Ahead of her demo on recreating wartime dishes with a modern twist, Angela Clutton explores how World War One shaped what people ate at home
If you don’t already know of her, allow me to introduce you to Agnes Jekyll. She was a food writer who wrote recipes for The Times newspaper between 1921-22, and when those recipes were later collected into a book of essays, she introduced them as being: “…of practical use in kitchens where old-established standards and experience have in many cases disappeared during the recent years of upheaval.”
‘Upheaval’ is a word of remarkable understatement to our eyes when what Agnes means is World War I.
Some context, first, regarding the foodscape in which she was writing. War came after years of staggering social inequality. Britain in the early part of the 20th century was characterised by the wealthy at one end, who lived lives of indulgence and extravagance, in food as in other things. At the other end of the social scale was mass poverty and malnutrition, with the health of the poorest in society declining at an alarming rate.
We were a nation with an over-reliance on food imports. In 1914—which was, of course, the year war broke out—60 per cent of our food supplies were imported, including 80 per cent of our wheat. This was bad, bad news when supply routes were halted by war. The country was simply not well-equipped to provide its own food resources.
For much of the war, ineffective voluntary rationing was encouraged, with ensuing huge shortages in cheese, meat and fats. People were told to eat slowly and only when hungry, and to grow their own where possible. It was only in February 1918 that compulsory rationing came in. September of that year saw rumours circulating that the nation only had enough basic food to keep the country going for another month. The end of war could not come soon enough in so many ways, and the threat to food supply was one of them.
But the end of war did not, could not, mean a return to pre-war lifestyles. Millions of men died at the front, and around a quarter of a million more Brits were killed in the flu pandemic that hit in 1919-20. Women who had left domestic service to take on ‘men’s’ jobs during the war years were not at all willing to return to cooking or cleaning for other, wealthier families. Such families were going to have to find other ways to fend for themselves.
To go back to Agnes Jekyll: “…the worst peace is better than the justest war. We, who still suffer from both… have grown accustomed to shorter meals, and to prefer them—to do without things that we now realise were never necessities. Servants being fewer we have schooled ourselves to a greater measure of self-help...”
Dinner and dancing
Yes, there were the rich and fashionable who aspired to be flappers and spent evenings out at dinner and dancing. Before heading out, they’d have cocktails at home with small bites such as filled vol-au-vents, which had been fashionable pre-war, to soak up the booze a little. But for most of the country, the years immediately after WWI were about simple living and the beginning of a drive towards convenience. One-pot dishes of pilaffs, gratins and casseroles became enormously popular. They were even served at the table in the dish they were cooked in, as we probably would now, rather than being transferred to a more decorative dish as might have happened before. There was a rise in convenience stores selling conveniently pre-weighed and pre-packaged foods. The 1920 Ideal Home Exhibition welcomed the new era of streamlined kitchens, showing off the very first dishwashers, among other gadgets that would gain momentum as the century wore on.
As the 1920s evolved, the nation’s mood—and its food writing shows it—became more aspirational in other ways. Marcel Boulestin was writing in 1923 about simple French cooking for English homes. A decade or so later came Hilda Leyel, with her lovely book of food for picnicking motorists. She was beginning to celebrate the importance of seasonality and freshness in food, with fruits and vegetables at the fore. Its air of optimism was of course decimated not too long after by more upheaval through more war, but what it shows is how Britain in the years post-1918 bore the WWI marks of (to give the final word back to Agnes J) “the courage and cheerful fortitude so universally shown by all classes and ages…”
Join Angela for tips, tastings and recipes Friday 9th November in the Market Hall, 12:30-2pm