Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Month: May 2015

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the astronomer poet of Persia

Wine in the Rubáiyát

‘Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.’

So commands Edward FitzGerald’s cult Victorian composition, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, described by critic Harold Bloom as ‘the most popular poem in the English language, incessantly read by people who do not read poetry’. Its creator translated and added to Khayyám’s 11th century Persian quatrains (each individually known as a ruba’i), forming a collection of bite size wisdom that is simultaneously philosophical and rebellious, profound and carefree.

Providing readers with a Victorian lens on Medieval Persia, the work famously urges its audience to defy Fate, Destiny, and the unknowable mysteries of existence by taking to present pleasures, significant among which is a good glass or two of wine. If you haven’t before, lose yourself in its lines! Differences between FitzGerald’s editions mean that the Rubáiyát you read can slightly vary. Project Gutenberg has an online copy of the First and the Fifth, together with explanations of references to Persian culture. I will largely be referring to the First here; the quotation above is from Quatrain 74 in the Fifth.

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-012The poem often locates itself in or around a ‘Caravanserai’ or ‘tavern’, as in this artwork for Quatrain 12 from a 1913 edition of thRubáiyát, by illustrator Edmund J. Sullivan. The whole book, complete with Sullivan’s wonderful designs, can be read on the Internet Archive. Image located using Wikimedia Commons.

(For those new to the poem, it’s worth pointing out that while this reworking is the most famous in the West, there are many modern versions of the Rubáiyát. I’m familiar with FitzGerald’s and have only seen a few verses from others, so much exploring lies ahead! Ahmad Saidi’s more direct translation is held to be especially good for its focus on Khayyám’s authentic quatrains. The original Persian has also been set to music on multiple occasions. I love Christopher Tin’s ‘Hamsáfár’ in his spectacular album, Calling All Dawns.)

Wine makes its appearance from the very beginning of the poem:

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
“Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
“Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.” (1.2)

Illuminated first page from a 1910 reproduction of the Sangorski & Sutcliffe manuscript.A reproduction of the first page from the 1911 Sangorski & Sutcliffe jewel-encrusted edition, known as ‘The Great Omar’. In 1912, it was taken aboard the Titanic for transportation to America and was lost when the ship sank. Image uploaded by Flickr user William Creswell.

Despite how often the theme occurs, FitzGerald claimed in his preface that his verses had ‘perhaps a less than equal proportion of the “Drink and make-merry,” which (genuine or not) recurs over-frequently in the Original’. ‘Liquor’ is established as far more than a means of mere enjoyment or revelry. It is shown to be comparable to the life force of an individual.

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-042Sullivan’s drawing for Quatrain 42 perfectly illustrates the idea of liquor as a life force. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

The call to ‘fill the Cup’ is not sounded because the present is something sorrowful which necessarily needs to be escaped, but because it is a thing of opportunity which needs to be embraced. Conversely, past and future carry problems that were and problems that will be. Wine appears to wipe the slate: ‘Ah, my Belovéd, fill the Cup that clears / TO-DAY of past Regrets and future Fears –’ (1.20).

It is tempting to see this as a Victorian or Persian endorsement of drinking to forget. Wine, however, has deeper properties in the Rubáiyát. With the poem opening at the start of Spring – ‘the New Year reviving old Desires’ (1.4) – it almost seems part of a rebirth ritual:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! The Bird is on the Wing. (1.7)

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-007Sullivan’s take on ‘The Bird of Time’. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

Ever-moving Time allows no space for the ‘Winter Garment’ of former cares: that cold, constricting skin which must be shed and then obliterated in ‘the Fire of Spring’ – not a trace should remain. Even so, to become lost in noticing that Time is being wasted is itself a waste of Time: ‘Ah, fill the Cup: – what boots it to repeat / How Time is slipping underneath our Feet’ (1.37).

In all this, it is worth reflecting on exactly who is speaking. The choice is between two people from very different backgrounds. FitzGerald was a shy and kindly Victorian gentleman who spent his life in scholarly pursuits; the introduction to studying Persian and the collected quatrains came from his close friend, the orientalist Edward B. Cowell.

Edward FitzGeraldA miniature of Edward FitzGerald by Eva Mary Bernard Orr, Lady Rivett-Carnac. After an 1873 photograph of the poet. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

Khayyám lived from 1048 to 1131 CE and hailed from Nishapur, now in Iran. He was noted in the Islamic world for his work in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. Any reputation for poetry was small, built long after he died, which is when his verses began to be entered in manuscripts. How many he originally composed, if at all, has been frequently scrutinized. Well over 2,000 have been attributed to him through the centuries; authoritative estimates range from 121 to 255.

