Monday, June 6, 2011

All Spoons Are Level


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I was born in the age of abundance, an age when a historically unprecedented number of people had access to more food and more material goods than ever before. It wasn’t an age of equality, far from it, and standards of living, especially when they are averaged out amongst whole populations, can be a deceptive indicator of a nation’s welfare. But I think that it is sometimes easy to overlook or underestimate what a new phenomenon in history that abundance really was. The one that I was born into was perhaps the second generation of widespread affluence, in the West as well as in some regions of the developing world. And for the masses of people who hadn’t yet attained those levels of comfort, social democracy, socialism and free-market capitalism offered the promise of security within reach, in their lifetimes, so long as you believed. By which I mean that alongside the material abundance there was an abundance of prospects, and the radical idea that the future would have more to offer than the present was shared by people who espoused profoundly conflicting ideologies.

Which is not to say that tensions didn’t exist back then, nor scepticism towards those master narratives or the idea that the economy could be made to grow forever and never cease to ensure prosperity for more and more people. Globalisation already had its discontents: I was three years old when Susan George wrote How the Other Half Dies. But the societies that crawled out from under the wreckage of World War II still carried the memory of the poverty and the chronic insecurity that preceded the conflict. They worried about their past, it seems to me, more than about the future.

A carta annonaria individuale (individual rationing card) valid for the first trimester of 1942. Via.

Wartime rationing, which in some countries didn’t cease until well after 1945, was the symbolic endpoint of that age of scarcity. It codified what had been the norm for the lower socio-economic classes, at least in Europe and especially outside of cities, since anybody could remember. It told them that they weren’t allowed to consume anything in excess of what they had never been able to consistently afford anyway.

I have described before some of the forms that this poverty took in my own family and the ingenuity and toil that it required, especially of the women, in order to be overcome. I will add one anecdote: the family of my nonna’s eldest sister was so poor that they sprinkled bran in the water in which they washed the dishes in order to capture what little nutrients might still be attached to those already thoroughly licked-clean plates, and added the resulting soup to the feed for their pig. I imagine that the prospect of coming close to using up all of the stamps on one of those ration cards would have struck them as ludicrously optimistic.

But for others, especially in urban areas, the rationing of food and other goods was a source of less customary hardship, and demanded hitherto unknown levels of resourcefulness. Not everyone was equally practiced at making do and going without. And so people had to be taught, a task undertaken with particular skill and vigour in Great Britain by the Ministry of Food, the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Fuel and Power, and that is documented in a number of surviving leaflets and publications. These are without exception immensely fascinating.


The state told Britons that they weren’t allowed to eat more than 100 grams of bacon or drink more than 2-3 pints of milk per week; that they couldn’t have fold ups in their trousers or more than three pockets on their jackets, nor wear stockings; but it also taught them how to draw on foods from different groups to construct a balanced and varied diet; how to make the most of leftovers and extend the fat ration; how to mend clothes and look after their woollens and linens; how to make fuel go further and carry out small household repairs.

In a wartime economy united by a common cause, the state did all of these things without the moralistic overtones that accompany today’s health and environmental messages – which promote weight loss or carbon footprint reduction primarily as ethical ends in themselves, that is to say as virtues abstracted from the social good – but by appealing to the principle of fairness to others. The opening paragraph of the Clothing Coupon Quiz issued by the Board of Trade in September of 1941 exemplifies the rhetorical framing that was also used to justify the rationing of food and fuel:
There is enough for all if we share and share alike. Rationing is the way to get fair shares. Fair shares–when workers are producing guns, aeroplanes and bombs instead of frocks, suits and shoes. Fair shares–when ships must run the gauntlet with munitions and food rather than with wool and cotton. Fair shares–when movements of population outrun local supplies. It is your scheme—to defend you as a consumer and as a citizen. All honest people realise that trying to cheat the ration is the same as trying to cheat the nation.

One can admire the cadence of this passage without subscribing entirely to its philosophy. For one thing that jumps at the contemporary reader when examining this material is the sheer quality of the writing, and not just when it comes to the generalities of the schemes, but most especially the practical advice. Each leaflet in these series covered a different topic – from the basics of nutrition to how to use large coke or anthracite in your boiler – and did so in an admirably succinct and effective manner. I doubt I have come across a better, shorter treatment of the role of different food types than the six pages of Foods for Fitness, or the four pages of Your Vitamin ABC. And yes, the advice was frequently paternalistic, and made some predictably gendered assumptions about just who would be in charge of the cooking and the mending in the household, but I think the first question that the leaflets ask of us is the following: are we equally well informed, equally well served nowadays by our public information sources? Do schools and public agencies equip us with the basic knowledge and the critical tools for navigating the torrent of advice on nutrition and everyday living that comes from the private sector? And what kind of literacy is required of those of us who do in fact get the best advice on offer?


