but an inventive diner could order a pancake, some brandy, and a box of matches.



As today (see How To Use Your Menu To Maximise Your Profits) the dish descriptions were important and the bitter (sometimes literally) truth was hidden in the French language. At The Royal Court Hotel the chef offered ‘saumon florentin’ – tinned salmon with spinach.

At Madame Prunier’s Croquettes de Pommes Land Girl were enticingly on offer – and customers were understandably disappointed to discover that these were simply mashed potato with dried egg powder.

But Simpsons In The Strand held out against such devices, boldly offering Simpson’s Cream Spam Casserole – Spam with tomatoes and potatoes. And Betty’s tea rooms in Yorkshire offered mysterious ‘things on toast’, eked out corned beef.

As today, people also flaunted the rules. We get some insight into Ivy-frequenter, Frances Partridge’s, haughtily disgusted description of the Swindon British Restaurant, quoted above, when we read the account of another, shocked, Ivy customer who relates that that restaurant was full of “preposterous looking people as usual, all eating a whacking good meal…and a delicious creamy pudding.”


wartime food
Restaurants had to explain the complicated rationing restrictions to their customers.


Chefs weren’t the only ones to creatively cook outside their accustomed comfort zone

In today’s lockdown there is a primitive form of rationing in the form of queues. And there were food queues too, of course, during the war (and afterwards – rationing continued until 1954), and the result has been that people have had to use ingredients they aren’t used to. As one of Woolton’s propaganda writers, Doris Grant, says in her aptly named Feeding The Family In War-Time, “the war has given us all a sense of adventure in cooking. We have had to follow new paths and learn new ways; we have been jolted out of ruts.”


wartime food
Queues – a primitive form of rationing, but according to Home Intelligence reports, ‘a bigger menace to public morale than air raids’.


Nevertheless, the situation between then and now is very different. These days there are chefs on YouTube, food advice on podcasts, and recipe cards with every delivery to encourage experiments; and we have the time to make them. In the early 1940s time was short and ingredients were very limited. The Ministry of Food made a great effort to keep people furnished with food information as well as inspiration, but there wasn’t the vast richness of the internet to feed the imagination that there is today.


wartime food
There were demonstrations and free cookery leaflets… but it was nothing like today.


Chefs and public alike put their shoulders into growing their own

Whilst the Savoy had its own poultry farm, and other restaurants their own potagers, the public imagination was captured by the Dig For Victory campaign, further spurred, as today, by fears of food shortages. The fears were well founded – food imports had halved in the first year or so of the war. By 1942 half the civilian population was wielding a hoe or a trowel and 10,000 square miles of lawn (or flat roofs, or bomb craters) had been dug up or put to use in order to yield fruit and vegetables. By the following year the number of allotments had doubled to 1.4 million.


wartime food
Allotments springing up in Kensington Gardens, image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum


And, in the final analysis, most people were well fed – what about now?

Around the world 20 million people died of malnutrition during the war; most people in Britain, by contrast, ate less, but got essential nutrients. Many less well-off people were better fed than before the war years.

In 1944 The Education Act made it compulsory for local education authorities to provide a free meal for children in state schools. In 2013 Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent compiled a report for ministers which revealed that ‘only one per cent of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards that currently apply to school food’.

Very few people suffered from obesity during the war. A typical weekly ration for an adult in 1943 was four rashers of bacon, 230g minced beef, 60g cheese, 1 egg (plus some dried), 230g sugar, 60g each of butter, margarine and lard, and about four tablespoons of tea.

Last August, nearly 75 years later, two-thirds of adults in the UK were deemed to be overweight or obese, because they were eating too much fat and sugar. And now there are clear indications that obesity is one of the biggest risk factors in developing severe coronavirus symptoms, not to mention diabetes, high blood pressure and much else.


So, on VE Day, we should drink a grateful toast to Lord Woolton, otherwise known as ‘the greatest quartermaster since Moses’.



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