What’s for dinner, Mom?

What did you eat as a child that your grandchildren – or, in my case, great-grandchildren – have never experienced?

Well, that shouldn’t be too hard to answer: not only did I grow up in an entirely different age but also in a different country, so not only the historical circumstances but also the cultural context are very different. My eldest granddaughter’s kids are enjoying a healthy lifestyle in rural Switzerland – you can’t get much better foodwise than that! My youngest great-granddaughter is in suburban France but not yet properly weaned, so can’t really be included in this mini-survey. 

I, on the other hand, grew up in an English industrial town during WWII with rationing at its strictest during my earliest years because very little food could be imported and we had to rely on the limited amounts that could be produced domestically. Added to which, I was a fussy eater and didn’t like most of the few things that were to be had, especially meat. However, some of the things I did like would probably make my great-grandchildren shudder. Dried egg, for instance, which I would surreptitiously teaspoon out of its tin behind my mother’s back. My lasting memory isn’t of the taste but of the texture of this strange dry powder that clung to the roof of the mouth. And rationing continued long after WWII ended in 1945: sweets didn’t come “off ration” until 1953 and meat until mid 1954. 

To put you in the picture, this is a typical weekly food ration for an adult in the 1940’s:

  • Bacon & Ham              4 oz (120 g)
  • Other meat                  value of 1 shilling and 2 pence (equivalent to 2 chops)
  • Butter                            2 oz (60 g)
  • Cheese                          2 oz (60 g)
  • Margarine                    4 oz (120 g)
  • Cooking fat                  4 oz (120 g)
  • Milk                               3 pints (1.5 l)
  • Sugar                             8 oz (240 g)
  • Preserves                     1 lb every 2 months (480 g)
  • Tea (loose)                  2 oz (60 g)
  • Eggs                               1 fresh egg (plus 12 portions of dried egg every 2 months)
  • Sweets                          12 oz every 4 weeks (360 g)

Bread, fish and chips weren’t rationed, but of course fish and potatoes were available in limited quantities so portions were small. Fishermen definitely weren’t so keen to go out with German U-boats lurking in their fishing grounds. Bread was not what we think of as such nowadays. People supplemented their rations with what they could grow in their gardens and allotments, but even seeds were limited in variety as well as in availability. 

Children received a few little extras: 3 eggs a week, for example. We were supplied with medicine bottles of “Welfare” concentrated orange juice imported from the USA, and cod-liver oil. A spoonful of a brown sticky stuff called “Vimaltol” “Virol” or “Radio Malt” was also administered daily – this was a vitamin supplement made from malt extract to prevent us getting rickets. Would little kids nowadays enjoy this sickeningly sweet goo?

It all sounds pretty awful, but in fact rationing had a positive effect on both health and longevity among the British public, and obesity was definitely not a problem! 

So what other things did I eat that my great-grandchildren have never heard of?

They may have come across Spam in some form or other, but I doubt if they have tried whale meat, which also came in tins. Another tinned (or canned for my US readers) item was very overcooked spaghetti in tomato sauce, which we ate warmed up on toast. I think this was sometimes included in Sunday breakfast, along with sausages, bacon and egg as an alternative to baked beans. Or perhaps that was just me. The toast was made by holding a slice of bread on a toasting fork over the red-hot embers of a coal fire, which gave it a distinctive taste you just don’t get from an electric toaster. There was a knack in the way you put the bread onto the toasting fork, as if you did it wrong your toast would fall off into the fire. 

A big treat at birthday parties was jelly and blancmange. Although they may be familiar with jelly I don’t think my kids know what blancmange is, and the idea of eating tinned fruit (peaches or apricots in particular) using tinned evaporated milk as a substitute for cream with a slice of bread and butter on the side would seem very weird to them, but real cream was an unknown luxury. 

This has made me reflect deeply about the changes in  my diet over my lifetime: maybe I should go back to some of the principles on which the Ministry of Food based its decisions in that very difficult decade of the 1940’s. Most of all, portion size!

More on this here for those interested  
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationing_in_the_United_Kingdom and https://www.cooksinfo.com/british-wartime-food/

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16 thoughts on “What’s for dinner, Mom?

  1. This reminds me of the fact that most of the food I ate until I was 10 years old was either grown on the farm or hunted in the woods and areas surrounding my grandfather’s small farm. Atter 10, the accumilation of chemicals used in food processing certainly saw a marked increase. That’s when “store-bought” stuff started to invade our kitchens.

