England, early 1940s. London was being bombarded day and night by German warplanes. It was the height of World War II. We were severely rationed with coal, petrol, clothing and food. We were cold and hungry. Very hungry. At this point, we were willing to eat anything that was edible. And so began my introduction to the weird and wonderful world of food.
The weekly meat ration — the size of a playing card — was only enough for one meal, so we had to find other things to eat. After queuing on a very long line for a very long time, my mother would bring home the prized possession of a sheep’s head. The brains would be eaten for one meal, the tongue for another day’s dinner and the remainder would be boiled to form a delicious concoction in which the remaining meat would be set in a firm gelatin.
Offal, — named “awful” by the Americans, — which was not on the ration, became a main standby. We learned to eat heart, liver, kidneys, tripe and intestines in many different ways. I promised myself I would try anything once. Fish, also unrationed, was regularly eaten. Working for the Ministry of Food, we would lecture at women’s gatherings, bringing our kitchen van to marketplaces. Our job was to demonstrate and popularize the more-unusual foods. When herrings were in season we would bake, broil, grill, fry, pickle, stew and make herring pie until we were unable to look into its beady eyes. A fresh herring today would be a gourmet treat.
Whale meat created a problem. On first appearance, it looked like a luscious piece of beef steak, but on exposure to air it turned black and had a strong flavor of fish oil. We tried to overpower this with masses of onions to make it palatable. I tasted it — once.
If you were lucky enough to live by the sea you could dig clams, cockles, winkles, whelks, mussels and any other sea creature you could find. When bread and potatoes became rationed, it was hard to keep a teenager from being hungry. Pasta being scarce but unrationed helped to fill the bill.
Macaroni was the only kind available, however. There was no butter, oil tomato sauce or cheese to flavor it. After boiling in salted water, it was dished out and served “as is.” It stuck to the roof of your mouth, clung to your teeth and went round and round before it went down. But if you are hungry, you will eat anything. To this day, I cannot face or eat pasta in any form.
While visiting an aunt at harvest time, we were presented with a freshly shot rabbit. As the home economist in residence, it became my job to skin it, gut it and prepare it for dinner. At other times, I had plucked and gutted chickens, and scaled, cleaned and filleted fish. But the rabbit was different. It was still warm and, although dead, it jumped as I tried to skin it. I was not enjoying it at all, but the rabbit stew was delicious!
Since food was short but nutritious, everybody was slim, healthy and well-exercised from the necessity of walking and cycling everywhere.
Years later, in the United States, writing and editing cookbooks taught me a lot about food from many different countries that I had not been exposed to in England. I thought I had completed my culinary education, but find there is still a lot to learn. My home health aide from the Caribbean has opened my eyes to yet another cuisine. I have tasted deviled kidneys and pork neck bones. I drew the line at cow hooves and skin. I did not taste that even once.
“But isn’t cow skin leather?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “but if you cook it long enough it gets soft.”
“Isn’t it all slippery and slimy?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s what makes it delicious.”
“No, thank you!”
She cut the toenails off the chicken feet, but after they were cooked there was nothing on them to eat.
I have eaten many foods in my life that the average person would not dream of eating, but they have never been really hungry. They say you are what you eat, so I’m wondering what I am.