THE NATIONAL LOAF

Today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the allied invasion of Normandy, which was a major turning point during World War II.  The horrors of war are untold and we are very fortunate to live in a country in which we haven’t had to fight a world war on our soil.  I realize the Civil War, Revolutionary War, and French and Indian War were all fought here, but they were not ‘world’ wars and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who lived through those times.  You can, however, still find people who lived through World War II and remember the horror and sacrifices that had to be made.

Britain entered the second World War in 1939 after many attempts at appeasing Germany.   At that time, Britain was importing about  20,000,000 tons of food each year to feed its 50 million people, from meats and cheeses to sugar, fruits and grain.  Most of Britain’s imported food, at least 70% of its grain, came by ship across the Atlantic from Canada.  Although Great Britain had the support of many countries, war is incredibly expensive and food, fabrics, coal and oil had to be rationed.   A year later, in addition to the months and months of bombings, Germany’s strategy was to cut off all imports to Great Britain, attacking all ships bound for England, and starving this island nation into submission.  By 1942, with no end in sight, this once-powerful country was not only running out of money, it was running out of food and the ability to produce the most important staple of life … bread.

The government-organized Ministry of Food was resurrected from WWI to create a system of rationing.  Customers were required to register at selected shops where they would receive ration books with coupons for their purchases.  Prices were controlled and the shopkeeper would have just enough food and goods for those registered customers.   When making a purchase, the shopkeeper would take the necessary coupon.  If you did not have a ration book, you could not buy (unless, of course, you had the money to pay exorbitant prices on the black market).  Although some fruits and vegetables were not rationed, they were available in very limited supplies.  Children growing up during this time had never heard of, and didn’t even believe ‘bananas’ existed.  It was during this time that “victory gardens” were encouraged, and are still very popular today.

But it was bread, the staff of life, that garnered the most attention.  Today, quite a few of us wrinkle up our noses at the thought of a loaf of squishy white bread, preferring whole grains and artisan loaves.  But in Great Britain at that time, a loaf of ‘white’ bread was thought to be the preferred bread, eaten by the upper class, with whole grains relegated to the poor lower classes.  With the diminishing supplies of wheat, however, the Ministry of Food had to come up with a way to provide a more nourishing staple for the masses.  What they came up with was a milled flour which had far less ‘white flour’ and contained far more wheat germ, to which they added calcium and fortified it with iron.

Now named the ‘national loaf’, bakers were banned from baking any other type of bread.  To further complicate the availability of purchasing this national war effort ‘loaf’, bakers could only bake the fibrous bread one day a week … and could not sell it until the next day … realizing that the day-old bread could be sliced thinner, providing more slices per pound, although the one pound size was also reduced to 14oz.

A homemaker filling out her bread ration card for the day.

Many sacrifices had to be made during the war and rationing of food supplies was some of the hardest.  But it was the bread which they loathed the most.  Nicknamed “Hitler’s Secret”, the high fiber, dense flour, created a loaf which, although nutritious, was heavy, grey in color, and stale by the time it was purchased.  Even Eleanor Roosevelt, America’s First Lady, when visiting Buckingham Palace in 1942 was served “the same kind of war bread ever other family had to eat.”

On May 8, 1945, the Allies formally accepted unconditional surrender of the Nazi Germany armed forces, but it wasn’t until 1956 when the ‘national loaf’ was finally laid to rest, after years of providing healthy, nutritious bread to stave off hunger during and after the war.

“Pat-a-loaf, pat-a-loaf
Baker’s Man
Bake me some Wheatmeal
As fast as you can:
It builds up my health
And its taste is good,
I find that I like
Eating just what I should.”

We are so very fortunate to live in a country and during a time when we have vast amounts of foods available to us, not only quantity, but superior quality, and unlimited varieties of foods.  Sadly, 30% to 40% of the food produced in the U.S. is quite literally thrown away, ending up in land fills across the country.  Given a national emergency, could we survive food rationing and would we support a “national loaf”?  I wonder.

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References:  Wikepedia, World War II History, Granny Robertson, Cook’s Info
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