Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Austerity - It's What's for Dinner!

Welcome to Vegan MoFo! Sorry to be a little late to the annual party, but autumn is busy around here, and thus far my limited organizational skills have been applied to the demands of a new semester. However, things seem to be relatively under control, and I'm here now - so guess what's on the agenda?  Austerity! That's right, kids - over the next month we are going to tighten our belts, stiffen our upper lips, and make do. 

In these tough economic times, with much of the public discourse devoted to the challenges facing so many people, it seems useful to contemplate how previous generations coped with life in straitened circumstances. I spent my formative years listening to my mother's stories of growing up in WWII England, and in considering possible themes for this year's MoFo, recreating and/or adapting recipes and foodways from that time seemed like an appropriate way of exploring the subject of culinary austerity while honoring those memories and furthering my ongoing interest in the multivalent cultural and ideological meanings of "Englishness."

During the war, kitchen staples were in short supply: sugar, fat, milk, cheese, eggs, and meat were all strictly rationed, and many products imported from abroad were completely unavailable, with the result that most Britons were obliged to subsist on domestic resources. Moreover, this enforced asceticism outlasted the war by nearly a decade: rationing continued in the UK until 1954. 

Contemporary recipes relied heavily on root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, swedes/turnips, parsnips, onions, leeks, and cabbage, eked out with oats, flour, locally grown fruits when available, and increasingly minimal quantities of fats and animal-derived products. (On a related side note, it may interest the reader to know that the UK Vegan Society was founded in 1944 by a conscientious objector named Donald Watson; you can find out more here.) 

While this state of affairs posed difficulties for the mid-century British cook, it makes my project surprisingly easy, and there are a number of contemporary resources available to the post-modern, austerity-curious cook. Among the recipe collections I'll be using are We'll Eat Again: A Collection of Recipes From the War YearsGood Eating: Suggestions for Wartime Dishes; and Eating for Victory: Healthy Home Front Cooking on War Rationsalong with various web sources I'll cite in  headnotes. 

Since many dishes - including those in pamphlets officially sanctioned by the Ministry of Food - are essentially plant-based to begin with, the main challenge will be making them flavorful and interesting to my family's 21st century palate while staying true to the spirit of the original recipes. (I should say upfront that some heavily-featured ingredients such as - {{{shudder}}} - turnips find little favor in my house and will probably be underrepresented. On the other hand, I live with a bunch of confirmed potato addicts, so there should be no shortage of spuds on offer.) 

In a slightly more serious vein, I'd like to close by noting the degree to which the rhetoric of WWII cookery stresses frugality on the home front as indispensable to the preservation of British national and cultural identity. It's important to recognize how the everyday sacrifices of ordinary people "making do" were presented as part of something much greater than mere survival. Posters, pamphlets, newsreels, and radio addresses all stressed the performance of self-denial not only in the interest of subsistence, but as a marker of implacable resistance and persistence to defy the enemy: an enemy who threatened what was presented as the erasure of an entire way of life. 

That being the case, any careless waste of resources - food, fuel, or clothing - was cast as akin to abetting a Nazi victory. In our own time, the idea of extreme (albeit mandatory) thriftiness in the service of a greater cause seems alien and distant, and we should be mindful of our good fortune that this is so, even in the current economic climate.  During the upcoming weeks, I hope to keep that in mind as I read, cook, and think about the ethos that lies behind these dishes. So stay tuned, straighten that backbone, and get ready to dig (in) for Victory!


  1. I'm really excited to see what you do with this. I recently read a few books about British food, and I actually considered using this theme!

  2. Did I mention before that I LOVE YOUR THEME?!?

    Gosh, I adore MoFo. Adding another great blog to my feed!

    Vegan Fazool Blog

  3. Desdemona, I just came to your blog to apologize for accidentally deleting your comment on my blog (I can't get it back-- I'm so sorry!), but it's a great blog! I love this month of wartime food! It's something I've always been fascinated with-- people managing on severe rationing (much more severe than it was in North America). I'm going to enjoy the whole series you wrote! Cheers, Bryanna