Christmas is usually a time for indulgence, a time when ‘healthy eating’ takes a back seat and some of us enjoy tucking into a traditional Christmas feast; turkey, ham, mince pies, pudding and cake.
So what was Christmas food like 1940s style? It is hard to imagine in this day and age exactly how people managed to provide food for their Christmas lunch during World War II when luxuries were hard to come by and even basic foods were scarce.
In November 1939, the Minister of Food announced to the UK that butter and bacon would be rationed from January 1940 onwards. Rationing meant that inventive and resourceful ways had to be found to make sure that a festive meal was put on the table which included hoarding ingredients for months in advance.
As the war progressed, the word ‘mock’ was often used to describe Christmas fare and a leaflet published in December 1945 by the Ministry of Food included recipes for ‘Mock Marzipan’ and ‘Mock Cream’.
Turkey was not available and many families had to make do with “Mock Turkey” (also known as Murkey) which was really made from cheap mutton, or failing that they would make ‘Mock Goose’ which was actually a type of potato casserole, in some recipes it is also made with a combination of red lentils and breadcrumbs, with no meat at all in it. Apparently the dish originated from Yorkshire, and gained its name from the fact that “wasn’t it better to have goose in some form or other, than to not have goose at all?” Yorkshire humour at its best!
Many families kept livestock such as rabbits and chickens in their gardens or on their smallholdings and these were popular alternatives to turkey, always accompanied by servings of home-grown vegetables. The ‘Dig for Victory’ propaganda campaign encouraged civilians to grow their own produce, reduce waste and help the war effort. Potato Pete and Doctor Carrot were characters created by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food to promote vegetable eating. Both these ingredients featured in ‘Lord Woolton Pie’, a root vegetable pie blended with oats and topped with a potato crust.
“This is a food war. Every extra row of vegetables in allotments saves shipping… the battle on the kitchen front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden. Isn’t an hour in the garden better than an hour in the queue?” – Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, 1941.
Wartime rationing brought out the best in cooks and in Christmas 1941 rationing was at its peak. Weekly rations consisted of four ounces of bacon and/or ham, six ounces of butter and/or margarine, two ounces of tea, eight ounces of sugar, two ounces of cooking fats and meat to the value of 1/10d (9p). In the week before Christmas, tea and sugar rations were increased which helped families to create a festive meal. As dried fruit became more difficult to come by, the traditional Christmas pudding would consist of spice, prunes, apples, grated carrots, and potatoes bulked out with breadcrumbs.
In fact, carrots were the heroes of many a wartime Christmas lunch, with a typical menu consisting of a starter of carrot soup followed by rabbit with parsley and celery stuffing served with boiled carrots, parsley and potato cakes, gravy and bread sauce, then carrot cake with cream for pudding and sweet treats that might have included “carrot fudge” or “candied carrots.” (Menu courtesy of BBC Two Wartime Farm)
Who remembers SPAM? “Supply Processed American Meat” – known as SPAM for short was a meaty luncheon meat containing a high percentage of pork that became a staple food for soldiers in the trenches. During the war, foods such as SPAM and powdered eggs were shipped from America to Britain, as well as the USSR, through the Lend-Lease Agreement. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who called SPAM a ‘“war time delicacy”, recalled enjoying Spam on Boxing Day in 1943: “I can quite vividly remember we opened a tin of Spam luncheon meat. We had some lettuce and tomatoes and peaches, so it was Spam and salad.”
Whatever you are eating this Christmas, while you enjoy sitting round the table with your family give a thought to those living with rations during World War II who found ingenious ways to create a marvellous feast, and don’t forget the humble carrot – it just might come in useful!