Four Chicken Legs and Two Eggs: Rationing, Cooking, and Eating During Wartime

Blackberries could be made into pies; turned into jam, jelly, or vinegar; and their leaves could be dried, crushed and put into the tea caddy to eke out the tea ration. (The Wartime Kitchen and Garden, p. 165) War, it seems, is the human condition. And war almost always brings terrible hunger.

To write of hunger and war is to write of all human history, from the very beginnings. With food in the pot and bread in the mouth (or rice or corn), people gave thanks to the gods for their good fortune during times of relative peace. No wonder rain gods, thunder gods, wind gods sprang up in the mythology of so many cultures. And war gods joined these pantheons as well. Armed conflict upset the balance of life, as armies ravished everything in their path, like a plague of locusts rampaging through fields, destroying everything edible, everything worth living for. Killing farmers and burning fields, looting food stores – if any even existed – these acts ensured a weakened populace less able, or at least disinclined, to fight back. Attacking supply lines and blockades worked, too, in undermining daily life.

With the vast amounts of food available today in grocery stores, vending machines, fast-food restaurants, and farmers markets, it’s almost impossible to visualize a world where the only morsel to eat might be 125 grams of bread, bread likely to contain a filler like sawdust or worse. Yet, that is what any housewife in Stalingrad faced as she woke on a cold crisp morning in November 1941, the day the authorities reduced the ration yet again. Not only did she live with such a small amount of food, she needed to guard her ration card, and those of her children, with her life. No lost or stolen cards could be replaced. Ever. And that meant sure death in the end. Imagine living for 872 days, frantic for food, peeling wallpaper paste off the walls and licking it with relish to calm the stomach’s screams. Not only did she fear losing her ration card, but the specter of cannibalism hovered over all those still breathing, once all the other living creatures of the city succumbed to the knives of the starving. But still every day in the news, the headlines broadcast wars, “small” conflicts, power struggles, and civilians killed in crossfire. Behind the scenes, I know, women strive to find food and keep their families alive and whole, much as did their sisters in Stalingrad during that long, relentless siege. Here I briefly touch on the problem of eating and survival, primarily during World War II.

Rationing meant that scarce commodities could be available to everyone, not just those who could afford them. Rationing also ensured that food shortages would not be met with angry crowds and bread riots. France and Germany, as well as the rest of combatant Europe, contended with severe food shortages, especially in the cities and as the war drew to a close. In Germany, the government rationed everything.

Take the words of a German woman who, as a teenager, scavenged for coal off of trains: “The milk was thinned with water. I remember my dad saying that they fried (or reheated) leftover potatoes in leftover coffee, as they didn’t have any lard or anything else to fry in.” Although at the beginning, civilians benefited from the fact that the German Army requisitioned goods, crops, and animals from local conquered people, toward the end it seemed that the four horsemen of the apocalypse rode at breakneck speed through what remained of Germany and Russia and Poland. Before May of 1942, civilian rations in Germany included: • 10,600 grams of bread = 353.33 grams/day or 12.5 oz • 2000 grams of general food stuffs / 66.66 grams per day or 2.3 oz. • 900 grams of sugar = 1.06 oz. per day After May, 1942, rations in Germany amounted to: • 8000 grams of bread (about a half loaf a day) • 1200 grams of meat (less than a 10th of lb. of meat per day) • 600 grams of general foods • 130 grams of sugar These figures, of course, do not reflect reality, nor do they account for the rations allocated to Jews. Prewar figures suggest that Germans had access to an average of 3000 kcal. per day. By the war’s end, that figure dropped to around 1415. Or less.

Britain and the United States, on the other hand, experienced rationing on entirely different levels. Rationing begin in Britain in November 1939 and ended on July 4, 1954. The British Ministry of Food, in 1940, with the help of Jack C. Drummond (later “Sir Jack”), a biochemist and specialist in vitamins and nutrition, designed a rationing plan that ensured the health and stamina of the British people throughout the duration of the war, so much so that the British people as a whole ended the war healthier than when it all began. Lord Woolton, head of the Ministry of Food, lent his name to a much-maligned vegetable pie dubbed “Woolton Pie.” (For a recipe, click HERE.)

