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Bread & Scrape on Fairy Toast: How to survive a Virus Crisis without being greedy

Image by Ken Boyd from Pixabay

The world is in crisis. Authorities have taken measures to help people survive. We’re to lie low, and tighten our belts, until the crisis has passed. It’s Great Britain, 1945, and the entire nation is on rations.

The Boomer Generation heard first-hand the stories of what it was like to live through World War II – and survive it. That’s why we’re called Boomers: finally, it was all over, and, well, babies were born everywhere. Men and w0men who had been teenagers in 1939 were now in their mid-Twenties and keen, at last, to have their lives back. Everywhere, young men who had seen the worst of horror were now able to find love and affection; and young women who had “done their bit” – my mum was in the Land Army, even the young Princess Elizabeth was a mechanic during the war – could try to be girls again despite suddenly having had to become women, and tough, when war had broken out.

But the effects of the war were still far from over. Rations were the order of the day and would continue well into the 1950s. So there was no indulgence for these young adults. Their diet was simple and constrained by the slim unavailability of almost everything. And they were happy just to have what little there was. A slice of day-old bread smeared with dripping and eaten in peacetime is a luxury when you’ve just survived a war. (Dripping? Read on.)

My own parents met in a pub in the West Riding of Yorkshire. They were wed in 1947. My sister would be born in ’49. I’d only arrive six years later, a Boomer nevertheless. I grew up hearing terms like “dripping”, “bread and scrape” and “egg in a nest”. And I knew what they were. Sometimes, they were supper.

Bread and scrape? Take the most miserly amount of butter or, more likely, dripping, onto the edge of a knife and scrape it across a slice of (most likely stale) bread. Pretend you’re Ebenezer Scrooge in a particularly parsimonious mood. Ideally, the “scrape” should be scarcely discernible once done.

The key difference between then and now is that the world, and in particular Europe, had just endured five years of utter hell. We have just endured endless summers of beaches and partying and winters when the only discontent was that it was bloody cold.

But there’s another key difference. Post-World War II rations were about every person getting by as best they could with as little as possible. It wasn’t about raiding the supermarket shelves and stocking up on anything they could get their hands on before anyone else could get to them. Leaving the less able, and the less well off, scrambling to survive. People would have ration books and have to queue to swap those vouchers for goods on a strictly portioned basis. And not much of it. Advice abounded: how to stretch meat, spread the butter thin, bake a cake with lard or chicken fat, scallop potatoes (cut them into slices so that they seemed to go further – my mum did that too).

A ration system such as that in Britain in the late Forties and early Fifties would not work in our present circumstances, because queuing in close proximity is exactly what we do not need. But the rationing of what we can buy would not be a bad idea, given how so many people are stocking up on way more than they are likely to need, with scant thought for those who will have to go without because of the greed of others.

The entire mindset just misses the point. We should be buying just what we need to scrape by for the duration of the Covid-19 scare, while making sure there is enough on the shelves for everyone else to do the same. There’s no need to outshop everyone else.

Start by identifying what’s in the freezer and in the fridge. Put meals together using it all. Be resourceful and inventive. And d0 the best you can.  Not every meal has to be a masterpiece. Then go through the food cupboards. Is there bread or a cake or rusks that can be made using leftover cereal? That third-full carton of couscous should be enough to go with tonight’s stew. Those jars of pickles; use them to flesh out a salad. That can of figs forgotten in the corner. A sorbet? A sweet pie filling with a couple of sliced apples? Got cans or cartons of something you don’t need? Put them in a bag outside the front gate on garbage collection day. Somebody will be glad of them.

Rations. There have, by now, been generations who don’t know what it is t0 g0 without, since the end of that terrible war that scarred my parents’ generation for life. Younger generations who think that having cream and butter is a human right. Who think that deprivation is not being able to go to Long Street for a jol or to Vida e for an Americano. Or, horrors, having to forgo a mani or pedi. Life is so hard! Get over it. You’re not in a trench with mortar bombs being flung at you.