Khayyam Figure Adelaide HanscomMany interpretations of Khayyám and Khayyám-like figures exist. This is a 1905 photogravure (or photographic etching) by Adelaide Hanscom. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

So we have Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát…of Omar Khayyám: part translation, part invention, part combination. It is what Michael Kerney terms in his 1887 preface ‘a feat of marvellous poetical transfusion’. The result is a mixed attitude on life, the universe, and of course, wine.

For all its insistence on paying less heed to the looming future, the Rubáiyát is still acknowledging of fate. That is not to suggest that it fully accepts it; slight awareness of the matter is sufficient. As with Time, to be any more concerned is unnecessary. It is as if a drinker pauses mid-sip to briefly peek above the rim, notes encroaching Destiny, then returns full attention to their cup. The understanding that some things simply can’t be changed is more than enough.

Likewise, there are some enquiries which stubbornly refuse to yield answers. To be any more involved is maddeningly fruitless, and wine offers a pleasing alternative:

How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit
Of This and That endeavour and dispute?
Better be merry with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit. (1.39)

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-041Sullivan’s illustration for Quatrain 41. Located used Wikimedia Commons.

One verse takes its imagery to more miraculous levels, likening the Grape to the ‘subtle Alchemist’ that can ‘in a Trice / Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute’ (1.43). This ability to rejuvenate and transform leads to the speaker’s devotional awe. Wine can later be seen to occupy a ceremonial role, trickling through the processes of living and dying:

Ah, with the Grape my fading Life provide,
And wash my Body whence the Life has died,
And in a Windingsheet of Vine-leaf wrapt,
So bury me by some sweet Garden-side. (1.67)

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-067The presence of wine and vine up to the very end: Sullivan’s depiction of Quatrain 67. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

In the opening to the Fifth Edition is a description of the tavern which turns it into a place of worship:

Before the phantom of False morning died,
Methought a Voice within the Tavern cried,
“When all the Temple is prepared within,
“Why nods the drowsy Worshipper outside?” (5.2)

Away from the invigorating power of the Cup, the devotee is practically asleep. Perhaps the ‘drowsy Worshipper’ could be compared to the dozy follower of everyday life, much in need of a wake-up call. Indeed, it might be said that Life – with a capital ‘L’ – is just one big tavern:

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultán after Sultán with his Pomp
Abode his Hour or two, and went his way. (1.16)

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-016Movement through the ‘batter’d Caravanserai’ of Quatrain 16, according to Sullivan. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

Given the various attitudes towards wine in the poem and noting the Islamic prohibition of alcohol, another question is raised: Did Khayyám himself actually drink? It may be surprising to learn that FitzGerald abstained and also largely followed a vegetarian diet, but what of Omar? From a historical perspective, grape growing and wine production is known to have continued in Medieval Persia despite religious laws, while praise of the drink is regularly found in the writings of later prominent poets like Rumi and Hafiz.

Bearing in mind that FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát is a hybrid work, it might be better to consider Khayyám’s own writing. Iranian scholar Ali Dashti has found that very few of the original quatrains focus on the drinking of wine, and that ‘the further the anthologies are from Khayyám’s own time, the greater the tendency is to include verses devoted to wine-drinking pure and simple’.

Bahram Gur ManuscriptCourtly entertainment with music and drinks for Bahram Gur, a king of the Sassanid Dynasty of Persia. As featured in a manuscript of Ferdowsi’s Persian epic poem, Shahnameh (‘Book of Kings’). This is the same ‘Bahrám, that great Hunter’ referred to in Quatrain 17. A bequest of Frank L. Babbott to the Brooklyn Museum, located using Wikimedia Commons.

Where Khayyám personally stood on drinking wine is a hazy issue – why be caught in ‘infinite Pursuit / Of This and That endeavour and dispute’? More important, as Dashti also finds, is to appreciate what the wine stands for. This is neatly illustrated by Quatrain 21 of the First Edition:

Lo! some that we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.

