The Kitchen Front at the Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum has a new exhibit which opened on the 12th of February.  I was able to go to a sneak peek opening through a friend on Tuesday, the 9th (thank you, Derry).

The Ministry of Food exhibit is an exhibit dealing with food, food production and rationing during World War II.  The Ministry of Food itself was in charge of overseeing this rationing.  Rationing began on 8 January 1940 and didn’t end until the summer of 1954.  The domestic production of food in allotments, backyards and in other patches of dirt-turned-victory gardens is something that was done by six million British families in 1943.

The exhibition was an amazing experience–so much so I’m going again this Wednesday with some members of my Anthropology of Food course.  I really loved how interactive the exhibition was, as there were short films being screened, radio programs to listen to, and all these recreated spaces to mimic a dining room, a local shop and a cafeteria among others.  The creators of the exhibition did an amazing job, especially considering the odd spaces and angles used for the different rooms.

One of my favourite parts of The Ministry of Food exhibit has to be the posters used by the government in order to encourage citizens to eat less bread, stop wasting food and so forth.  The wartime propaganda posters are really wonderful from a design standpoint, and it’s also very interesting to see the different, even rather mundane topics they dealt with because it was the interest of winning the war.  Many of the images and their messages can be applicable today, such as gardening information.

Plus, some of the characters are so cute!

I could seriously look at wartime propaganda posters all day.  All.  Day.  On my next visit, I plan on seeing how much one of the reprinted posters in the gift shop go for.  Hopefully not too much, because my walls in my little fox hole are pretty damn bare, save for a few pegs laden with scarves and a Soviet medical bag.  Or alleged Soviet medical bag.  I can’t really prove whether it was truly Soviet or not, but it smells old and I bought it from someone on Etsy out of Latvia.

Anyway, regarding the propaganda posters dealing with food and food waste, I was reminded of the campaign running here in Britain of Love Food Hate Waste.  If you’ve waited for the bus at one stop or another, or have seen a bus go by with the caption of “Potato Lovers Hate Waste” or “Pasta Lovers Hate Waste” with a person having features resembling the food mentioned, you know what I’m talking about.  The Love Food Hate Waste campaign is good, as the little text gives passers-by hints on how to store potatoes and how to prepare them.  The website itself is pretty informative as well, telling you some inventive ways on how to use the food you have more efficiently and providing recipes.  For an example, here’s the page for Apple Lovers Hate Waste, where you can obtain recipes for apples in sweet and savoury dishes.

But you can’t beat an image of a sneaky Hitler making off with a load of foodstuffs.  Or, at least, not this one in particular.

Still, the campaign Food Lovers Hate Waste is a worthy one to keep in mind.  I’m annoyingly familiar with the ire of spending money on food, only to have it go bad or sit around unused.  I’m still angry with myself about the two containers of raspberries I threw away a couple of weeks back.  Because I live alone, I’ve been bringing some food to share getting near (or maybe shortly past…) its “Best by” date with friends rather than letting it go very bad in my house, because it’s really annoying to waste food.  And I should note that I’m in a privileged position for it to be “annoying.”

The Tuesday evening event at the Imperial War Museum was sort of a press party, and it was pretty interesting, especially since this was the first time I had ever been able to go to one of these types of invitation-only soirées.  At one end of the main entrance room underneath an assortment of airplanes of various vintages, tables were set up with bite-sized versions of real and mock versions of cream (served atop a mini drop scone with jam), goose and little biscuits (Americans: cookies).  The tiny mock biscuits/cookies made out of potato were actually better than the original, and allegedly, the mock goose mounds were better than the real goose as well, according to Derry and Charlotte.  I had some of the mock goose, at first thinking it was the “potato biscuits” with the American definition of biscuits.  Since it was made out of potatoes, cheese, apple and sage, it was still vegetarian, so I didn’t accidentally ingest any meat.  It was fairly good.

However, the same cannot be said about the mock cream.  Slightly-sweetened margarine?  No.

But in wartime, you take what you can get.  You couldn’t pick up some Quorn goose from Waitrose.  Apparently, you were lucky if you managed to eat a meal without the presence of Pete the Potato.

