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Meals in 1940s wartime Britain:
potatoes, vegetables & more vegetables

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Potatoes and vegetables that grew in Britain were not rationed during the Second World War, although they were not always available in the shops. After the war, when shortages were even more severe, potatoes were rationed for a year.

So people grew their own potatoes in their back gardens, and housewives became quite innovative at using them as a base for family meals. No doubt everyone's health benefited.

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Spring greens

Although I remember very little about meals at home during the early 1940s, I do remember complaining, "I'm sick of greens!", as if it was my mother's fault. She never explained, presumably because she thought I was too young to understand that she had to make use of what whatever was available and waste nothing.

"A pound of spring greens please", was her regular purchase at the greengrocers. 'Spring greens' were very dark green leaves, obviously from some sort of cabbage, and in later years I often wondered what they were because they no longer seemed to be on sale or in seed catalogues. I am pleased that Neil Baker and Peter Johnson have been able to give me two examples - see the sidebar on the right.

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What spring greens were

After the head of a cabbage had been harvested, a cross was cut into the top of the stump with a sharp knife. The stump was left in the ground and from the cuts grew new green leaves. These we called 'spring greens'.

Peter Johnson

Spring greens are particularly hardy varieties of cabbage which survive through the winter and produce lots of leaves rather than hearts. Ones bought in supermarkets can be rather tough but home-grown ones eaten fresh are much better. Seed is still available if you look for it.

Neil Baker

I also remember the cooked beetroot that Alan Talbot mentions, but ours always came steeped in vinegar. I hated it as it was like eating solid vinegar.

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How shops managed to get vegetables during the shortages

My family owned a small greengrocers shop during the war and the years of austerity afterwards - so I know the following from experience.

Potatoes

Potatoes were often in such short supply that it was difficult for retailers to get hold of them. I sometimes went with my father to the wholesale market, and we had to be there very early to have any chance of getting them. If we found a stall with them, we had to buy something else first or be told that all the potatoes where sold.

Swedes

Swedes, which in the north of England we called turnips, were plentiful and no problem to sell because they were a basis for the wonderful soup described on this website.

Beetroots

Beetroot was also plentiful, but it needed so much cooking that housewives wouldn't buy it unless it was already cooked and prepared. My father bought a second-hand gas copper*, and Saturday afternoon boiled a copper full of beetroot ready for skinning when cold on Sunday morning. In this form, the beetroot sold very well. Customers brought along their own containers for it, as the red juice stained badly and would leak through paper bags in no time.

Alan Talbot

*Gas coppers were later than the traditional coal fired coppers and were not built-in as they didn't need a chimney.

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Meals based on lots of potatoes and vegetables

No-meat shepherds pie was mashed potato on a base of either Bisto or Oxo made very thick with water on the bottom of a baking tray. It was baked in the oven until it the gravy was judged to have gone solid.

Peter Johnson

As a child in the summer holidays my lunch was often sandwiches with cooked runner beans inside. The runner beans came from our garden. There was of course no butter, and our very little margarine was saved for cooking. However the moisture in the cooked runner beans did stop the bread from being dry.

Jane Bartlett

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

'Oslo' was a salad, served on hot toast, consisting of grated raw vegetables and salad stuff, We used to have it for breakfast or for tea.

John Cole

Mashed potato with grated cheese mixed in was a regular meal.

Marion Cole