Last year, a very interesting hour-long program(me) called Edwardian Supersize Me  aired on BBC Four. Taking their cue from the hit documentary Supersize Me, Giles Coren , food critic for The Times, and writer/actress/comedienne Sue Perkins  spent a week eating as the middle-class Edwardians did - meaning a lot. The pair are back, upgraded to BBC Two, in a new multipart series called The Supersizers Go…. The premise is the same as Edwardian Supersize Me - in each show Sue and Giles spend a week eating as people did in a certain historical era. The first episode aired last night, and the era was World War II.
The Supersizers Go… is a bit more jokey than Edwardian Supersize Me was, but just as fun and informative. Giles and Sue have gotten used to each other it seems, and are are lot more comfortable with each other. The visual details were great - they found a typical 1930s semi-detached house, decorated it inside as it would have been in the 1940s, and both of them dressed in clothing of the era. I could have done without the scenes of Sue chomping on grass and the like, and perhaps the tone was a bit too lighthearted for a period which was probably not much fun at all. Still, these are minor quibbles.
The most interesting part for me of course was look into how people ate during the war. I already sort of knew that food was strictly rationed then, especially things like sugar, fats (butter in particular), meat and eggs. What I didn’t know though was that people were required by law to “eat up”: it was even a crime to waste food, and some people even went to jail for it! Imagine if that were the case now - most of us would be spending some time behind bars.
The government sent a lot of instructions on how food was to be eaten. There was something called the National Loaf, made with “more of the grain than white bread”; it was fortified with calcium and vitamins and was required eating. It was dry and grey, and was nicknamed Hitler’s Secret Weapon. There was also something called Special Margerine included in the weekly rations, also laced with vitamins. Vegetables however were not rationed. People were encouraged to Eat for Victory. And there were those infamous dried eggs, imported from America.
To supplement the rationed food, the British people grew tons of vegetables in their gardens (encouraged to “Dig for Victory”) and resorted to foraging in the wild for things like nettles and snails. A black market also sprang up for forbidden foods. Housewives desperate to liven up the table also resorted to a weird range of foods that pretended to be something else - Mock Duck formed from sausage meat, Mock pies, and more. (The Mock part reminded me somewhat of the tendency of some current day vegetarians to try to make Mock versions of meat-based dishes…Tofurkey anyone?)
It seems that food served at designated British Restaurants, initially set up to feed people who had beem bombed out, was not rationed, so eating out became very popular.
Generally though, people ate a lot of carbohydrates, especially potatoes and National Loaf; much less fat and meat, and tons of vegetables - though it seems prepared in ways that sound rather awful from a modern perspective. The most famous wartime recipe was something called Woolton Pie, made by cooking equal parts of potatoes, cauliflowers, carrots and swedes (large turnips) with water and ‘vegetable extract’ (I assume this is something like Marmite) with water to a mushy state, then topping with a potato or whole wheat (wholemeal) pie crust. On the show Sue did most of the cooking, guided by chef and nutrionist Allegra McEvedy (who’s also one of the Guardian Word of Mouth bloggers ), though Giles did step into the kitchen when the American G.I.s (bearing nylon stockings as gifts of course) came to visit and whipped up some horrific sounding cake that used paraffin as the fat.
The result of this kind of eating was that by the end of the war, the British people were much healthier than they had ever been - and probably a lot healthier than current day Brits. After a week of WWII eating, both Giles and Sue lost weight and improved their overall fitness indicators. This is probably why there are some calls to return to a ‘wartime diet’ (most prominently from that improvement-minded guy Jamie Oliver ).
In any case, the first episode was The Supersizers Go.. was a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. Next week’s historical era is the Restoration. Looks like Sue and Giles will be imbibing a lot of alcohol.
Disappointingly, the Beeb haven’t set up a dedicated site or even a page for the series as of yet. I hope they will, because I really wanted to read more about the subject. In the meantime here are some related sites I’ve found:
Giles on night watch:
Sue’s midnight snack:
At the British Restaurant (John Lewis’ staff canteen - bananas seen there were strictly forbidden during the war):
Lunch with the G.I.s:
Winston Churchill’s wartime lunch (he didn’t ration himself, apparently):
Foraging in the fields lunch:
Supper in the Tube (sheltering from the bombing):
Victory Lunch (a party after V-E Day):