The housewife’s war in the kitchen

Old cook books David Swallow inherited from his late mother and grandparents. Photo: SG060813-333NG
Old cook books David Swallow inherited from his late mother and grandparents. Photo: SG060813-333NG

Housewives waged war in the kitchen during World War 1 – and indeed during World War 2 – by practising ‘war economy’.

Here David Swallow, chef at Wimberley Hall Restaurant at Weston, gives us an insight into the ingenious recipes dreamed up as a result of rationing, sharing recipes and stories handed down to him through his late mother and maternal grandparents.

World War 1 and World War 2 gave housewives and cooks many challenges. Food rationing was introduced and many ingredients became in very short supply and were often not available.

These items would include things like sugar, loose tea, eggs and butter, all of which we take for granted, and the weekly allowance would often be only a few ounces (or 2-3g).

This gave the housewife many headaches; how could she create her favourite dishes when ingredients were so scarce? Never was there a more challenging period in time. To substitute fresh eggs, a company called Borwicks (their cookery book cost 1/-) manufactured Egg Substitute for use in cooking, and went some way to replacing fresh eggs in cakes and pastries, but apparently they didn’t make the fluffiest omelettes. The mixture was sold in tins and made from whole eggs, non-fat milk, vegetable oil and salt.

People who lived in the country were slightly better off than townsfolk as they often kept their own chickens or knew a neighbour who did, and traded or swapped produce, thus creating a black market.

My maternal grandparents, who married in 1902, always reared a pig twice a year for their own use and to that end had fresh and cured meats at their disposal. They produced belly pork salted for bacon, hams cured (called ‘pictures’ as they hung on the picture rail in the living room) and a whole range of fresh pork for kitchen use. One of these dishes was slow roast pigs’ cheeks which, when cooked long and slow, is very succulent with amazing crackling. It’s a dish I still cook to this day at Wimberley Hall, Weston (and one I shared with Spalding Guardian readers last year).

With meat being in such short supply, interest turned to game, and rabbit was much sought after. Casseroled with vegetables and fluffy dumplings, it fed a large family for only a few pence and was, in those days, very nutritious and of course organic. Again, it’s a dish I cook today and which evokes many wonderful stories with our customers who tell how ‘Father’ obtained rabbits, often of dubious source, during the war, and how ‘Mother’ cooked them to be enjoyed by the family.

During World War 2, large, open spaces in towns and cities were often commandeered for use as allotments – even parks were dug up to grow vegetables. A well-known slogan was ‘Dig for Victory’. This was to replace the short supply of fresh vegetables and went some way towards filling the supply chain gap. A much loved vegetable was the onion, the basic of any stew or casserole or even the main meal component. My grandmother used to make Onion Roll, a suet pastry roll, steamed in a pudding cloth, filled with sliced onion, fresh sage and seasoning, and served with lashings of onion gravy – very filling and very tasty. It’s the same recipe (omitting the bacon) for the bacon roll I shared with readers last year.

With imported fresh fruit in short supply, housewives became very innovative in their cooking. Where they used fresh lemons in Lemon Curd, steamed vegetable marrow was substituted to make Marrow Cream for use in small tartlets. My late mother’s recipe is a good example of this.

No food was wasted during the war years; even stale, dry bread, which we today would feed to the birds. The then ‘Ministry of Food’ published a book called ‘How to Use Stale Bread’ at a cost of 1/6d (around 8p in today’s decimal currency). This book gave recipe suggestions, one of which is still a very popular dish today, 60 years on – Bread and Butter Pudding.

In general terms, although the hard war years gave many challenges, the housewife came through with flying colours and raised her family on tasty, wholesome and nutritious food, many values of which still remain with us today. This was in between washing clothes in a Dolly tub – Father mangling the clothes in his lunch hour!