Hardship cookery

The recommendation is to limit shopping trips for groceries during social distancing. So we’re looking for ways to use every last bit of what’s in our cupboards or freezers. Yesterday, as I made a tray of fail-safe flapjacks and fried whole spices for dahl, I was reminded that although the COVID-19 pandemic feels like uncharted territory, history is filled with examples of cooks getting creative in times of hardship.

Fail-safe flapjacks

This crisis has spawned a lot of culinary advice. Podcasts, websites, social media and newspapers offer tips and tell you how to throw together a quick and easy meal from whatever you’ve got lying around. There’s Jamie’s Keep Cooking and Carry On serving up what he calls ‘bendy recipes’—a term I like. Don’t worry if you can’t lay your hands on an ingredient, leave it out or use a substitute.

Because of the lockdown, issues with supply chains and restrictions on the purchase of certain staples, we’ve had to get creative with the ingredients we do have. And while this isn’t a real food crisis, there is nevertheless a faint wartime echo, and that got me thinking about how people dealt with shortages in the past.

Among my library of cookbooks and volumes on culinary and horticultural history is War-Time Cookery by Mrs Arthur Webb, published in London in 1939. It has chapter titles like The War-time Larder, Friendly Food in Cans, Puddings to Please—and this is a curious one: Haybox Cookery. A way of saving fuel by part-cooking food then packing it into a box thickly lined with hay and leaving it for hours to slow-cook in its own heat. War-Time Cookery features several ‘mock’ things, a lot of dripping, and a surprising range of vegetables—New Zealand spinach, Jerusalem artichoke, scorzonera and celeriac, for example.

During World War II the UK Ministry of Food circulated a lot of culinary guidance pamphlets: Hedgerow Harvest, The Garden Front, Fruit Bottling, Meals Without Meat and many more. I looked into some of these publications when I was researching The Book of Thistles (UWA Publishing, 2017)

‘In 1942 the UK Ministry of Food issued the Emergency Powers Defence (Food) Carrots Order, and tried to persuade the public that carrots were a delicious, nutritious, easy-to-grow substitute for rationed goods. Radio programs, competitions, leaflets and cartoon characters were deployed to sell the message.
Carrot scramble, anyone?’

That’s from The Book of Thistles, and so is this:

‘When Yugoslavia broke apart it created a food crisis, something not experienced in the West since the Second World War. During the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s Bosnian botanist Sulejman Redžić documented the use of emergency biota (including Scotch and sow thistles) and ran programs explaining how to recognise and cook a range of plants generally dismissed as weeds. Prior to the conflict, the inhabitants knew next to nothing about the many palatable species growing rough on their doorstep. But they learned fast and those wildings helped avert nutritional catastrophe.’

I wonder how the women of Hanoi dealt with scarcity during the Vietnam War? How home cooking changed in the course of the Korean War? I wonder what’s being dished up today in refugee camps in Turkey, Kenya, Bangladesh and elsewhere?

Of course I’m not in a position anything remotely like those asylum-seekers or wartime cooks. In the inner-city suburb where I live we have the Sydney Fish Market and two supermarkets. Hand sanitizer may be impossible to find but there’s plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, plenty of lentils, grains and tofu.

My other World War II cookbook is an Australian one. Also called Wartime Cookery, it’s by journalist Sarah Dunne and was published by the Herald (Melbourne) in 1945. Ninety-six pages of hints and recipes to help you with your rationing problems and cooking challenges. Phosphate as a raising agent, ‘Friendly Ways With Suet’, instructions for ‘Red Flannel Hash’ and ‘Moonshine Mould’. According to the publicity blurb waste was a subtle form of treason. And as guardians of the Home Front, housewives should be prepared for ‘strange forages and unusual adventures’ of the kind offered by this collection of recipes where familiar ingredients are made to do unfamiliar things.

While rationing was not as severe as it was in Britain and Europe, many foods, such as tea, eggs, butter and meat were rationed in Australia. Like its English counterpart, Wartime Cookery contains recipes for a number of mock foods—substitutes for the real thing or a means of eking out precious ingredients. Concoctions like ‘Cream without Cream’ which involves whipping cornflour into milk with sugar, a knob of butter and a drop of vanilla essence. Add a stiffly whisked egg white before serving.

We can’t congregate but we can still cook. Still connect via the kitchen. Cooking helps us weather difficult and uncertain times. When I plan a meal and prepare food I’m keeping anxiety at bay. To help counter fears sparked by COVID-19, we also need stories—not a single over-arching Hollywood narrative of rescue by a larger-than-life hero—we need multiple small stories, multiple culinary interventions. In the absence of a quick fix, we need stories and dishes of resilience and slow-simmering hope.