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?).