Rations, care packages and bread crusts
I suppose at first glance that title might not seem like a logical bunch of stuff. But since I have your attention, let me share my train of thought…
Remembrance Day is approaching. It’s been 100 years since the First World War ended. In many ways the world has changed a great deal, but there are still soldiers away from home, and places where people are suffering and hungry.
We are fortunate enough to live in a part of the world where these things mostly don’t touch us at home. My way of offering a note of remembrance this year is to reflect on the food during times of conflict, and how our sustenance provides much more than calories and nutrients.
Anyone with a relative who lived during one of the Great Wars will have heard of “rations”. The concept of rationing food items that were the mainstay of our diet was started to try and supply enough to soldiers on the battlefields.
In Britain during the First World War, everyone had a ration card – including King George and Queen Mary. They would go to their local butcher or grocer and receive their allotted amounts of butter, bread, sugar, meat and cheese.
No one starved, but many went hungry.
A government initiative encouraged people to grow vegetable to supplement their diet. In Germany, there was similar rationing as well, due to the British naval blockade of supplies.
Meanwhile on the battlefield, the soldiers received some food, but their meals were also rationed. The science of preserving food was in its infancy and often the condition of items was less than desirable.
It is said that the “bully beef” (canned corned beef) was barely edible if one was lucky enough to warm it up, but eaten cold (as was often the case) it was disgusting.
Manonochie stew (a thin broth with turnips and carrots, named for the company that prepared it) was no better. The biscuits accompanying the rations were so hard that they had to be dunked in tea to be broken.
Tea was a crucial element for British soldiers, as you might expect. Simple tastes were crucial to maintaining some kind of positive morale.
Here is what one historian wrote:
“Tea was a vital part of the British soldier’s rations. It was a familiar comfort and concealed the taste of the water, which was often transported to the frontline in petrol tins.
“If the troops were lucky, they got bacon a few times a week, which they’d cook themselves over a candle taking care not to create smoke and attract a barrage of German shells.”
Away from the frontlines, soldiers would likely have a cook (one cook for every 100 soldiers). They still dealt with food shortages, and had to adjust to local ingredients, but the variety of their diet was a bit better. (British soldiers weren’t fans of “stinky French cheese” but potatoes could still be made into chips.)
There were generally only two industrial-sized pots to cook everything in, however, so quite quickly all the meals – and even the tea – started to taste the same. And the kitchen was usually at the back of the camp, farthest away from soldiers fighting, so getting hot food out to men in position was virtually impossible.
Earlier in the First World War and Second World War, soldiers might have received the odd package from home, which would often contain sweets and treats like cake or cookies, or even a can of sardines.
Later in the battles though, shortages plagued the populations at home as much as those on the battlefield. A shortage of flour in 1916 meant biscuits and bread had to be made from ground turnips.
In the 1940s, sugar was rationed as far away as America, so sweets were a rare commodity. Packages with chocolate, jam, maybe tea or coffee would be a welcome sight in the trenches.
Anything that didn’t taste like where they were was welcome.
Did you know the term “care package” officially began after the Second World War?
A relief organization in the U.S. called the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe started sending leftover ration packs to war-torn countries after the war ended, as a sort of temporary assistance.
These packages were all ready for shipping and provided needed relief. As time went on and the ration packs were used up, the teams at CARE began customizing the packages – sending tea instead of coffee for the British, including spaghetti for the Italians, and offering kosher packages.
In 1953, the organization changed its name to the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, and it still exists today, sending packages across the world where they are needed.
When I spent a year in France during my university studies, a definite high point was receiving a care package from my parents with the special tastes of Canada.
As much as I loved French pastries and coffee, good old Cheezies and Oreo cookies were a welcome treat as I studied long hours. I wasn’t in need of food to keep me healthy or alive, but it certainly did my soul good to nibble on goodies from the home front.
One does have to learn how to appreciate good food. I was lucky enough to have a mother who was a good cook, so I have nothing to complain about.
As a kid though, there were days when we had things I liked less than others. Everyone in my generation seems to have a story that relates to leaving the bread crust behind on one’s plate (or the turnips, or mashed carrots, or whatever it was we didn’t like).
The parental response was always, “Be grateful. There are starving children in Africa who would be happy to have those crusts.”
I do believe my appreciation for the special taste of homemade food began in that moment.
We now live in a modern world, with many conveniences in the kitchen and the rest of our daily lives. I can still say I have nothing to complain about. I do try to remember to be thankful.
I shall be attending the Remembrance Day service with our little Sparks and the rest of the Girl Guides, standing in appreciation for all those who have served and sacrificed to make the world a better place.
As this year comes to an end with what we call the season of giving, I shall also be trying to give back; I want to help some of those who aren’t in a position to leave behind those bread crusts.
We can all do something to help make the world a better place.
Generosity is not something you can ration, especially generosity of spirit.