Perhaps you are, like me, following the so far voluntary stay home recommendations except for essential re-supplying. I’m hearing from friends about all the projects they are tackling during this hiatus from normal life, and I have a few of my own. But mostly, I’m contented to nest and rest, mend, repair, read, write and watch shows I have missed until now. Which brings me to the opening episode of The Crown. I might have anticipated being flooded with memories from a brief moment in my own childhood that is of particular relevance today. Here goes.
When I arrived in England in 1948 in time to enter convent boarding school, many of the wartime protocols were still in place along with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ culture that kept the country going in a dark time. The one law I found most difficult, was food rationing. No doubt this was because I had lately arrived from Burma (now Myanmar) where everyone, regardless of wealth or status, enjoyed a diet rich in tropical fruits and fresh vegetables as well as abundant rice, and where meat and fish were not the center of the plate, a subject I may address at another time.
The plan was that until school began and my mother could find her own living space (my father had remained at his post in Rangoon), we would live with her sister, Josie, and brother-in-law, Ken Birdsey, We had been issued ration books upon arrival that would enable us to get our weekly allotment from the various food stores: the greengrocer, bakery, fish monger, and butcher. Although sugar and eggs were severely limited, milk in glass bottles was still being delivered to the door. I’ll admit to tremendous nostalgia for dairies and other independent purveyors!
The four of us were crammed into the Birdsey’s flat above a corner newspaper shop on The Square in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. We shared a single bathroom and took our main meal — high tea about 5:30 when they returned from work — in the tiny front parlor that overlooked the square. It was a lively spot and I never tired of looking out the window on all the comings and goings. Despite our limited quarters, my uncle managed to pursue his passion for photography and had a small dark room tucked into their warren of tiny rooms. This is a photograph of me, age 8, he took and developed, that won Honorable Mention in a district contest and made me a local celebrity for a short while. He also used the photograph for their Christmas card that year, which suggests it was taken during the Christmas break after my first term at St. Francis de Sales in nearby Tring. My memories of the convent were straight out of Oliver Twist — including the mandated surrender of my own ration book to the nuns — yet I look surprisingly well-nourished in Uncle Ken’s photo. This is likely due to the starchy meals, a lot of porridge and potatoes, with an egg and a very small, very fatty piece of bacon served on Sundays. I had sneaked a look into my ration book before school began, and someone of higher status in this new world of mine was clearly chowing down on my allotment of dairy and fresh fruit.
I didn’t dare rat out the nuns to my mother, even less to my aunt and uncle who were by now thoroughly entrained to accept wartime sacrifices with resilient good humor. In fact, we were all better off in some ways because Uncle Ken’s father and brother owned and ran a butcher shop. I also loved accompanying Aunt Josie on her rounds and observing her dimple up and flirt with the purveyors for extra nice piece of fish or bit more cheese. Until winter came, there was also the family victory garden that provided us with fresh tomatoes, greens, carrots and turnips, all easily turned into fresh eggs and even once, a chicken, via the barter system. I know these ideas seem positively quaint to many, but you can find versions of them alive and well today, see Transition Towns.
When I was home for school holidays, I loved a family high tea, all of us in hand-knit cardigans courtesy Aunt Josie, consisting of baked beans on toast, scones with marmalade (very sparingly spread), and countless cups of strong English tea sweetened with (also rare) condensed milk. I simply cannot imagine my beloved, long-gone elders, responding to a crisis by emptying meat cases and canned food shelves or stuffing their carts with toilet paper. As crowd scenes from The Crown depict, the love and pride the British felt for their country and for their leaders (Churchill and the royal family), ran deep. I believe this helped sustain them through their own existential crisis and it concerns me that we are coming up short in this regard.
We’ve been making extra effort to eat well and with more attention in my household, of late. And today, I had a reminder of how wonderful the plainest of foods can be from none other than Sam Sifton of NYT Cooking. Here’s a recipe with ingredients straight from your hurricane stockpile (fellow Floridians) for Simple Beans on Toast. I think, for the duration, you’ll be able to download all the Times recipes without a subscription. Actually, each day seems to bring new examples of altruism and generosity, for example, from museums and the entertainment industry, to cite two, that could help us keep our spirits up which is at least as important as not letting each other down. Let me know if I misspoke re: NYT Cooking. I’d be glad to copy/paste/post the recipe. Inside this grandmother is still that little girl in a flannel night gown, holding a candle.