The history cook: Polly Russell

Cookery Under Rations: More than 200 Wartime Recipes by M.M. Mitchell, London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green & Co, 1918

Economising and cost-cutting are familiar themes in these post-crash times, but M.M. Mitchell’s Cookery Under Rations, published in 1918, is a reminder that thrift is relative. What we might consider austerity today would look like wasteful luxury to Mitchell and her contemporaries. Her book includes recipes to “increase the quantity of butter and margarine” (by melting the fat and stirring in flour and milk), directions for cooking in a biscuit tin (put the sealed tin directly on a gas hob to save on heating the oven) and instructions for creating a fuelless cooker from a box packed tightly with hay (bring a casserole up to the boil, place in the box and leave to “cook” for four hours).

Mitchell’s flimsy 65-page volume was written at the tail end of the first world war. Submarine blockades had affected the supply and price of food and the country was at risk of starvation. For the first time in Britain’s modern history, the government was forced to impose rationing for sugar, meat, margarine, butter and bread.

The success of rationing relied on the advice of a new group of professionals – nutritional scientists. At the beginning of the 20th century the overall health of the nation was as bad as it had been in Tudor times. In a 1902 survey, 50 per cent of schoolchildren in Leeds had rickets and in 1898, 40 per cent of men who volunteered for the Boer War were too malnourished to serve. By the time war broke out in 1914, it was understood that diet was a central component of wellbeing. To attempt to improve the health of the general population, the government called on scientists to quantify the country’s dietary needs and to offer advice about food distribution. What the government was doing on a national scale, Mitchell – superintendent of the Polytechnic School of Cookery in London – was applying at a household level as a professional educator.

The introduction contains explanations about the roles of proteins (flesh formers) and “mineral matter and vegetable acids” (the word vitamins was not yet part of everyday language). Even the job of chewing is described in biological terms. Mitchell’s kitchen tips are also scientifically framed as “economy in labour”. “Cook as much as possible in casseroles; the food has a better flavour and can be served in the same pan, thus saving other vessels.” And, “Above all, waste nothing.” Even vegetable peelings and cheese rinds should go into stock rather than the dustbin.

Recipes are often accompanied by information about how many ration coupons they will require – “Jugged beef and forcemeat balls” calls for five coupons, while “Bacon dumplings” use just half a coupon.

With meat in short supply, there are recipes making use of non-rationed ingredients (“Sheep’s head cutlets” or “Pigeon grilled with devilled sauce”), and one of the 12 chapters is dedicated to “Nourishing vegetables and other meatless dishes”. Despite being almost a century old, however, the recipes in Mitchell’s book have contemporary appeal. Fresh herbs feature regularly and dishes such as “Poached eggs in curry” or “Eastern stew” (see below) introduce surprising variety.

Mitchell’s book may tonally be a relic from another era but many of its concerns are current: food waste, energy efficiency, time-saving, wallet-stretching. There’s still a demand for that.

Eastern stew

1 coupon required
5oz mutton
6oz rice
¼oz of fat
2 tsp of chutney
1 tsp of curry powder
1 tsp of vinegar
1/5 tsp of mixed spice
1 large onion
Level tsp of salt

A piece of mutton, cut from the shoulder, is suitable for this dish. Spread the curry and chutney over both sides of the mutton, sprinkle over the vinegar and leave for two hours. Wash and dry the rice. Peel and chop the onion. If a little fat can be trimmed off the mutton, cut it small and heat it in the casserole, then fry the onion for half a minute, add the rice with the spice, salt, and fry all for five minutes; turn half of the rice on to a plate. Grill or fry the mutton quickly, lay it in the casserole on the rice, cover with the remainder; place on the lid, and simmer for an hour. If the rice gets dry, add a little water. Serve it in a casserole.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; “Cookery Under Rations” by kind permission from the British Library collection

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