Although for many of us in the developed world we can choose to eat real (or Quorn) products without substitutions (unless we choose to), the Ministry of Food exhibit is a sobering reminder of what we have to be thankful for.  And in some parts of the world today, Pete the Potato would be quite a welcome friend to have at the dinner table.

There are some serious discourses regarding food and sustainability the crowd and environs of the press peak night seemed to suggest, whether overtly–as in the case of Monty Don’s keynote speech or the deck of cards from the sponsors from the Company of Cooks (the sponsors of the exhibit)–or in a way one has to sort of be inclined to look for.

I should firstly confess that I didn’t know who Monty Don was when he began speaking.  In fact, during his speech, I kept filching more of the tiny scones with the real cream or the potato biscuits off the table.  Ah, the ignorant American.  I have since learnt that Monty Don is quite a big name in organic gardening, and his speech seemed to be well-received, urging the crowd of wined and lightly-dined socialites and intellectuals to draw parallels of wartime self-sufficiency to today’s movement for eating local and seasonal in a movement to lessen our dependence on oil and imports.

Which, yes, it is good to eat locally and seasonally.  But again, we bring up the matter I mentioned earlier on privilege, and this illustrates how problematic discourses on food can be.  The Love Food Hate Waste campaign aside, it takes a certain level of education, access and inclination to bring a desire for sustainability, ethical eating and buying locally.  It takes a privileged position to feel romantic about rationing years when people were self-sufficient because they had to be, and I include myself as a part of this privileged romantic movement longing for a garden of one’s own.  It’s uncomfortable to point out the privileged positions we have now, in developed nations that can conjure apples from the opposite side of the world for us to buy, two sacks for £3, and even more uncomfortable to acknowledge how weird it is to have grapes from Chile and Argentina in a bowl in Great Britain.

So let’s get even more uncomfortable and acknowledge how weird it is to feel weird about those grapes, how weird it is to care about provenance.  We’ve read Michael Pollan, we’ve read Fast Food Nation, we haven’t eaten at Burger King or McDonald’s in years, there’s a loaf of organic bread in the kitchen we’ll hopefully use before it goes bad.  Although I’m saddled with a Grand Canyon of student loans and have a closet full of clothes from Goodwill, Thriftko and Traid, and I’ve charged supermarket hauls on my credit card every now and then, when it comes to food choice I am still a privileged bastard.

And chances are that you are as well, if you are reading this.

Is that bad?  Is it bad to be in a position to be able to afford to eat free-range beef and get organic deliveries from a farm in Kent?  Is it bad to have the money to hire Company of Cooks for your intimate dinner for 4 or drinks reception for 4,500?  Is it bad to snub certain produce at the supermarket because of the amount of food miles they’ve accrued?  Not really.  If you look at contemporary punks, many of them are concerned with food ethics and eating sustainably as well, although it’s interesting to point out that a good chunk of these punks come from middle- or upper-class backgrounds.  Even freegans dumpster-diving in Manhattan have a certain amount of privilege in knowing how much food is wasted by restaurants and delicatessens, and how wrong wasting that food is.

Privilege.  Acknowledge it, and do something good with it.  Although I no longer have any place to grow anything, living above a cafe on Holloway Road (I miss my Ferncreek herb garden!), I am quite tempted to study the methods at Our.WindowFarms.org.  Maybe not for my current fox hole, but maybe for my next residence.  I also want to utilise my privileged position of getting an awesome reprint of The ABC of Cookery, originally printed in 1945, from the Imperial War Museum in a goodie bag at the end of the evening on Tuesday.  Not only is it filled with sage advice on how to store bread, how to carve a calf’s head and how to buy fresh fish, there’s instructions on how to make a mixed vegetable soup!  “Allow 1/2 pint of soup per person.”

Further, I can do something we all can do, even if you don’t consider yourself privileged at all: stop wasting food.

The Ministry of Food exhibition will be running until 3 January 2011, so you have plenty of time to get your tail down to the Imperial War Museum in London, unless you live in another country or something, in which case you’ll have to content yourself with just visiting the website: The Ministry of Food.  Also have a look at Derry’s inaugural post on his new blog, reli.sh, and that goes for you Londoners as well.

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