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Wartime Britain - the Vegetarian and Vegan
by Trevor Barnard (17 October 1997), first published in Vegan Views 79 (Spring 98)

The use of vegetables and other non-meat foods took a stronger hold within the wartime kitchen, much more so than at any other time in British history.

Food budgets were tightened by the introduction of rationing in November 1939. Meat was increasingly harder to come by and some fresh fruits were soon non-existent. Just as had happened during World War I, government policy favoured rationing before shortages started and because shortages were imminent for some, dietary sustenance had to change and change fast.

Sadly, even well into the twentieth century, defects were present. This included the defective growth of rickets in children, due to insufficient calcium and the lack of vitamin D. Britain really had little knowledge of its nutritional needs.

Seemingly because of this, cookery books were published by the Ministry of Food, notably: 'Food Facts for the Kitchen Front' and 'A Kitchen Goes to War'. Books like these included many vegetarian and vegan recipes - including the likes a Lord Woolton's Pie - a largely potato based dish, vegetable stews and salads, such as turnip top salad.

Lord Woolton was the Food Minister who originated cartoon characters such as Doctor Carrot, Potato Pete and Clara Carrot who proclaimed slogans such as 'I'm an energy food', 'I make a good soup' and 'I'll put pep in your step'. Potatoes were never rationed and particularly became a more staple food, almost in their own right, almost unthinkable to a population who before the war saw it common practice to eat meat three or more times a week. Potatoes were used more so than ever before, replacing pastry in flans, used as pie topping and even introduced into bread making. A thousand and one uses the potato had, I even recall reading in an article some time ago of a potato and beetroot curry!

More conventional recipes the Ministry introduced in their cookery books and also on the weekday BBC wireless programme 'The Kitchen Front' were eggless fruitcake, chocolate layer cake, carrot cookies, water biscuits, glossy chocolate and 'mock' goodies, such as mock marzipan - all vegan.

Although not readily known, vegetarians and those who didn't eat dairy foods or eggs had to register with their local Food Office in order to be issued with a special ration book. So whenever they went to collect their rations, they were given more eggs, cheese and nuts, instead of meat. [we have a figure from elsewhere that 100,000 registered for this - IVU]

Also on a monthly points system, if you saved 16 points on your ration book, you qualified for 2lb (900g) of dried fruit or 8lb (3.6 kg) of split peas.

The now famed Dig For Victory evolved to utilise every possible space to produce vegetables and other edible crops. Parks, playing fields, railway embankments and back gardens were used. Even the King's Great Park at Windsor became the biggest cornfield in Britain. Wild plants were now used as food, nettles were used in salads and also cooked and served, not unlike spinach. Wild berries and fruits were made into preserves and purees - rosehips made into a savoury soup.

It was advised that an ordinary 35ft by 100ft garden for culture of food, should provide a family of four or five for at least a good part of the year. Even the soil that covered the Anderson shelter should yield marrows, cucumbers and rhubarb.

The First World War saw the publication of 'Economy in Wartime' by Hallie Eustace Miles in 1915. It paved the way of looking at the humble vegetable and how to utilise it to a better 'protoid' use. A wholly vegetarian book with simple ingredients, it provided nutritional meals that were not only body building and sustainable but also vegan. So successful was the book, it was published well into the late 20's under the title 'Health Without Meat'. Books like these paved the way to a better vegetarian and vegan lifestyle, it was particular in information on food values, proteins and nutritional needs to everyday folk, invalids, children and the very poor. Children's supplementary needs were especially catered for, suggesting haricot bean stews, chestnut fricassees, macaroni and tomato cutlets, fruit compotes and little treats like jelly, made with agar-agar and all vegan. Herb teas were suggested for invalids, as it was now known that the famed beef tea actually caused severe constipation.

Few vegetarian and vegan books were published at any time before or around the war years. Cookery books at wartime did include the Ministry's own, the Food and Wine Society did publish Wartime 'shillingsworths', notably 'Potatoes: To Know and Serve' and 'The Lillies of the Kitchen' written by Ernest Oldmeadow, who also wrote 'Home-cookery in Wartime', again containing non-meat recipes.

The Good Housekeeping Institute's wartime book of 'Soups, Sauces, Salads and Vegetable Dishes' gave vegans an excellent helping hand with recipes such as lentil sausages and cutlets, bean casseroles, nettle soup, mock vegan cream and vegan chocolate filling for cakes that contained mashed potato. There were also notes on how to use 'substitute' lemon juice because of the unavailability of fresh lemons.

Another book which I regularly came across in second-hand book shops and printed during the war is 'Food for Health: The Kingston Recipes' written by Jessie and Eva Thompson. This was a vegetarian book which advocated two meals a day, the first being at around 11 o'clock, including only fruit and wholemeal bead. Children could have fruit and cereal, such Force or Shredded Wheat. The second meal to be eaten around 6 o'clock basically included anything in the book, the likes of Westmoreland soup, wholemeal nut loaf, walnut mince and pineapple cream. The use of Nutter, Yeastrel and Marmite was fine, but pepper is not to be used and the use of peas, beans and lentils should be sparing, as they were classed as 'clogging'. Soya flour was also used if available. In all, we had to make do with what was at hand. Some fruits and vegetables were totally unobtainable, some were only in shortage. Ernest Oldmeadow's 'The Lillies of the Kitchen' described a shortage of onions, "as Brittany cannot send us onions, it should be possible to resume shipments from Egypt and Portugal, now Tunisia is free". That was in May 1943.

It is now generally accepted that the 'ration and make do' diet was better for the population because of its largely meatless, low fat, low sugar and high fibre foods, and in 1944 saw the formation of the Vegan Society, a breath of fresh air had come.

Now a final word from the War's Minister of Food: "We had better use our intelligence and the knowledge we have. We can now produce meals without meat in them, and they will keep us well and give us all the energy we need to keep us fighting fit" - Lord Woolton, 13 April 1943.