I don’t have a firm answer myself, but I will note that what Marion Nestle wrote about the vested interest of the United States food industry to lobby for the public advice on nutrition to become progressively less straightforward and more complex, more contradictory, could be extended into a general principle and used to load the question. Which would therefore become: whose interests are being served when the state fails to communicate clearly to its citizens on things that matter to the common good such as food, energy, housing or education?

An understanding of the need to improve on our media ecology in order to achieve that clarity might lead us to reflect on the tight, compact nature of those texts. Besides the leaflets, the information campaigns around rationing included books, a series of posters and a five minute daily radio show entitled The Kitchen Front, placing the overall emphasis on brief interventions across different media that could be effectively processed by their intended audience. In this respect one the leit motifs of the Ministry of Food leaflets – the gloss, transformed into recurring graphical element, that in the recipes all spoons are level – becomes a metaphoric reminder that information too must be carefully measured out in order to become useful knowledge.


The age of abundance is drawing to a close – it already has, in terms of most people’s expectations of the future – which makes the work of the Ministry of Food et al. newly and exquisitely topical. However the other great resource that has become the index of our epoch, information, is in ever greater supply. Now those who believe that there can be no such thing as a glut of information, and that being more informed always equals being better informed, would do well to reflect on this: that eating disorders have never been more endemic to our societies than they are now, at a time when we know more than we ever have about the psychology and physiology of eating and are able to choose from a broader range of healthy foods. Were those wartime Britons faring well simply because they had less to eat? Perhaps, but the leaflets suggest very strongly that people could eat poorly even when food was scarce, and that in fact poverty and rationing made the advice even more essential. A passing clue, from Foods for Fitness:
Cakes, buns, pastry, sugar, jam and bread are cheaper than most other foods – so be careful that in order to cut down on expense, you do not neglect to eat your builders and protectors.
No: it’s that the necessity to pursue a war created the conditions – not least of the ideological kind – for an effective education. And I think that what we need to study about these leaflets, more so than the content, is the design: by which I don’t mean the typesetting and the layout, although they are themselves remarkable; but rather the conceptual design, with its underlying ideas about what is to be valued in a society that needs to limit consumption in order to survive. After all it might well have been the very notion of solidarity, of being in it together, that made it permissible for the state to instruct people on how they should eat or stock their log burner or renew their knickers, without the advice being rejected as the most outrageous and unseemly kind of meddling.


In other words, we don’t need Eating or Making Do and Mending for Dummies: but to ask the kind of questions – about growth, about work, about the design of our institutions – that might allow us to reverse-engineer the genius of those leaflets and recapture their clarity, so that it may fuel a political conversation about what is to be done, also in the not insignificant area of how best to stock our larders.





The leaflets of the Ministry of Food, The Board of Trade and the Ministry of Fuel and Power of Great Britain can be found scattered in various online archives (here for instance is Dried Eggs), and have been collected in two books by the publisher Michael O’Mara entitled Eating for Victory and Make Do and Mend. By way of a little, temporary gallery attached to this post I have put up Foods for Fitness, Extras for the Expectant Mother, The Battle for Fuel and Cakes, Biscuits and Scones without Eggs, that due to the fact that butter is also substituted results in a rather interesting early collection of de-facto vegan recipes.

My adventures in publishing elsewhere continue with an essay on the comic in the works of Umberto Eco for the Journal of Italian Studies in South Africa (what else?).





21 comments:

Con said...

I will come back to read this on the bus tomorrow, but for now, let me just say "War Economy Recipe Book" FTW

Giovanni Tiso said...

So long as we're plugging the work of that fine institution, this on rationing in New Zealand is also good. Did you have a hand in it?

Dougal said...

By a nice coincidence I just read this post after reading in O'Sullivan's biography of John Mulgan how he arranged to have his parachute sent back from Greece to his wife in NZ: the silk from parachutes made great knickers and undergarments, and was highly valued for reusing at home.

Something else that strikes me about these pamphlets - and which is drawn in stark contrast by their aesthetic's latest commodified reincarnation via "Keep Calm and Carry On" - is the *social* nature of the messages, too: they're about personal health but in a way which acknowledges its wider context and social purpose.

That has lessons for another type of scarcity linked to food nowadays in climate change, something I think the "One Million Climate Jobs" initiative the unions have in the UK links to in their imagery and appeal.

Beneath all this, though, as you acknowledge, is the fact these kind of interventions are unthinkable without the war, a grim reminder of what counts as the conditions for collectivity under capitalism.

Artandmylife said...

I darned 3 pairs of my daughters' school tights in a break on night shift last week. My co-worker commented that it was a lost art and she would have no idea how to do it.

