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On the frontline of wartime rationing

Peter Gruner comes over all nostalgic as he sinks his teeth into Caroline Beecham’s tale of a Second World War food kitchen in Islington

15 March, 2018 — By Peter Gruner

Author Caroline Beecham, a former Highbury resident

IN the horror of war-torn Islington there was still a place where you could enjoy a delicious three-course lunch for as little as three shillings and sixpence (old money).

Welcome to Maggie’s Kitchen, an appetising new historic novel about a busy Second World War emergency feeding centre, written by Caroline Beecham.

It’s 1941 and the British government has opened communal food kitchens to offer low-cost dinners to bomb-weary residents, with the aim of providing one hot meal a day.

Although Maggie’s Kitchen at the Angel is fictional it’s based on similarly run restaurants set up during the war locally and throughout the capital.

For Londoners in the Blitz there was the chance of being blown up in your own home if you didn’t get to an air raid shelter in time. Sometimes the shelter would be destroyed. And if you survived the night you might have to join a mile-long queue for food the following day. You could say that it puts today’s stress-related issues into context.

Incidentally, 26 people died and 150 were injured when a German V1 flying bomb destroyed Highbury Corner on June 27, 1944.

With the amount of produce on offer limited, Maggie, who believes in the restorative powers of food, can make a quick tasty soup out of nettle trimmings. Stale bread is used for croutons.

Food was grown locally and organically, and having to walk everywhere, as there were few cars in those days, people who managed to survive the Blitz were said to be extremely healthy.

There was certainly very little overeating or obesity.

The Ministry of Food allowed a quarter of an ounce of butter or margarine, an eighth of an ounce of jam and a pennyworth of meat per person. Even the beans, lentils and split peas Maggie used to bulk her meals were being rationed.

Yet despite the restrictions diners were able to enjoy meals of some quality provided they were not having to wolf them to the sound of a shrieking air raid siren.

For example, lunch at Maggie’s could include two choices daily. Lentil or pea soup, followed by Lancashire hotpot or fish and tomato bake with cabbage and boiled potatoes. Desserts could be steamed rice and apple or date pudding. Or apple Charlotte with mock cream.

All meals were three and sixpence and included a mug of tea. It was something to look forward to before that night’s blackout.

Not surprisingly Maggie becomes a victim of her own success. With up to 250 hungry lunchtime residents to serve she desperately needs more food but government red tape and restrictions are causing difficulties.

She decides to set up a Victory Garden to grow her own produce.

Among her helpers are 12-year-old Robbie, a street urchin, and Janek, a Polish refugee who soon becomes Maggie’s love interest.

Janek introduces Maggie to herbs like thyme, parsley and rosemary that will add extra flavour to her dumplings.

With plenty of wartime recipes and hints on how to save money and food, this is a fascinating and enjoyable book – albeit set in a terrible period of history.

Speaking this week Caroline, a former Highbury resident, said she chose Islington because much of its history is still visible.

Her favourite wartime recipe is Woolton pie, the dish created in honour of Lord Woolton (1883-1964) , the wartime Minister of Food.

“It’s essentially a lentil and vegetable pie with potatoes, swedes, carrots, leeks, cauliflower or whatever was in season. It could also include oatmeal for extra vitamins and minerals, necessary because of the shortages.”

Maggie’s Kitchen. By Caroline Beecham, Ebury Press, £5.99

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