Saturday, May 19, 2007

That little chop will not make a very nourishing pie

Oh, I must read David Kynaston's Austerity Britain, 1945-51, John Charmley at the Guardian makes it sound impossibly alluring (these are the stories of my mother's childhood that my brothers and I most clamored for as kids--like the first time she had a banana, and what a disappointment it was because of being so much less sweet than the preserved bananas that were more frequent--NB in Auberon Waugh's biography there is a very good description of Evelyn Waugh eating the entire family's banana allotment under the horrified gaze of the Waugh children, the national doling-out of those bananas was a major event in British cultural memory).

Here's Charmley's opening:

This is a classic; buy at least three copies - one for yourself and two to give to friends and family. It is a classic because its portrayal of that unheroic, slightly shabby yet formative era that was Attlee's Britain is utterly convincing - and more than that, evocative. No one born in this country between 1939 and 1959 will fail to recognise what is being described in passages such as this: "Got ahead with the ironing and then felt I must go in quest of meat as that little chop left over from our Sunday joint will not make a very nourishing Shepherd's pie"; or "Yet middle class standards are somehow still kept up. Meals are eaten in the dining-room, though it would be less work to eat in the kitchen. The children still go out for a walk in the afternoon, but mother is now the nursemaid, and often has to furnish the housework when the children are in bed."

And here, I see, is a nice little piece by Robin McKie from the Observer a few years ago with more background on the whole banana issue:

At times of war, however, bananas disappeared from Britain. In World War I, this shortage led to the popularity of the music hall song 'Yes, we have no bananas', written by Leon Trotsky's nephew.

Similarly, during World War II bananas disappeared from shops. When transatlantic shipping re-commenced at the end of the war, the return of the banana was hailed as heralding an end to austerity and to the curse of the ration book. The Labour government even instigated a national banana day in 1946. Every child should have a banana that day, it was decreed - sometimes with unfortunate results, as the writer Auberon Waugh recalled. He and two of his sisters received their quota of three precious bananas, an exotic fruit whose deliciousness they had heard of but never experienced.

'They were put on my father's plate, and before the anguished eyes of his children he poured on cream, which was almost unprocurable, and sugar, which was heavily rationed, and ate all three,' Waugh wrote. 'From that moment, I never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously.'


  1. What a delightful Waugh anecdote.

  2. Delightfully monstrous! An illustration of why gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins! Can you imagine how heartbreaking?!? A. Waugh really describes it in a wonderfully good way, it's sort of the best moment in that whole autobiography...

  3. Whenever I think of bananas (not a favourite of mine) I am always reminded of that delighful essay by J B S Haldane, on whether a banana is a fruit or a vegetable, and why. (Science and Everyday Life)

  4. Jenny, if I can work up the courage, I'll have to write a post about an anecdote my children tell about me - not far different, related to practising cello, and very embarrassing!

    And I have a 'banana line' in Corvus which you may someday get to read.

    Then there are the finger-sized, sinfully sweet and aromatic bananas we used to eat directly from our trees in Harare - nothing like the common supermarket ones here.

    And plantains - plantains! (Maxine, these are usually cooked as a vegetable in central Africa.) Chipped, deep-fried, baked, glazed ... I've got a dozen recipes alone from a stay in Zaire.