Wondering if knowledge about being frugal is 'lost'. I have trouble getting things fixed with people saying "just buy another one". Tbhis doesn't sit well with me.

Ben Wilson said...

There is a glut of both information and food. Amongst the information is plenty about how to eat healthy. This advice is not followed by increasing numbers of people. Will more, better written advice help? I doubt it very much.

Indeed, I don't know too many obese people who don't understand that it is the way they eat (and a lack of exercise) that makes them that way. The reasons that they don't just change are not the lack of information.

I don't have an answer about how to encourage people to follow good eating advice. It seems to me that people have never been so motivated to follow it, that society idolizes the healthiest looking bodies. It's not a lack of external pressure causing the problem. Is it the superabundance of food, with all other factors fighting a rearguard action?

For all the excellent advice about food given in war pamphlets, it's pretty clear that it was the rationing itself that actually caused food discipline. The advice was still the same and the same people had internalized it, 20 years later when they were stuffing their faces. Perhaps people bought into the propaganda, but did they have any choice? When breaking the rules was being talked up to treasonous levels, of course people followed them.

Giovanni Tiso said...

For all the excellent advice about food given in war pamphlets, it's pretty clear that it was the rationing itself that actually caused food discipline.

I don't think it's clear at all. Remember that the problem back then was malnourishment, not obesity, and you could be malnourished on a ration, in fact there was an increased danger that you would be, which was the reason why you needed an education.

Is it actually harder to eat healthily nowadays due to how much choice we have? I doubt it very much. To be healthy on the rations required a significant amount of discipline and skill, as reading the pamphlets makes clear.

As to the problem of whether we have all the information we need, Nestle makes a compelling case that it's not a question of how much information, but how clear it is and how well it is communicated. People may know that some food types are bad for them (and again, issues are not limited to obesity), but do they know how to source and prepare healthy alternatives? Are we all, across the social spectrum, taught to do this effectively, so that we may better choose? I don't think it's terribly clear that we do.

Ben Wilson said...

>I don't think it's clear at all. Remember that the problem back then was malnourishment

Sure, but they weren't malnourished by choice. It was a function of enforced privation.

>Are we all, across the social spectrum, taught to do this effectively, so that we may better choose? I don't think it's terribly clear that we do.

Nor is it clear that we don't, either. What is clear is that a lot more people than ever before aren't following the message. That might not be because the message is not clear. It might be because the urge to eat is stronger than the message.

Might. Perhaps it's a funky function of information overload and the rise of the internet. Or it could be as simple as "Some animals always overeat when there's a superabundance of food". In which case, humans overcoming this will be quite an acheivement for the species.

I do agree, though, that simple messages are more likely to be followed. Only problem is that there are lots of bad simple messages too, like "McDonalds is yummy and hot young girls will dance around you when you eat it".

stephen said...

Only problem is that there are lots of bad simple messages too, like "McDonalds is yummy and hot young girls will dance around you when you eat it".

That is a significant problem, but not the only one. Another is that many unhealthy foods, McDonalds' offerings among them, are explicitly designed to be maximally rewarding, which is what you would expect the manufacturers to do. Inefficient educational messages are not just up against advertising and marketing, they are also up against careful exploitation of fundamental drives.

This is why when we see advertising for foods based on the premise they will make you healthy and slim, they are almost always still heavily processed foods made from cheap ingredients, and often just junk food variants tweaked to offer more sugar instead of more fat.

Genuinely healthy basic foods can't be sold with the sorts of margins enjoyed by crap food, and don't provide immediate sensory reward the way fatty sweet crunchy syrupy things do.

Effective campaigns for healthy food face the same sorts of problems as other public health campaigns that have rich corporate adversaries (alcohol, tobacco) and in addition, there is less clear-cut uncontroversial advice.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Ben
Nor is it clear that we don't, either. What is clear is that a lot more people than ever before aren't following the message. That might not be because the message is not clear. It might be because the urge to eat is stronger than the message.

But nobody is saying that people shouldn’t eat (in fact the immediate post-war message for a while was: eat more). And obesity isn’t the only problem: there is malnourishment, there are vitamin and mineral deficiencies. And even obesity is not just a product of more eating per se. Besides, in the Western countries with the highest incidence of eating disorders, these are more common amongst the people who have less money to buy food, so again abundance cannot be the problem.

@Stephen
Effective campaigns for healthy food face the same sorts of problems as other public health campaigns that have rich corporate adversaries (alcohol, tobacco) and in addition, there is less clear-cut uncontroversial advice.

