Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Ministry of Food and kitchen guru Marguerite Patten

During World War II, the United Kingdom endured severe food rationing. With U-boats regularly sinking ships in the Atlantic, and Nazi Germany in control of European ports, Britain had to fend for itself by growing and distributing enough of the right foods to keep the population healthy.

To this end, to work alongside the Minister of Agriculture, Lord Woolton was put in charge of managing the nation's food supply. Rationing began on January 8, 1940, with restrictions placed on bacon, butter and sugar. Soon after, meat, fish, tea, eggs, milk and more were rationed as well.

Before the war, Britain had imported 55 million tons of food annually -- about 70% of what the nation consumed. As imports plummeted, the Ministry of Food produced and distributed ration books to ensure that each person got a fair share of the many essential foods in short supply.

In summer 1940, the government struck a committee of nutritional experts to determine the minimum food needed to maintain health, though this info was not made public. Food management was serious business. Officials worked at eradicating black marketeering and wasting food became a prisonable offence. Long lines were formed as people waited to buy provisions. A joke of the time was that if you saw a queue, best get in it, and find out later what it was for.

The available rations were pretty thin. For adults, 1 "shell egg" a week, or sometimes every two weeks was the limit, though powdered eggs were more available. Two ounces of butter, 4 ounces of margarine,  and 2 - 6 ounces of cheese comprised the weekly limit. The allowable 2-3 pints of milk each week could be supplemented with "household" (powdered milk), of which a packet could be purchased each month. Two ounces of tea and eight ounces of sugar had to be stretched to last a week, and bacon or ham was limited to 4 oz. Meat was rationed by cost (1s 2d) per week, so the amount available depended on the cuts chosen.

Meanwhile, the Food Advice Division gave demonstrations in government centres, factory canteens, and large shops. Some Home Economists used mobile vans which were parked in various places where demonstrations could be carried out. Their mandate was to teach people how to keep their families well-fed on the available rations. This was where Home Economist Marguerite Patten came in. Eventually she took charge of and ran the MOF Bureau at Harrods. At age 95, long after she retired and then got bored and "unretired," she gave an interview to the Telegraph, who reported that she was still giving kitchen-related advice to Jamie Oliver, among other chefs. Patten wrote 170 cookbooks in her lifetime, and earned the OBE for service to the art of cookery. She died aged 99 in 2015.

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