A typical story, the following comes from an English woman: “Several friends of mine grew up in WW2 England. Apparently everyone who was able to plant a Victory Garden did so, even though not many of them had access to a variety of seeds and not everything would grow. Carrots did grow. Everybody had carrots to trade, and grew sick of eating them. My uncle still won’t eat a carrot that he can recognise, though he gave my aunt permission to hide pureed carrots in soup/stew/mashed turnips/etc. My friend Peter reported that the BBC would broadcast recipes and so on, to be helpful for home cooking. One evening a radio show with a live audience had one of the hosts dash in a little late, and he took a microphone, saying: ‘I’ve just learned the most marvelous thing — do you know what you can do with carrots?’ ‘Yes,’ said the other host, flatly.” The audience laughed uncontrollably, sick to death as they were of lollipops made of carrots. Gareth Jones, another English friend, told an interesting story about the English writer Auberon Waugh: “Evelyn Waugh, according to son Auberon, wrote of how his father gathered all the children into the dining room to watch him, head of table, elegantly peel and eat three banana’s – the first they’d ever seen. ‘Bron later disclosed he’d made the story up because it seemed a good tale in character with his crusty yet funny father.”

A typical week’s worth of adult rations in Britain looks rather sparse when laid side by side with what people today eat:

Bacon and ham: 4oz

Other meat: to the value of 1s 2d (about 3/4 pound of minced meat, or close to four chicken legs)

Butter: 2oz

Cheese: 2oz

Margarine: 4oz

Cooking fat: 4oz

Milk: 3 pints + 1 packet dried skimmed milk per month

Sugar: 8oz

Preserves: 1lb every 2 months

Tea: 2oz

Eggs: 1 shell egg +1 packet dried egg per month

Sweets: 12oz

To help British women cope with the changes wrought by rationing, Marguerite Patten, a major food celebrity at the time, wrote cookbooks and starred in a radio program hosted by Stuart Petre Brodie on how to cook using rations. Rationing began in the U.S. with the Food Rationing Program in 1942, although  the government created The Office of Price Administration in April 1941, to ensure that runaway inflation would not affect food prices. For Americans, rationing turned out to be relatively benign – they could get 2 eggs a week as opposed to the British one. The mother of a friend wrote: “A lot of the time we just did without. Hamburger was stretched with milk and egg and breadcrumbs for hamburgers. We ate a lot of macaroni, spaghetti, stew. If your butcher had a friendly farmer who butchered cattle at the farm and supplied the butcher with extra meat…then the butcher supplied you more generously.  Hot dogs were popular.”

Cookbooks and pamphlets appeared,* aimed at encouraging British and American housewives to stay plucky, make do, and sacrifice for the troops. These materials presupposed that cooks actually had 1) SOMETHING to cook and 2) if missing an ingredient, the wherewithal to substitute something else fairly easily. Dig for Victory, in Britain, and Victory Gardens, in the United States inspired people to grow a lot of their own food. Localities provided allotments for those who lacked access to garden space.** What I think is so hard to comprehend about war and food is the swiftness with which life becomes upended.

As the English writer J. G. Ballard stated: “One of the things I took from my wartime experiences was that reality was a stage set… . The comfortable day-to-day life, school, the home where one lives and all the rest of it…could be dismantled overnight.”

For more reading:

Amy Bentley’s Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity

Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food

Jennifer Davies’s The Wartime Kitchen and Garden: The Home Front 1939-1945 

M. F. K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf

Foods That Will Win the War (1918)

Darra Goldstein’s “Women Under Siege: Leningrad 1941 – 1942”

Marguerite Patten’s Victory Cookbook: Celebratory Foods on Rations! and We’ll Eat Again

Wong Hong Suen’s  Wartime Kitchen: Cooking and Eating in Singapore, 1942-1950 (full-text)

*University of Wisconsin, Recipe for Victory: Food and Cooking in Wartime (Website), full-text of food-related booklets about WWI.

Marie Vassiltchikov’s Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945 

Carolyn Wyman’s Spam: A Biography

Ina Zweiniger-Bargeilowska’s Austerity in Britain : Rationing, Controls, and Consumption, 1939-1955

See also my previous posts on rationing, particularly in France:

Rationing and the Black Market in Nazi-Occupied France

France and the Food of War: I 

Dig for Victory: Locavorism in Eons Past

**Today’s local foods proponents ought to check out some of the materials provided for these gardening programs. Note: Many thanks to those who who answered my call for personal anecdotes about WWII rationing. I appreciate your help, and hope to use more of the information in future posts and perhaps an article. © 2014 C. Bertelsen


3 thoughts on “Four Chicken Legs and Two Eggs: Rationing, Cooking, and Eating During Wartime

  1. I still own my mother’s cookbook she received when she married in 1946. It was The American Woman’s cookbook and contained in the back a section on wartime cooking – how to get by with less and growing a garden. I still use the cookbook and have memories of my mother using it as well. The cover has fallen off and I plan to rebind but I will never get rid of it.


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