Nestle’s contention is that the science of healthy heating hasn’t changed substantially in the last six decades, so in fact we should have the same clear-cut uncontroversial advice that wartime Britons enjoyed. And if you read the leaflets it’s really basic stuff that still applies across the boards, along with the instruction manual (the recipes) to run the whole thing. Since the information is already there, one obvious solution would be to ban every other message. But besides the lack of political will to do so, and the issue that (excessive) consumption is seen as the guarantor of our economic if not physical well-being, such a ban still wouldn’t bring us closer to being able to design an education campaign like that of the Ministry of Food. The ethics of food choice is terribly fraught, and so is the politics of telling people what they should eat (nor are we always wrong to balk).

Needless to say, the food industry is very good at exploiting this predicament.

Ben Wilson said...

>Besides, in the Western countries with the highest incidence of eating disorders, these are more common amongst the people who have less money to buy food, so again abundance cannot be the problem.

Not the only problem anyway. The solution isn't to bring back deprivation. It's to find ways to get people to do what is healthy, and there are a lot of options. I don't really know what would work best.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh, I wouldn't worry about that: deprivation is coming back all by itself. But yes, one of the questions I am trying to ask is: how do we recreate in peacetime and without recourse to rationing the conditions for collectivity, as Dougal has put it?

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Dougal
By a nice coincidence I just read this post after reading in O'Sullivan's biography of John Mulgan how he arranged to have his parachute sent back from Greece to his wife in NZ: the silk from parachutes made great knickers and undergarments, and was highly valued for reusing at home.

I hope he also sent her a copy of the leaflet How to Look After Parachute Nylon. You could even make clothes out of it, not just underwear. Here’s the advice under Dressmaking:

Allow ample material so as not to strain the seams, and never make the garment too close-fitting. This nylon fabric is rather apt to slip at the seams. So make liberal turning s at seams and hems, and always tack very carefully before you start to sew. Set your machine at as low a tension as possible. By machining with a loose, easy stitch, you will avoid puckering at the seams.

It tangentially reminds me that my grandfather’s upholstery business stayed afloat during the war thanks to two things: brothels and the railways. Brothels always needed their mattresses cared for, while the railways had to constantly replace their curtains because people stole them to make trousers.

stephen said...

Would people accept clearcut government advice these days? Loyal Britons in war time might have reacted quite differently from skeptical New Zealanders in peace time.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I have two words for you: energy-saving lightbulbs.

Dale said...

Much of this wartime advice was written by Marguerite Patten, who remarkably is still alive at 95 and something of a national heroine in Britain. See eg http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/8542679/Lets-get-this-straight-interview-with-Marguerite-Patten.html

I am old enough to remember food rationing in New Zealand, and to have some of the wartime rationing cookbooks used here. Still quite useable, though some of the recipes are a bit on the desperation side. My parents gathered wild rose hips to make syrup for their babies,as usual sources of Vitamin C were diminished (few oranges, etc).

In the 1970s I remember a journalist friend telling me that I must be the last woman in New Zealand still darning tights - not so, I said, all my family do it. We like being self-sufficient as well as thrifty. So glad to see someone above is still at it.

Giovanni Tiso said...

She clasps my hands. 'Oh. Very cold. As I always say to anyone with cold hands, you must make excellent pastry.’

I love this woman! Thank you Dale, great link.

I must also note that I'm quite fond of my mother's collection of darning eggs.

Dale said...

We call them darning mushrooms, as ours have stalk-handles. Mine has pokerwork kowhai blossoms and is a 1930s souvenir of Rotorua.
Aah, what the younger generation is missing! (grin)

Adrian said...

Putting these sorts of things back onto school curriculums might not be a bad start.

Raymod A francis said...

Interestingly the war time ration was said to improve nutrition for the poor and obesity for the rich
I am not sure what it did for the people in the middle though

Bruce said...

Check out Wendyl Nissen's column in the NZ Herald every Saturday (p. A15 11/06/11) for an example of clear and sensible advice about food in the super market.

I have no idea how we can educate young people today to understand the complexity, advantages and disadvantages of supermarket (industrialized food). But I suspect that cooking and sewing would not go down well in today's schools.

How about a comment on advice about physical activity and or exercise during WW2?

Great little essay like all your other blogs.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I like that Marguerite Patten in that interview rejects the label "celebrity cook" and insists that she's a home economist. And her quietly lucid admonishment that things are going to get worse and worse is also pretty much uncontestable at this point. So yes I think I'd try to teach some of those skills at school, unapalatable as they may seem, cooking and nutrition being foremost.

(I personally regret having little or no manual skills, and especially that I was never offered an opportunity to learn my father's trade, possibly on the grounds that he had been made to instead of staying in school - and in the Italian school system manual skills are considered antithetical to the academic disciplines that are supposed to equip us for the high-tech world we live in. That's worth debunking I would suggest.)

I'm not personally aware of wartime advice on physical education, however, outside of Italy I mean where children were inculcated martial discipline as part of a proper education ("book and musket make the perfect fascist"). Was there a campaign in Britain?

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