Much in the same way that the concept of the tavern was applied to Life, so humans are turned into living fruits of the vine. Unsettling as the image of harvest in the second line might be, key to note is that the few who have ‘drunk their Cup a Round or two before’ are those who have been able to head ‘silently to Rest’. That quiet satisfaction in approaching the end comes from having lived the best life possible. It seems that the true instruction behind every call to drink is to ‘make the most of what we yet may spend, / Before we too into the Dust descend’ (1.23).

Edmund_J_Sullivan_Illustrations_to_The_Rubaiyat_of_Omar_Khayyam_First_Version_Quatrain-056Quiet satisfaction in Sullivan’s drawing for Quatrain 56. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

Losing oneself in the pleasures of the Grape is less a literal act and more a synonym for drinking deeply from the Cup of Life; wandering in the noise of existence, it is essential to keep an eye on the inevitable without becoming too preoccupied. As FitzGerald puts it:

But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee. (1.45)

Whether in a lively tavern or the ‘batter’d Caravanserai’ of Life, the ultimate lesson of the Rubáiyát applies: Whatever grapes Life gives you, make the very best wine that you can.

I’ll drink to that.

Maize

Nixtamalization: Aztecs and Ash

Maize brought life to Mesoamerica. Olmec, Maya, Toltec, Aztec – civilisations grew and declined in the region. Cultivated throughout, consumed by rulers and subjects, deified and revered, maize sustained them all. According to the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation narrative, humankind was fashioned from the crop:

‘After that they began to talk about the creation and the making of our first mother and father; of yellow corn and of white corn they made their flesh; of corn-meal dough they made the arms and the legs of man. Only dough of corn meal went into the flesh of our first fathers, the four men, who were created.’

Popul Vuh: The Book of the People, translated into English by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus Griswold Morley from Adrián Recino’s translation from Quiché into Spanish.

Mayan Ruler in Maize God GuiseA Mayan image of a seated ruler in the guise of the Maize God, dated between 300 – 600 CE. From LACMA Collections Online.

In Book Eleven of the Aztec Florentine Codex, one line refers to the plant as ‘precious, our flesh, our bones’. It was to the goddess Chicomecóatl and her male partner Centéotl that the Aztecs paid tribute in festivals and artwork, honouring both as controllers of nature’s abundance.

Chicomecoatl Musée du Quai_BranlyA sculpture of Chicomecóatl from the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

For all the divine rituals to bring about bountiful harvests, there was a more everyday practice which ensured that the various peoples of Mexico could benefit from their crop. With the goodness of its kernels locked away inside a tough casing, or ‘pericarp’, corn was as demanding as its deities, and needed work. How to sort out a tough and unyielding pile of maize? Water, ash, and a good soak – or nixtamalization, if you prefer.

Mesoamericans would leave corn in water with the addition of wood ash. This loosened up the pericarp, allowing the drained product to be readily ground for culinary use such as making dough, known in Spanish as masa. Quite why someone decided it would be a good idea to add ash to their maize and when they first did so has not been determined. The earliest evidence for this incredibly successful and much-adopted procedure, as Sophie D. Coe writes in America’s First Cuisines, comes in the form of equipment discovered in southern Guatemala, dating from between 1500 to 1200 BCE.

Codex_Borbonicus_(p._23) MaizeA depiction of maize in the Aztec Codex Borbonicus, now held in France. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

Communities may have followed different steps according to custom and tradition; with the process in wide use today, instructions can vary. A common suggestion is to cook the grains for some time in the liquid and then leave them to soak, using lime instead of ash – both sources of calcium oxide, which becomes calcium hydroxide on addition to water. This makes the soaking solution alkaline and breaks up the kernel skin.

Easy grinding aside, this has more significant results. In untreated maize, niacin (Vitamin B3) is held as niacinogen and niacytin, which cannot be used by the human body. Nixtamalization unbinds them, increasing the available niacin for the consumer. Deficiency of this nutrient can lead to pellagra, a disease with three debilitating consequences: dermatitis, diarrhoea, and dementia.

When Europeans took corn from Mexico back home they did not adopt nixtamalization, applying their wheat-milling technology to the grain. As a result, communities in Europe and colonised parts of Africa which came to extensively consume maize and were less economically capable of balancing their diets were afflicted by pellagra, a problem which continues to this day.

The Polenta, Pietro LonghiThe Polenta (circa 1740), by Italian painter Pietro Longhi: a testament to the European popularity of this corn-based porridge. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

Maize is also naturally low in tryptophan (used to make niacin) and lysine, two amino acids which cannot be produced by the body and must be acquired through the diet. Nixtamalization’s ability to improve the protein quality of corn is debatable; in any case, other foods can supply the missing amino acids. Beans performed this role for Mexican civilizations and were consumed with most meals. Treating the grain may also reduce mould toxins – this too, is subject to debate.

