History geek, kitchen gardener and vintage cookbook collector that I am, I couldn’t help falling in love with Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall‘s The Ministry of Food: Thrifty Wartime Ways to Feed Your Family Today (2010) the moment I laid eyes on it.
Part of my infatuation comes from the crisp, colourful World War II propaganda posters throughout the book with headings like ‘Making the Most of Milk’ and ‘Better Pot-Luck with Churchill today than Humble Pie under Hitler tomorrow — Don’t Waste Food!’.
The recipes are also a lure, including wartime delights such as fat-free sponge cake, mock duck (sausage and apple meat loaf) and nettle soup (delicious!) I learned how to prepare a vegetable garden using mid 20th-century methods and that bones were collected to make glue used in aircraft manufacture, for fertiliser and to make into glycerine for high explosives for shells and bombs.
Written as the companion volume to a 2010 Imperial War Museum exhibition, The Ministry of Food draws the reader in with its lively, eminently readable narrative containing numerous contemporary anecdotes on topics such as scandalous black-marketeers, coping with food rationing and life as a land girl.
Fearnley-Whittingstall is at pains to show the relevance of her book in the 21st century, insisting that skills learned by our mothers and grandmothers during wartime are applicable to us today, that ‘like our forebears, we are fighting on several fronts – against waste, junk food and the depletion of fossil fuels.’
She needn’t worry that The Ministry of Food is passé. Despite its austere subject matter, the book is a feast — of stories, recipes, seasonal menus and gardening tips. Highly recommended.