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Not Fussy: rationing by Beryl Madden

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project Beryl Madden, from the 'Writing Together' group, reminisced about rationing in the War years. This is her story, in her own words:

Time and again I hear mothers complain that their children are “fussy eaters”. This is not a phrase I heard much when bringing up my children in the ‘60s and I can’t imagine it being used at all during the ‘40s when I was growing up.

Coming from a family of nine children, five of whom were born before the end of the war we certainly didn’t have a fussy eater among us. With so little choice of food available you couldn’t afford to be fussy. I’m sure we were also lucky to have a mother who was not only a very good cook but also an inventive one. It seems, looking back, that the delicious aroma of new baked bread was always present in our house and there was some sort of stew constantly bubbling away in a huge black iron pan on the stove.

Our back garden during the war years and for a long time afterwards never saw a blade of grass – you couldn’t eat grass. There were rows of onions, cabbages, carrots and turnips together with a huge clump of rhubarb. We also kept a few chickens to supplement our egg ration along with a duck which adopted us for a while until it decided to fly off again. We were never sure whether it took off under somebody’s raincoat during the night. The duck was probably attracted by the food put out for the chickens which of course was nothing more than scraps from the table. Nothing was wasted anyway but the varied diet from those scraps ensured larger than average eggs with lovely golden yolks. Other leftovers like potato peelings were saved in an old bin in the garden and collected regularly by a local man who kept pigs. He would boil up the contents to make pig swill to feed his animals. I suspect that we occasionally received a morsel or two in return when the pigs went to slaughter.

All in all our little treasure trove of a garden provided many of life’s necessities and gave us the means to do a little bartering. My mother was inordinately fond of very strong cups of tea and it was one of my chores to take an egg or two to certain neighbours to exchange for half a cup of tea (leaves, that is).

Food rationing meant that most people, even if they didn’t have a garden or were not as resourceful as our family, could have a nutritious diet if not a very exciting one. When their usual provisions were not available many women found themselves capable of managing with the alternatives available. Some, like my mother, looked on it as a challenge. For example meat, being in short supply, meant that many of our wonderful pans of stew contained plenty of home grown vegetables with lots of filling split peas or lentils and nothing more “meaty” than bacon bones or lap (otherwise known as flap) of mutton which was little more than fat. Cooked slowly for hours and with hearty dumplings floating on the top I would defy anyone to put down a more hearty meal to a hard-working man and several hungry children home from school. We hardly had room for the homemade rice pudding for afters – but we managed.

Weird and wonderful things sometimes, of necessity, found their way onto our plates and one of the weirdest in my memory was sheep’s head broth. I had innocently regarded this in the same culinary category as shepherd’s pie, ie. it does not actually contain a shepherd! I was greatly disillusioned by strolling unexpectedly into the scullery one day and finding the offending item facing me on the table. Fortunately my mother made allowances when for the first time in my life I became a “fussy eater”. I refused to eat the stew the next day and made her promise faithfully to let me know if she ever cooked this particular dish again. She was also understanding about the spell of nightmares I had too. In return I silently promised not to mention any of this to the rest of the family. My mother was doing her best to feed us well and she hadn’t poisoned any of us yet.

I know people who remember being hungry during the war but I certainly don’t. Although we suffered from the usual childhood illnesses and diseases, we never had asthma or the multiple allergies that many children of today are prone to. I know that there can be many causes of these ailments but I can’t help wondering whether not being “fussy eaters” paid off in more ways than one. 

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