More immediately appreciable is the refined flavour of the maize, which New York-based restauranteur and food writer Zarela Martinez has described as ‘a taste and aroma like no other food on Earth — a delicately nutty quality combined with something almost chalky and mineral-like’. If that doesn’t inspire a craving for fresh tortillas…

Guatemalan TortillasThese will have to do for now. Guatemalan tortillas, taken by Flickr user Krista.

As for the word, it entered English from the Mexican Spanish nixtamal, describing the treated corn. That was taken from the Nahuatl nextamalli, a combination of the words nextli (‘ashes’ or ’cinders’) and tamal-li (‘bread made of steamed corn meal’). Tamal-li gives the name of the modern dish tamales.

Now spoken by around 1,500,000 people in the Central Mexican region, Nahuatl was the main language of the Aztec Empire in the 1400s, originally expressed with pictographs. Following the Spanish Conquest these were replaced with Latin characters, and a sizeable body of Nahuatl works was written down during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Codex_Mendoza_folio_52rA page from the Codex Mendoza, written in the 16th century to give Spanish Emperor Charles V an impression of Aztec life. This image shows some of the tribute items sent to Monteczuma II, last of the Aztec Emperors. Most of the writing is in Spanish; Nahuatl words can be seen under the pictures on the left. Located using Wikimedia Commons.

While English pronunciation renders ‘nixtamalization’ as ‘niks-tamalization’, the letter ‘x’ was used to represent a ‘sh’ sound in NahuatlNextli is therefore pronounced as ‘neshtli’, much in the same way that Méxica – a collective name which the Aztecs gave themselves – was pronounced not as ‘Meks-ee-ka’, but ‘Mé-shee-ka’By that logic, ‘Mexico’ should really be ‘Mé-shee-ko’.

(Both terms supposedly derive from Metzliapán (‘Moon Lake’), a name for Lake Texcoco; ‘Aztec’ from Aztecatl, meaning ‘Hailing from Aztlán’, the legendary ‘White Land’ from which they held themselves to have come. In 17th century Spanish, the letters ‘x’, ‘j’, and ‘g’ were used to denote ‘sh’ sounds, which eventually developed into the aspirated sound now largely represented by ‘j’ in Modern Spanish. The 18th century saw the letter ‘x’ increasingly used for ‘iks’. This past association of ‘x’ and ‘j’ explains the existence of modern alternatives like México and Méjico.)

Mexico City Plaza Large
Mexico City Plaza, or Zócalo. The city stands on what was once Lake Texcoco. Taken by Flickr user Eneas de Troya.

Modern research has produced varieties of corn with higher concentrations of lysine and tryptophan. The opposition to genetically modified foods considered, it is interesting to note the view put forward by Tom Standage, who argues in An Edible History of Humanity that maize is hardly a ‘natural’ plant due to intensive selective breeding which developed its wild ancestor teosinte into the crops known today.

Some new maize mutants are known to have smaller yields and be more susceptible to grain damage when mechanically harvested. That said, their nutritional benefits likely make nixtamalization less necessary. Whether or not the process falls in use, the word itself stands as a reminder of the rich cultural history behind the practice.

Remembering Food Slogans on VE Day

8 May, 1945 saw Victory in Europe Day festivities across the continent and overseas. While the Second World War would only end with the defeat of Japan in September, and though a steep climb to recovery faced the countries involved, the desperately-awaited occasion was marked with wild festivities.

VE Day celebrations, Trafalgar Square, LondonVE Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square, London. Note the pair of shoes I mistook for a head, because one man is upside-down. Photograph from Lieutenant Arthur L. Cole, Library and Archives Canada.

Dancing, parades, and street parties took place throughout Britain, with makeshift community feasts pulled together from rationed goods and home-grown produce. The people had become experts at making the most of little thanks to practices put in place by the government from the very outbreak of war.

Added to this was a range of posters, films, and leaflets which helped to cultivate thrifty attitudes crucial to the nation’s wartime success. Seventy years on, I thought it would be worth taking a look back at some of the slogans and artwork created to help get Britain frugal with food.

