The fall of 1941 was the darkest time for Britain. The island nation stood alone. Hitler had conquered Europe and the United States had yet to join the war. The Nazi strategy to bring the Brits to their knees was simple: Starve them.
Winston Churchill, the prime minister, faced a brutal reality: The battlefield that would determine whether or not Britain could survive was not on land nor, any longer, in the air, but on the Atlantic Ocean.
The nation’s food supplies had dropped by half. Each month half a million tons of shipping went to the bottom of the Atlantic, blasted there by torpedoes from the packs of German U-Boats hunting convoys from North America, much of the cargo essential supplies like wheat and meat.
“This mortal danger to our life-lines gnawed at my bowels,” Churchill wrote.
Like most of the country at that time, 75 years ago, I was unaware how great the peril was; Churchill knew that revealing that would have been bad for morale.
I did, however, realize that something was amiss in the kitchen. My mother had broad repertoire of hearty British dishes that culminated in a glorious steak and kidney pudding. When the dome of suet pastry was punctured by a fork a spurting vapor of kidney-flavored juices erupted like Vesuvius. Now she presented us with a new dish.
On the face of it there was nothing suspicious. It was a broad round pie in a dish with a browned crust of potato. On superficial inspection it held the promise of a shepherd’s pie with a generous base of ground mutton mixed with diced carrots, herbs, and spices.
Not so lucky.
I was taking part in the audition of a new emergency food regime and its first incarnation was called the Woolton Pie, named for the minister of food, Lord Woolton, and the war-winning weapon you’ve never heard of. Everything beneath the crust was a beige mush—in fact, a blend of turnips, carrots, cauliflower, and oatmeal.
It looked like a meat pie but there was no meat; it was an impostor. Woolton (he had been the managing director of a successful retail chain before Churchill appointed him a minister) had asked the chef at one of London’s swankiest hotels, the Savoy, to come up with a recipe that would substitute home-grown root vegetables for meat.
My mother did what she could to enhance the experience. She managed to concoct an ersatz gravy: Instead of meat juices it was laced with a dark extract of brewer’s yeast, the equally loved and reviled condiment called Marmite, that teased with suggestions of beef.
The reality was that there would be no more steak and kidney pudding (or pie) or anything that called for the carefree consumption of meat and offal. Meat was part of a food rationing system based on points. The use of the points was weighted so that buying meat meant going without other basics. The weekly allowance of those was small enough: one egg, two ounces of butter, four rashers of bacon, and that paucity ensured that meat became a rare indulgence.
Woolton announced this was “a food war.” Allowing a brush of hyperbole it could be argued that Woolton created a pie that won that war. The pie was an avatar—the model on which a whole new diet would be based and, as it turned out, a diet that was a war winner in terms of both survival and public health. Nobody went hungry. Not only that, but it proved to be a case of better nutritional education by enforcement. According to the British Nutrition Foundation, at the end of the war the population was healthier than it had been before the war. The infant mortality rate dropped and life expectancy rose.
Historians have rated Woolton as Churchill’s most successful minister on the home front, as important to victory as his best generals on the battlefield. But the science of the new austere diet was really the work of a nutritionist, Sir Jack Drummond. Drummond and his wife had written a critical study of the national diet, The Englishman’s Food, and suddenly found themselves in a position to transform what went to the Englishman’s table.
Just what this meant is captured in a contemporary diary in an account of a wartime canteen: “Thousands of human beings were eating 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, thin beige apple stew…”
That was how the public ate en masse, and propagandists hailed it as a great leveling—that all classes from the highest to the lowest were eating the same food.
It was only partly true. Game, for example, was never rationed and those with access to game, the owners of great country estates, also had self-sufficiency in other ways with kitchen gardens and well-stocked wine cellars. This difference was apparent to an American military attaché, General Raymond E. Lee, when he lunched at the country seat of a British general in the fall of 1941 and had “two excellent pheasants and a delicious apple tart.” Lee’s diary records many calorie-laden lunches and dinners with the ruling class in the opulent dining rooms of London hotels.
In any society a system that calls for equal sacrifices from all will always quickly breed pockets of corruption. As soon as rationing appeared it was shadowed by a black market of opportunists and profiteers. People in the cities discovered that rural communities had the advantage of being closer to the source. For example, nobody policed every hen to count the eggs and a black market in eggs lined many a farmer’s pockets.
But there was another new war-winning force in the countryside, the Women’s Land Army. The “Land Girls” as they were called were mostly from the cities, young women who volunteered to replace the young men gone to war. They milked the cows, they plowed the fields, they brought in the harvests. Without them the “beige feast” would never have been sustained.
They had another and less obvious lasting effect. The Land Girls can be seen now as the genesis of British Country Chic.
Their official wardrobe included a knee length wool overcoat, two green wool vee-necked jumpers, two pairs of khaki knee breeches, a pair of Wellington boots, “wellies,” with a thick tread and a pair of heavy leather walking shoes. In World War I the army trench coat was the foundation of the Burberry brand; in World War II the Land Girls’ kit inspired the development of outfitters selling the rugged rural look, with brands like Barbour and accessories like the Land Rover.
As it turned out, a lot of those Land Girls liked the life so much they stayed on in the villages and farms after the war, marrying the men who came back and, quite frequently also marrying into the landed families… just another example of the redistributive social effects of war.
The most enduring effect, however, was the healthiness of that wartime diet. It so happened that for geographical reasons the island was cut off from the sources of the two most harmful food groups: sugars and fats. Also fortuitous was the high fiber content of the root vegetables and of another Woolton imposition, the “national loaf.”
During the 1930s people had grown used to mass-produced white bread using bleached flour. This was a wasteful use of flour and Woolton banned white bread. His loaf was 85 percent wholemeal flour with added calcium and vitamins. It was dark and dense in texture and landed with a thud on the table, but people had no choice. Moreover, it was good for them.
These days telling people what’s good for them even if it looks like a grainy brick won’t cut it. There is a new food war being fought in Britain, and it’s the result of too much, not too little: the war on obesity. In the last 25 years adult obesity has almost quadrupled, and 62 percent of adults are clinically judged to be overweight. Seventeen percent of children are obese. Obesity is one of the leading causes of preventable death.
This follows the U.S. pattern, where 78 million adults and 12 million children are clinically obese.
Of course, national diets can’t be enforced any more. The denial of bad things and the eking out of the good as public policy and civic duty is history. Advertising overpowers education. Fast food and sugary drinks are now universal addictions creating universal epidemics.
Here, the Food and Drug Administration is again revisiting its guidelines for a healthy diet, asking for public comment “to make sure the definition for the healthy labeling claim stays up to date.” For example, the FDA wants more focus on the type of fat rather than the amount.
Given the scale of the problem, such nostrums sound like pie in the sky.
Want a piece of Woolton Pie? Here’s the official recipe:
One pound each diced potatoes, cauliflower, turnips, carrots; four spring onions; teaspoonful of vegetable extract; tablespoonful of oatmeal. Cook together for 10 minutes with just enough water to cover. Stir occasionally to prevent the mixture from sticking. Allow to cool; put into a pie dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and cover with a crust of potato or wheatmeal pastry. Bake in moderate oven until the pastry is nicely browned and serve hot with a brown gravy.