Friday, October 24, 2008

Vegan MoFo #24: Nanny White's Centenary

Today would have been my grandmother's 100th birthday. Her name was Beatrice (née Kirby) White, and she died just a few weeks after her 90th birthday, on November 11th, 1998: an appropriate departure date for the daughter of a World War I veteran. My grandmother was born, raised and lived her entire life in and immediately around Birmingham, in the English West Midlands, but the Second World War brought the world to her; throughout my life, my mother's childhood memories of ration books, empty stomachs and nights spent in the bomb shelter have painted a vivid picture of an ordinary British working class family in extraordinary times. You might wonder what this has to do with veganism, and the answer would be: more than you might think. It just so happens that the word "vegan" was coined in England in 1944, the same year Donald Watson established the Vegan Society, remarking that, “We can see quite plainly that our present civilisation is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilisations were built on the exploitation of slaves, and we believe the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals' bodies." 

Of course, even for committed omnivores, the rationing instituted by the Ministry of Food meant that a lot of wartime meals were vegan by default, since most things people couldn't grow themselves were hard to come by. It's no coincidence that many British kitchen staples like Bisto and Bird's Custard Powder were so popular during those years; products that could create gravy and custard in a meat-free, eggless environment must have had enormous appeal. So there's that. 

But now I bet you're wondering what the hell is up with Dr Carrot, and about the crazed, war-weary parent who would let him anywhere near their children, never mind allow him to be their "best friend." Well, when we were in London this summer, we spent an emotionally exhausting afternoon at the Imperial War Museum, which everyone should visit once; should you need any reminders that war is A Really Bad Idea, I guarantee that it will do the trick. Among their temporary exhibits was The Children's War, which focused on what the youngest members of the British public had to endure as a result of grown-ups' stupidity. Follow the link if you'd like to learn more, but suffice to say that halfway through I had to excuse myself and go cry in the Ladies' because I was overwhelmed at the reminiscences of these (now elderly) people whose childhoods were so like my mother's, to say nothing of the photos and artifacts representing those who didn't survive to remember the experience.

The flipside, however, was an astonishing and comprehensive collection of wartime propaganda, featuring posters with themes ranging from the need for scrap metal and the wisdom of evacuating your little ones ASAP to admonitions to "Eat Less Bread!" and "Save Kitchen Scraps to Feed the Hens and Pigs!" The food and nutrition-centered images were my favorites, and we came home with a sheaf of postcard-sized facsimiles, some of which are now hanging in our kitchen (albeit that they have had little to no effect on bread consumption, which basically puts us in league with the Hun). Among the most arresting - and frankly bizarre - was the hydrocephalic Dr Carrot, striding purposefully along with his medical bag, which is apparently chockful of Vitamin A. Carrots, like other root vegetables, are easily grown in the British climate, so they got a fair bit of press during the war years. The humble but versatile had its own mascot, Potato Pete, who not only had his own cookbook and song, but served both in uniform and at the dinner table

Together Pete and the good doctor made quite a team; it's tempting to picture them hoisting a few pints of bitter after tough day selling out their fellow roots and tubers. And while my peacetime reaction to seeing Dr Carrot on the doorstep would be to slide the bolt and call the authorities (for one thing, I have doubts about his credentials), things are different when there's a war on. With all the able-bodied humans at the front, sometimes you have to take what you can get, even if that means allowing a huge, anthropomorphized root vegetable to look at Trevor's sore throat. The fact that Dr Carrot is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to be "the children's best friend" is just one more testament to the courage and fundamental unselfishness of all products (and indeed produce) of that sceptr'd isle, that demi-paradise, that other Eden, my ancestral soil. 

So here's to Dr Carrot, Potato Pete, and all the other weird shit that helped everyday families like mine get through unimaginably strange and challenging times. Nanny White lived through two such times - first time as a child, and later as a parent - and I like to think that on her centenary she'd be proud that I'm giving Dr Carrot the credit he deserves lo, these many years later. Then again, she might just be deeply confused; but one way or another, it's been a full century since she entered this troubled, troubling, yet wonderful world, and that's pretty cool to think about.


  1. I've been the Imperial War Museum...twice. I agree with you, it's a worthwhile experience, but, yes, pretty intense. The exhibits on rationing and victory gardens were my favorite part, too.

  2. Ha!
    Dr Carrot - excellent!
    I really enjoyed reading that.

  3. Happy birthdy to your Nanny and Dr. Carrot was interesting to meet.