26 November 2005
I have discovered more about the extraordinary story of bread rationing in the UK after World War Two, from “Snoek Piquante” – an essay by Susan Cooper in the book “Age of Austerity,” edited by Michael Sissons and Philip French (1963).
According to Susan Cooper: “Summed up in the abortive story of bread rationing there is all the frustration and worry and fiddling fuss of life in post-war Britain.”
“…the cumulative distortion of war, and the droughts and bad harvests of 1945, had brought every part of the world a food crisis which, Mr Bevin [the Foreign Secretary] grimly told the United Nations, was “really alarming”.
“The Minister of Food announced on February 5th, 1946 that the world wheat shortage would mean a cut in bacon, poultry and eggs. Rice, what there was of it, would vanish from the shops. The whaling season had been as poor as the harvest, so the fat ration would be reduced by an ounce. The Government appealed to farmers to sow grain promising them prisoner of war labour (there were still 400,000 Germans in British camps) to help with the ploughing.”
“An emergency conference on European cereal supplied met in London. By now many people in former enemy occupied countries were dangerously near starvation level; rationing there amounted to a uniform thousand calories a day.”
The Prime Minister, Clement Attlee said that: “‘people might feel impelled to send food parcels to Europe… but they would do more good simply by eating less.’ He backed this with a grand gesture by announcing that Britain was willing to ration bread.”
“Three months later, after much havering, the new Minister of Food, Mr Strachey, announced that bread was to be rationed. The size of the coming Canadian harvest was uncertain, and there had been a cut in grain supplies from America.”
“‘That we should have had to do such an unpopular thing,’” wrote Dalton [the Chancellor of the Exchequer] enigmatically fifteen years later, ‘illustrates vividly the urgent shortages of the post-war years, and the inescapable reasons for our gradual loss of backing in the country.’”
“‘Shops were besieged’ reported The Times, ‘by customers asking for six, seven, even ten loaves each – twice or thrice as much bread as their families could eat at the week-end. “The women have gone mad” said a baker.’”
“The bakers, faced with quantities of form-filling and extra controls were furious at the whole idea of rationing. ‘I shall go to jail rather than collect Bread Units from housewives’ said one master baker. ‘This country is getting worse than Germany under the Nazis.’”
“In fact there was never a bread shortage. The first day of rationing was quiet, and by the end of it bakers had loaves and cakes still unsold.”
“Bread rationing itself went on. It was not finally abolished until July 21st 1948. The ration, in practice proved adequate, no-one went hungry and there were no shortages – but nor was there any great saving of grain.”
In you are wondering what any of this has to do with “Snoek Piquante,” snoek is a fish, related to Barracuda, which was imported from South Africa after the war, in an attempt to improve food supplies.
According to Susan Cooper, in October 1947: “the hungry British first heard the word snoek … Ten million tins of it from South Africa were to replace Portuguese sardines, whose import was restricted by exchange troubles.”
But despite the best efforts of the government to promote it, including publishing recipes for “Snoek Piquante” people seemed to dislike the taste and never took to it.
And so, nearly 3 years later: “…quiet among the junketings of the Festival of Britain, a mysterious quantity of tinned fish came onto the market, labelled: ‘Selected fish food for cats and kittens.’ It cost tenpence a tin, and its origins were left muffled in tact. One of the distributors admitted that it might be either snoek or barracuda. ‘Cats,’ he said, ‘are very fond of both.’”