Education & Family

Carrots in the Christmas pud: How wartime cooks made do

Cook giving children wartime-recipe cake
Image caption Monica Askay handed out 1940s Christmas food to visitors to the Imperial War Museum, Duxford

Carrots and potatoes and even gravy browning were key ingredients in wartime recipes for Christmas pudding.

And when people couldn't get turkey, they had "murkey" instead.

The shortages and rationing during World War II, which persisted for years afterwards, meant that households had to be imaginative and resourceful in the kitchen.

For today's families, there's the choice of luxury supermarket puddings or home-made versions which can be packed full of dried fruit and nuts, with plenty of sugar, treacle, eggs and sweet spices.

In wartime most of these ingredients were in short supply.

'Make do and mend'

Canny cooks preparing for Christmas would start early, saving dried fruit from their rations throughout the year.

But sometimes there just was not enough and the wartime spirit of "make do and mend" found its way into the kitchen.

The family Christmas was almost a sacred ritual according to Terry Charman, senior researcher at Imperial War Museum.

Image caption Christmas pudding had less fruit, no eggs and could sometimes contain potatoes and gravy browning

"They did their best to make it special, even in 1943 and 1944, when shortages made life particularly grim," he said.

Cook and food historian Monica Askay spent the weekend before Christmas at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, introducing visitors to the festive food of the 1940s.

Wearing a pinny and headscarf, she dished up wartime Christmas cake, made without eggs and with less flour, less fruit and less fat than its modern equivalent. The marzipan was a mix of semolina, sugar, water and flavouring.

She reported that many visitors really liked the semolina marzipan, even people who did not like normal marzipan, though the cake itself was very dry.

"Reactions to the idea of savoury ingredients being used in the pudding were mixed. Some people were sceptical, but others said: 'Ooh gosh, my mum used my grandmother's recipe for Christmas pudding and that had carrot in it,'" said Ms Askay.

Economical and healthy

The carrots and potatoes were added to Christmas pudding, mainly to add moisture, but they also added sweetness and texture, she said.

Other sweet root vegetables added to Christmas cake could include beetroot, parsnips and turnips.

Turkey was often very difficult to get, so housewives were advised to cook "murkey", which was stuffed mutton.

The stuffing was largely made of breadcrumbs. No-one threw away a stale loaf in those days.

The word murkey was coined by cockney comedians Elsie and Doris Waters, whose alter egos, Gert and Daisy, were stars of the BBC radio programme The Kitchen Front.

The programme came on every weekday after the 8am news and was full of household tips and suggestions of how to make food go further.

Macon sarnie anyone?

Terry Charman, said: "It was an enormously successful programme with five million listeners. The Ministry of Food used it to push out the messages they wanted to get across.

"So if there was a glut of carrots, there would be a feature on Dr Carrot."

"An earlier attempt to popularise mutton was a bacon substitute called 'macon' which appeared in 1940 just as rationing came into force."

For most people today, including gravy browning in a cake would be a step too far - but there are plenty of less extreme, 1940s tips on how to economise this Christmas.

The 1940s cook prepared everything from scratch and made more use of seasonal food.

Image caption Many Christmas ingredients were in short supply during World War II

For example they might use raw in-season vegetables like beetroot, carrots, cabbage and even parsnips and turnips in salads if there were no conventional salad vegetables available.

The diet was actually healthy as well as being economical according to Dr Laura Wyness, of the British Nutrition Foundation: "Wartime food shortages forced people to adopt new eating patterns.

"Most people ate less meat, fat, eggs and sugar than they had eaten before, but also, people who had previously consumed a poor diet were able to increase their intake of protein and vitamins because they received the same ration as everyone else.

"Many people ate a better diet during rationing than before the war years and this had a marked effect on the health of the population - infant mortality declined and life expectancy increased."

Ms Askay, who has researched the food of the period, says modern households have much to learn from the frugality and creativity of the 1940s cook.

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