Dig for Victory and Dig for Plenty

INF3-95_Food_Production_Dig_for_Victory_Artist_Mary_Tunbridge 508pxDesigned by Mary Tunbridge. Taken from a joint public domain collection by The National Archives and Wikimedia Commons.

Before the war, Britain’s food imports numbered 22 million tonnes. If it helps with visualisation, that’s 122,222 blue whales’ worth of food (taking the weight of a large blue whale to be around 180 tonnes). N.B. Do not go around informing your friends that food imports in 1930s Britain consisted of 122,222 blue whales.

Enemy threats to trading routes at sea and occupation of partner countries, as well as British prioritisation of ships for military use, began to put Fall a strain on supplies. Nationwide rationing of imported goods came into effect from January 1940 with initial limits on sugar, butter, and bacon (not surprisingly, that last decision was considerably unpopular).

INF3-96_Food_Production_Dig_for_Victory_Artist_Peter_Fraser 527pxDesigned by Peter Fraser. The National Archives / Wikimedia Commons.

Following the failed Grow More Food campaign of October 1939 was Dig for Victory. Fronted by Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, it was guided and organised by John Raeburn, Head of Agricultural Plans. The slogan was apparently a coinage of Evening Standard journalist Michael Foot, later leader of the Labour Party in 1980.

Appearing on some 10 million leaflets sent out during the period (take a look at this example from the British Library), it was most famously seen with iStopMotion the well-known ‘boot-on-spade’ photograph, which went on to become a symbol of the campaign and featured in miniature on other posters.

Dig for VictoryThe famous ‘boot-on-spade’ image, courtesy of the World Carrot Museum.

It also found its way into a stirring motivational song:

Dig! Dig! Dig!
And your muscles will grow big
Keep on pushing the spade
Don’t mind the worms
Just ignore their squirms
And when your back aches laugh for glee
Just keep on digging
Till we give our foes a wigging
Dig! Dig Dig! for Victory!

The ultimate result was a staggering display of individual and collective drive. More and more people took to producing their own fruits and vegetables, with the number of allotments soaring from 815,000 to 1,400,000Many open areas were New transformed into plots, including the Tower of London moat. According to the calculations of writer Daniel Smith in The Spade as Mighty as the Sword, this meant that the annual production of vegetables by 1943 was above one million tonnes (or 5,556 blue whales’ worth, according to mine).

With the end of war becoming a likely possibility by 1944, it grew clear that this drive could not be allowed to come to a halt. From victory onwards, that realisation was confirmed: Britain faced the challenge of providing food aid to recovering European nations and had no time to rest. In a newspaper column of 24 May, 1945, writer and BBC gardening broadcaster C. H. Middleton wrote:

‘We shall have to find a new slogan, and call it digging for peace and security, or “digging for dinner”; but whatever we call it, we must not slack our efforts: the need for intense food production is more urgent than cheap jerseys from China ever.’

That new slogan was Dig for Plenty, which had already been circulating in 1944.

INF3-98_Food_Production_Dig_for_Plenty_Artist_Le_Bon 510px-Artist unknown, possibly ‘Le Bon’. The National Archives / Wikimedia Commons.

Gloriously bright colours and images of plenty were signs of a fruitful future that lay in the public’s hardworking hands.

INF3-97_Food_Production_Dig_for_Plenty_Artist_BAN 544pxArtist unknown, possibly ‘Ban’. Note the ‘boot-on-spade’ symbol both on this poster and the one before. The National Archives / Wikimedia Commons.

This Dig for Plenty leaflet from 1947 depicts government gardening advice in a pleasant and down-to-earth manner, with a cartoon version of the ‘boot-on-spade’ symbol:

Leigh on Sea Horticultural Soc Flyer Nov 1947 001
Image and text from the Local Studies collection, The Forum, Southend-on-Sea. With thanks to Carole Shorney and the South East Essex Organic Gardeners.

Lend a Hand on the Land

Similar to Dig for Victory was Lend a Hand on the Land, which specifically targeted city dwellers to help with farm-based food production efforts during their holidays.

INF3-104_Food_Production_Lend_a_hand_on_the_land_Whatever_your_front_line_job_Artist_Showell 619 pxArtist unknown, possibly ‘Showell’. The National Archives / Wikimedia Commons.