    When my kids were little, I would tell them about how we gathered food. They thought I was making up stories for entertainment purposes.

  2. Yes, food was rationed in The Netherlands during and after the war too and one was given tickets in exchange for butter and other food items.
    Malnutrition was rife amongst children and I was considered at risk and after the war sent to ‘fattening up’ children’s colonies together with hundreds of other little ones for periods up to six weeks. I missed my parents dreadfully. I was weighed daily. I remember mainly being fed bean soups. I had three six weeks episodes and one period of 3 months with a wealthy French speaking family in Belgium who fed me fantastic plates full of freshly cooked mussels, boy do I still love them today!.

    • I had a Dutch roommate in France who told me her mother cooked tulip bulbs because they had no onions. It must have been horrendous in NL. I can imagine how wonderful the mussels must have seemed – and that’s also something I love when I’m in Brittany.

  3. I remember that sticky orange juice so well, I still feel nauseous just thinking of it. I was given a spoonful of Malt and also caster oil capsules. I hated the latter and I squeezed one for effect once. Horror, it splattered on to the new wallpaper, my mother would have killed me had she been able to catch me! To this day I still love malt loaf. I can’t say I really felt deprived of anything during rationing because being young at that time we were never usually indulged with many sweets. I remember once that word went round that a shop near us had bananas, my Aunt raced to purchase one for me and sadly I didn’t like it, not a fan even now, only in it’s raw state and just beyond green. One could never imagine the wide range of food we may purchase today. I have only in recent years of my 80 years on this earth of being able to eat and enjoy pasta dishes. I haven’t yet lost my appetite, food and eating it is one of my greatest pleasures, almost all consuming in fact, I squirrel away recipes for my future delight, rarely get to try them though!

    • What you’ve never had you never miss! Orange juice had to be diluted 1:6 or it was impossible to drink. But I loved the Vimaltol too – and haven’t had a malt loaf for years! Can you still get them?

  4. Hello Cat. I grew up in London during the war years and of course we didn’t miss many things because his children we didn’t know about them. I am still left with the way my father shared Mars bars and other bars. We were never given a whole bar of course, instead he sliced the bar and I still do this. And my children and grandchildren eat chocolate bars in this way too

  5. This is very interesting reading for me, Carrerel, Thank you for publishing all this about rationing. Food rationing in Germany played a great part in my early life in Germany too. I can also remember what our food was like before WW II started. Oh, I have such good memories about thfood ‘im tifsten Frieden’! 🙂 We talked a lot about it during the war. After the war it took a long time before food supplies were normal again. I have donations from American army food supplies in good memory. 🙂

    • Impossible for our grandchildren to imagine but we knew no different and in spite of shortages no-one was starving. After the war, I had an aunt and uncle stationed on the Rhine in Germany who used to send us food packages – especially sugar – from the army stores!

  6. I was born at the end of the 1950s but do remember the sticky malt ‘Virol.’ My mother’s attempts to make us eat it did NOT meet with success, so she bought the little orange-flavoured Haliborange vitamin pills instead.

  7. I was born in the sixties so rationing was over, but food wasn’t so varied as it is now. My mum was a good nut unimaginative cook.

    I remember supper (made by Dad) was usually two Marie biscuits, buttered and put together like a biscuit sandwich, with the butter oozing out of the holes like tiny caterpillars. Yummy!

    I remember Mum used to buy something called, I think, Bacon Slice, which was a sort of compressed meat which she would slice, grill, and eat on toast. Maybe it was really spam and she was trying to fool me 🙂 Though I did just find something called Bacon Grill on Amazon. I’d have shared the link but it was eight lines long and I’d probably go to your spam folder.

    We didn’t keep much in the way of snacks in the house, except maybe a packet of 6 Blue Riband or Bandits, which had to last all of us all week.

    Mum used to make her own pea soup with bacon ribs, and that was yummy. For the most part, it was all very British food: roast dinners, full English, fish and chips, etc. I never tasted watermelon until I was fourteen, and that was at church camp; I’d never even heard of it before! I had my first pizza and my first curry in my mid-twenties 🙂 As a result, I’m not an adventurous eater, but I do eat a lot more variety of food than my parents did – especially garlic and peppers (also discovered in my twenties).

    This was fun!

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