Rations. We could put ourselves on them, right now: during that rare venture to the supermarket, armed with the wherewithal to wipe the trolley handle before you touch it, and having washed your hands vigorously for 20 seconds while singing all four lines of Happy Birthday To You (it works), instead of buying enough toilet paper to last the rest of our lives, we could buy some basics that will provide some perhaps unlikely but sensible meals during the self-enforced lockdown.

Eggs. They have an astonishing shelf life. Consider the wartime egg ration.  One egg per person, per week. One. A week. They could also buy tins of dried whole eggs. Dried. Eggs. In a can. Or powdered dried egg. Yum. So let’s be grateful for the availability of fresh eggs. I’m in the lucky position of having access to fresh, unwashed farm eggs which will keep for two weeks out of the fridge (not washed) and up to three months in the fridge. Your store-bought washed eggs can keep up to two months, refrigerated. But it’s best not to wash them, if you can get fresh farm eggs, as washing removes a protective layer which keeps them fresher for even longer.

Egg in a nest? Traditionally, it’s made with an egg plopped in a hole in a piece of bread, but my mom made it in a nest of mashed potato.

Worried they might be off? Just crack open and smell before using. If there’s no putrid whiff, they’re fine.

Powdered mash. I know, I’m not a fan either. But these are not ordinary times, and potatoes will not last indefinitely. Some deft seasoning can work wonders. Especially if you melt in a knob of butter.

Dripping. I grew up with this too. My mom loved nothing better than to toast a slice of bread and smother it, still hot, with dripping. Dripping is the fat left over in the pan once you’ve roasted a joint of beef – it has dripped off the meat, hence its name. It congeals when cold. Like butter. Next day, instead of discarding it you use it as “butter”, smearing it on hot toast. Last night’s dinner becomes this morning’s breakfast. Millennials groaning “Ohhhh, grossssss!!!”, consider the context: these were people fresh out of a terrible war and recently released from stringent rations. For many years beef had been a distant memory. They were grateful for their dripping.

Once you’ve been holed up at home for two or more weeks you’ll run out of some things. You think you have enough butter to see you through. You probably don’t. But you do have bacon. We’re not fresh from a wartime footing. So we do eat bacon. Bacon dripping (as in everything bacon) is the best.

Keep the fat from this morning’s bacon to use tonight to fry a chicken breast fillet in.

Dripping on toast might not appeal. But try some melted onto a plump baked potato fresh from the oven. There you go. My dad would have killed for that in 1944.

Biltong and droëwors. They’ll keep endlessly and can even be frozen. Slices of biltong can be a sandwich filling. Used in a pasta sauce. Grated and turned into a dip with cream cheese. Or just eaten as it is, a meal in itself. Slice either droëwors or biltong slivers into a salad.

Bread. Housewives (such was the thinking and terminology at the time) in wartime were urged to extend their meat meals by adding bread, cooked rice or oatmeal to it once minced. Bread was even turned into sweet puddings, hence the bread and butter pudding that remains a popular dessert to this day. I make the distinction because Britain also loved its savoury “puddings” such as steak and kidney pudding, with which I was also brought up. It had a soft suet crust and was steamed, and you could even buy it in tins which you opened at the top and boiled in water, the way you do a Christmas plum pudding. Suet is the hard fat in the kidney and loin areas of sheep and cows.

When we’re hunkering down at home, we might want to use something we might in other circumstances have thrown away. Like stale bread. The British have a traditional dessert they call Summer Pudding, which involves slices of bread, fresh berries and perhaps other fruits, and their juices. Packed together in a glass bowl in the fridge, the juices macerate and sodden the bread. We were introduced to this by our very British neighbours in Chichester one summer’s evening at a table in their back garden. A rare treat that made us feel very special. And foreign.