While the slogan wholesale MLB jerseys is very much an instruction to the public, ‘lend’ gives the poster something of an appealing, voluntary feel. Woven into this is an emphasis on wartime duty through focus on one’s job; an effect echoed by the clenched fist imagery of the artwork below:

696px-INF3-105_Food_Production_Lend_a_hand_on_the_land_at_a_Volunteer_Agricultural_Camp_Artist_NunneyArtist unknown, possibly ‘Nunney’. The National Archives / Wikimedia Commons.

Highlighting the personal benefits of farm work was another tactic. In this Ministry of Information short film from 1944 – 1945, lending a hand is shown to make for a productive holiday away from the stress of office work, all while keeping an individual in shape. Note also the sneaky use of alcohol to advertise happiness (from 00:43 9?????????????????????????? onwards). Shown being handed a drink, the man recalls, ‘Yes, life was very satisfying.’ Lending a Hand = Holiday + Free Beer? Winning.

INF3-101_Food_Production_Lend_a_hand_with_the_potato_harvest_(workers_in_basket) 511pxDesigned by Eileen Evans. The National Archives / Wikimedia Commons.

As with Dig for Victory, the Lend a Hand campaign continued after the war, as in this entertaining wholesale NFL jerseys potato digging film from 1946, played on rewind. Potato production in particular soared from 208,447 hectares in 1940 to 329,540 hectares in 1950. Going by FIFA’s current dimensions, that’s a rise from 252,663 to 399,442 full-sized international football pitches, one being 0.825 hectares. Overall, there was a 50% increase in the area of British arable farmland during the World War Two period.

All those vegetables had to be put to good use, which gave rise to Orange. two noteworthy characters…

Potato Pete and Doctor Carrot

Potato Pete and Doctor CarrotImage courtesy of Flickr user jocki84

These were created as part of the Dig for Victory campaign. Potato Pete came first, complete with recipe books – those devilled potatoes on page ten caught my stomach’s attention! Of course, there were also songs. Have a listen to this toe-tapper by Betty Driver (starting at 01:52). With more wheat being put aside for the armed forces, potatoes provided a high-energy alternative which was also a source of Vitamin C.

Doctor Carrot followed in November 1941, encouraging the public to eat more of the orange vegetables. Disney also appears to have helped Lord Woolton achieve this task, with cartoonist Hank Porter creating a carrot family that featured on published material. By 1942, Britain had a surplus.

Disney Carrot FamilyThe Disney Carrot Family. ‘Dr. Carrot’ was later changed to ‘Pops Carrot’ to avoid clashing with the British Doctor Carrot. Image courtesy of the World Carrot Museum.

Carrots were recognized as excellent sources of Vitamin A, derived from their colour-giving compound beta-carotene. (Appropriately, ‘carotene’ comes from carota, the Latin for ‘carrot’.)

Contributing towards general eye health, they were also believed to give consumers powers of night vision. According to the World Carrot Museum, such a belief was spread by the British Government telling the public that RAF pilots succeeded in night-time battles due to their heightened vision from carrot consumption. This inspired people to eat surplus produce and also provided cover for the real source of night vision: a secretly developed radar system built into fighter planes.

Carrots were slipped into meals throughout the day and sometimes took the place of sweets, which were on ration. They were also combined with potatoes and other vegetables to make the meat-free Savoy Hotel invention Woolton Pie, which was named after the Ministry of Food chief. The World Carrot Museum has a full list of recipes, including one for an intriguing Carrot Fudge.

Avoiding Waste

Food waste was punishable by law from as early as 1940 onwards and every effort was made to recycle as much as possible. One notable use of kitchen waste was feeding pigs, which were reared in the hundreds of ‘pig clubs’ set up by people around the country, wholesale MLB jerseys as well as on farms.

INF3-224_Salvage_We_want_your_kitchen_waste_(pig_with_dustbin)_Artist_Gilroy 516pxDesigned by John Gilroy. The National Archives / Wikimedia Commons.

Leftover bones were especially useful, providing grease Promotion for planes and a source of glue.

INF3-201_Salvage_Bones_help_to_make_planes_Artist_Fougasse 544px-Designed by Cyril Kenneth Bird (also known as Fougasse). The National Archives / Wikimedia Commons.

Second World War recycling know-how could certainly be applied today. 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink is wasted per year in the United Kingdom, according to a 2013 report. I see 40,000 blue whales, all shaking their heads at us in disappointment.

Wartime diets were also healthier than those of today due to a reduction of fatty and sugary foods. Having come across a variety of interesting Second World War recipes, I will definitely be trying them out in the kitchen! Please excuse me while I get some devilled potatoes…

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