Fighting on the “Kitchen Front”

Bullets, mortars, potatoes? Victory in World War II required the help of every British citizen, and British food. Though the government tried to avoid becoming embroiled in another world war, the British Empire declared war on Germany in September 1939. With the men abroad once again, women re-entered the factories, took up plows and axes in the Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps, and a select few even went behind enemy lines as intelligence operatives. The number of women who fought on the “Kitchen Front” was even larger. British wartime food programs demonstrate wars are not won solely by soldiers in the field. Civilians, especially women, played an important role in continuing the fight. The British Empire went to war, and so did its food.

Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “an army marches on its stomach,” but this also applies to civilians. One lasting lesson from the previous war was the importance of planning for the possible interruption of supply lines. With its Navy deployed to other fronts, Britain could easily be off from the rest of Europe, and access to food. Mindful of the bread queues that wound around the nation during WWI, the government reconstituted the Ministry of Food in 1940 and appointed Frederick Marquis, Lord Woolton as Minister of Food. Tasked with ensuring the soldiers at the front and those at home were fed, Woolton attacked the problem from several angles.

One of the Ministry’s most important programs involved food rationing. The government began planning a ration system in 1936, but it was not instituted until 1940. Each citizen received a ration book that allowed them to buy a certain amount of a rationed foods per month. The January rations limited bacon, sugar, and butter; meat was added to the list in March; and the list of rationed foods expanded to include cooking fat, cheese, jam, tea, and milk by July. Another system, the points system, was more flexible, giving each citizen a certain number of points to be used on any (and any amount) of points-rationed foods. The ration system ensured food was distributed equitably and meant everyone, from fishmonger to Royal Family, had the same access to food and paid the same prices.

The “Dig for Victory” campaign encouraged citizens to grow their own food to supplement their diet. “This is a food war,” said Woolton. “The battle on the kitchen front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden.”[1] Home gardening became a patriotic duty, not just a pastime. Gardens cropped up in allotments throughout the country. Other campaigns encouraged eliminating as much food waste as possible and saving oils and fats so they could be used to manufacture explosives.

In addition to overseeing rationing programs and encouraging domestic efforts to grow food and eliminate food waste, the Ministry of Food offered guidance to help home cooks compensate for the dietary changes by promoting nutritious unrationed foods. Cartoon characters Potato Pete and Dr. Carrot were central to marketing this to children, appearing on posters and singing songs on the wireless. The tunes were catchy, and the lyrics were even catchier:

Potatoes new, potatoes old

Potato (in a salad) cold

Potatoes baked or mashed or fried

Potatoes whole, potatoes pied

Enjoy them all, including chips

Remembering spuds don’t come in ships![2]

Government-sponsored radio programs also targeted the children’s mothers. “The Kitchen Front” radio spot gave home cooks recipes and ideas for stretching their family’s rations. Carrot roly-poly, carrot marmalade, carrot candy, carrot sausage roll: the final products did not always match the recipes’ creativity; British home cooks’ ingenuity in rising to the challenge was also unmatched.

The “Kitchen Front” also helped spread one of the British government’s most pervasive and abiding propaganda campaigns. The German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, began an extensive aerial bombardment campaign to break the will of British citizens and force the government to sue for peace. The Ministry of Information began blitz of its own, spreading the half-truth that British pilots had exceptional night vision because of the amount of carrots they ate. The vitamins in carrots do support vision health, but a pilot would likely turn orange before he ate enough carrots for significant improvement. The intended message was British pilots would have no problem responding to German air raids, but the claims soon spread to the home front.

“My first three nights of ambulance driving…were fraught with anxiety that I should have to give up the job through not being able to see well enough,” said Margaret Grant in her February 28, 1941 broadcast. “I resorted to my food chart for guidance, and after taking a large glass of milled carrot and sliced tomato each day for a week, I drove with ease and comfort.”[3] Another host made similar remarks during her August 9, 1941 broadcast, calling carrots “good blackout food.”[4] There is no way to confirm how many Germans were actually fooled by the campaign, but carrots have been linked to better eyesight ever since.

Coping with food rationing and other social changes was difficult, but also helped bring communities together. The Ministry of Food affirmed the value of women’s contributions and the importance of every single citizen in war. Men left for the front lines, but the civilians at home manned the Kitchen Front.

[1] Lord Woolton quoted in K. Annabelle Smith, “A WWII Propaganda Campaign Popularized the Myth that Carrots Help You See in the Dark,” Smithsonian Magazine, August 13, 2013, accessed October 9, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-wwii-propaganda-campaign-popularized-the-myth-that-carrots-help-you-see-in-the-dark-28812484/.

[2] Song lyrics quoted in “History Cookbook,” CookIt!, accessed October 4, 2018, http://cookit.e2bn.org/historycookbook/20-97 -world-war-2-Food-facts.html.

[3] Margaret Grant, “The Kitchen Front, 28th February 1941,” in “The Kitchen Front World War Two Recipes and Commentary,” from the UK National Archives and transcribed by the World Carrot Museum.

[4] Mrs. Hudson, “The Kitchen Front, 9 August 1941,” in “The Kitchen Front World War Two Recipes and Commentary,” from the UK National Archives and transcribed by the World Carrot Museum.

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