Monday November 11 2019

Women & Food in Wartime - What can we learn from Good Housekeeping?

At time when the UK has never felt more divided what, if anything, can we learn from how women in times of war dealt with great change and everyday issues such as food shortages?

Mecca Ibrahim

MECCA IBRAHIM | Co Founder Women in The Food Industry

Women & Food in Wartime  - What can we learn from Good Housekeeping?

We are approaching a time of uncertainty and major change. At the time of writing we do not know how much longer the UK will remain part of Europe. The Operation Yellowhammer report exposed the worst case scenario of  a No Deal Brexit with talk of reduction of choice & availability of food. Remembrance Sunday & Armistice Day also naturally turns our attention to wartime austerity with its rationing, loss of loved ones but the nation also experienced a special spirit of unity. At time when the country has never felt more divided what, if anything, can we learn from how women in times of war dealt with everyday issues such as food shortages.  Writing for Women in The Food Industry I turned to a battered second hand book - The Home Front - The Best of Good Housekeeping 1939-1945 for guidance.

I love the social history of food and have a huge collection of second hand cook books. One well loved book, that isn't full of recipes but deals with many issues that are on our minds is an anthology of articles from Good Housekeeping magazine during the second world war.  The introduction gripped me and I hope others may find of interest too.

"From the Home Front - dispensing advice on paper salvage, cooking with dried eggs, assembling a hope chest, and feeding a family of five for £3.10s a week  - to the front lines - how to write a letter to loved one from far away, choosing books for a prisoner of war, and coping with the influx of GIs Good Housekeeping never surrendered its task of providing information and necessary relief for those facing a world where nothing would ever be the same again."

Food rationing was the first time many people thought carefully about food waste.  Not as a trend or in response to climate change and sustainability issues, but because certain foods were simply not available. A shortage of eggs, sugar and fresh fruit led to many recipes we take for granted now - for example carrot cake and bread pudding. The Good Housekeeping book has not only recipes and meal planners for feeding a family of five on three pounds 10 shillings a week, but  much advertising endorsed by The Ministry of Food on how to use new dried eggs - a new import from America. 

The double page spread on how to feed a family of five on £3.10s a week stresses the importance of planning ahead, so "all left overs are used up, so you can buy - and cook - as economically as possible." Using potatoes with versatility was seen as part of the "battle". 

Ford's adverts were also keen to stress the importance of potatoes in the war effort. "if we follow the advice of those who are in charge of supplies , the foods and fruits of Britain will last longer and go further. If by eating more potatoes we can save more bread then let's all feel delighted to do so." reads their patriotic copy with no mention of buying a Ford car!

A female journalist writing for the San Francisco Examiner commented on the "normalness" of Good Housekeeping in wartime. "No stories or articles about the horrors of war... Reading this magazine it's easy to see why British women have kept their heads so well : they insist on keeping their lives as normal as possible".  She acknowledges that the war is obviously not forgotten but that "war or no war families must be fed... Six pages were devoted to Healthful Meals Spell Victory!".

Let's not forget that during the war, for the first time many women worked in jobs that were previously only carried out by men.  The ad pictured in the header from Good Housekeeping calls for women to become cooks in the ATS (the Auxiliary Territorial Service was the women's branch of the British Army) and WAAF (The Women's Auxiliary Air Force). The cartoon header "Taking Over? Good for you, we'll show Hitler" and some of the language in the ad ("There's not a wife or mother in the country who doesn't feel it part of her life's work feed her man right") are obviously a sign of the time.  But women were trained to work in professional kitchens and gained valuable experience in cooking for large numbers.  No one said they weren't strong enough to do the job or were unable to carry heavy pots and pans!

The importance of women working in war time was most famously symbolised by the "We Can Do It" or "Rosie The Riveter" poster. Produced in 1943 it was an inspirational image to boost female worker morale but apparently was seen very little during the second world war.  Rediscovered in the early 1980's and replicated by many women today, it remains a strong image for female empowerment.  Let's celebrate the work of Good Housekeeping in wartime too and how it reflected women's struggles, victories and a special sense of unity which should be of great value today.

You can read the full feature Women in Wartime – What can we learn from Good Housekeeping? which also covers Daphne Du Maurier's thoughts on letter writing at a time of war on Women in The Food Industry. 

"In wartime for the first time many women were encouraged to do jobs previously carried out by men. No one said they weren't strong enough to do the job or were unable to carry heavy pots and pans!"
Mecca Ibrahim

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