In wartime, the poster slogan “dig for victory” neatly encapsulated the association of lean times with greater good; the sentiment that one day, war would be won, and plates as well as everyday life would return to normal. Turning gardens into vegetable patches went hand in hand with other war efforts like giving up metal fences and keeping voluntary watch. Boy scout practicality merged with grim necessity, and upper lips were stiffened with the idea that one was helping, everyone collectively in a multitude of small ways, in their quests for self-sufficiency and making a little stretch as far as possible.
The Ministry of Food’s 1940 publication Reasons for Rationing included the line “rationing increases our war effort”. But how will the architects of Brexit spin it, if there is indeed a no deal (and at this point, god only knows), inevitably resulting in food shortages, as everyone in the supply chain from supermarkets to foreign producers have warned?
This time, there is no war, except on sanity, and nothing to win. It’s difficult to believe mashed parsnips tasted like the bananas they were intended to imitate without thinking of victory with each grim bite. Imagine the bitter taste when we’re left with the feeling it has all been for nothing at all.
In 1941, the American food writer MFK Fisher, characterised by her gleeful, very sensual, often mischievous style and a deep interest in the people doing the eating, published the book How to Cook a Wolf, addressing bare cupboards and wartime appetite with chapters like “How to be Cheerful while Starving”.
There is an insightful part about how hunger lasts in those who’ve experienced it, even when returning to more luxurious means: “There are very few men and women, I suspect, who cooked and marketed their way though the past war without losing for ever some of the nonchalant extravagance of the 1920s. They will feel, until their final days on earth, a kind of culinary caution: butter, no matter how unlimited, is a precious substance; meats, too, and eggs, and all the far brought spices of the world, take on a new significance, having once been so rare.”
Might we one day overturn a lean Brexit and return to a land of relative plenty, impacted by barren pantry experiences to cherish food anew? What’s more likely is that those with a financial buffer will ride out any disturbances to everyday supplies relatively easily, and low-income groups already bearing the brunt of austerity will bear it greater still.
With the rich-poor divide widening and food bank usage already soaring during the last few terms of Tory rule, it is perhaps the inevitable grand finale, the reckless ideology in its most distilled form, that the Government is now stockpiling bodybags.
Still, as in any crisis, there’s the possibility of someone making a few quid off the back of any carnage, and us average joes can play Brexit: The Game in our own modest way. Paddy Power is offering, at time of writing, 9-1 odds on rationing being introduced before the end of the year. You can place a bet on what, exactly, will be rationed first, from a menu of bread, milk, avocados, olive oil, coffee, tomatoes, red wine, chicken, fish, Mars Bars, and more. Delicious.
Gin is on there too, at only 50/1, but still, it’s at times like these we ought to be grateful for the boom in Scotland’s homegrown gin production and what available stock might later be plundered to drown our sorrows.
There may be no front to return from, no soldiers bearing nylons and chocolates for their sweethearts, but we’re not far off cutesy and deranged features romanticising stockpiling. I can see it now: gingham ribbons being affixed to jars of homemade preserves and wicker baskets full of tins, as though we were all on a jolly picnic.
But we’re still some way off truly taking stock of the impact Brexit could have. Gove still, even now, claims there will be no shortage of perishable fresh food, contradicting the British Retail Consortium, who several days ago said that is categorically untrue. “The retail industry has been crystal clear in its communications with Government over the past 36 months that the availability of fresh foods will be impacted as a result of checks and delays at the border.” Those determined to deny the impact on food supply while propelling a no-deal scenario forward are essentially writing out the place cards for a country-sized Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, while almost a third of the food that the UK consumes will be subject to price increases, shortages, transport delays and storage problems.
When the Conservative party returned to power six years after the Second World War, their strategy was pegged to public frustration with lingering rationing, promising an end to shortages.
One poster read “Rationing ends! The Conservatives get things done!” It’s a little surprising Labour today haven’t captured more of the public’s attention with we know about no-deal disruption to goods and services, and capitalised on the fear of shortages.
The black market always proliferates in times of need, but interestingly, in 1942 a law was passed by Lord Woolton, British Minister for Food, that meals in hotels and restaurants must not cost over five shillings per customer, with additional measures tackling the availability of fish and meat in particular, which were permitted only to be served in one course of three. The impetus was dampening down extravagant spending and the unfair procurement of ‘luxury’ foods. Can you picture today’s craven Government today putting measures in place to restrict wealthy chums from buying their way to a greater share? It’s almost beyond imagination.
There may be less pork, but there will be no shortage of pig-headed pride, spoon-fed to the public. “Your passport to easy purchasing of bacon & ham, butter and sugar,” read the original rationing pamphlets. At least, the Brexiteers might say now, our peacetime echo will be jacketed in British blue.