Bread is a component of a good gazpacho (sort of chilled tomato soup) and of panzanella, an Italian bread salad. Many hot soups stretch further if you pop a slice of stale bread at the bottom of the bowl before ladling in the soup.

In wartime Britain, the Ministry of Food proffered recipes for Fairy Toast, Wheatmealies and that Summer Pudding. Fairy Toast is wafer-thin slices of bread crisped in a low oven and stored in an airtight container. Melba toast, then.

Or: buy lots of flour and packets of dried yeast, and sunflower oil. And salt of course. Google recipes for basic breads (with either water or oil) and make your own. You’re likely to have the time.

Meat bones. Ask your butcher if you can buy beef bones. Or debone the on-the-bone beef you have bought or thawed and keep the bones for a second meal. Roast the bones in a very hot oven for 20 minutes with coarse salt and black pepper. Add water to the pan juices, add garlic and reduce over high heat. Pour over the bones with some chopped parsley. Serve with toasted dry bread from the loaf that you made yesterday. Scoop the marrow onto the toast and dip into the juices.

The above advice would not have been given in wartime. A Canadian WWII pamphlet urged housewives to save bones and fats to be used to make explosives. They were asked to drain used fats and take them to their butcher, who would dispatch it to the war industries. To bomb people and kill them.

Meat trimmings. Those bits of fat and whatnot the butcher removes: ask for them, and use them in soups and stocks. Keeping stock in the freezer is an excellent way to make something go a lot further. Stocks once reduced become sauces or are used as a base for soups or to beef up (sorry) stews. 

Offal. The nasty bits that many people hate have great nutritional value. And offal is cheap-cheap.

Chicken livers braised with onion, garlic and spices? Nice starter. Served with the dreaded powdered mash? Meal. (Okay, Millennial. I hear you. Eeuuwwwww!! Gross!!! But these are extraordinary times. Sluk it back and let’s get on with it. Don’t mention it – Uncle Boomer.)

Shall we bring back the Seventies’ and Eighties’ favourite, chicken liver pâté? It goes a hell of a long way and can be served with Fairy Toast (see bread, above). The pâté is made, you may recall, by frying onions and garlic and adding fresh herbs, cleaned livers, and finished with brandy and cream. A luxury item, under the circumstances. The brandy means it will keep for at least a week in the fridge, and can also be frozen and consequently kept longer. Or use port. Or sherry. Or sweet red plonk.

Liver, braised until a little bit pink at the centre, with fried onions and herbed mashed potato? In some cultures that’s fit for royalty. Braise it in bacon dripping and it’s even better.

Pasta. Obviously. Lasagne, spaghetti, macaroni. Keep a big block of Cheddar in the fridge. The cheapest one (who can afford the insane prices of cheese these days?). Keep a bottle of the cheapest (okay, least expensive) extra virgin olive oil in the cupboard. Parmigiana Reggiano or Grana Padano? Sure. It’s your budget, if not your funeral. Yet.

Mince and chicken pieces. Freeze ’em. Lasagne or Bolognese coming up… and a good old chicken bake is always a good thing.

Long life milk. Maybe some small tubs of long life cream too. A litre of the milk will work for the cheese sauce for the lasagne. With one of the cans of chopped tomatoes in that cupboard over there. No no, not that one, that one. (Are you sure this is your kitchen?)

Cabbage, carrots et al. Both last much longer than many other vegetables, especially the former. Butternut and pumpkin keep forever too. Oh and frozen peas and corn. And and and…

And yet… But we look to another day, when this has passed, and when we can fling open the windows and doors again. That is when we all need to show support for the restaurant trade. Winter is the dreaded season for them. And now they’re having to weather this massive blow before they even get to winter, when we all stay at home while they go under. Without our support, many of them will, if they even get to winter. So, when this is all behind us, make a booking, grab your friends, and celebrate the defeat of a virus by dining lavishly and frequently. With a toast: To life. L’chaim! DM

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