Any Bread, Cake or Pie?: Walter Greenwood’s Hungry Thirties

As a contrast to his blogs on the privileged Evelyn Waugh, Emeritus Professor Chris Hopkins writes about hunger in Depression-hit Salford.

Walter Greenwood (1903-1974) is mainly remembered for his novel, Love on the Dole (1933), subsequently adapted into a very successful play (1935) and then a film version (1941). That novel certainly has references to the severe deprivation of Salford people in the nineteen-thirties. The working-class intellectual, Larry Meath, often thinks about the systematic problem people have even when in skilled work:

Forty-five bob a week … so that you might have a hovel for shelter, an insufficiency of food, and five bob over for to clothe yourself and the missis in shoddy.

Love on the Dole, Vintage edition in kindle version, p. 150; all subsequent page references are to this edition.

Other characters know the truth of this experientially, if not in the abstract, and that things have got even worse since unemployment has bitten since the Depression in 1929. Mrs Hardcastle laments that with her husband and son both out of work, she cannot pay off the instalment she owes on her son Harry’s suit, since ‘there ain’t a bite of food in house for their teas’ (p. 164). At the novel’s protest march against cuts to the dole and the meanness of the Means Test regulations, the marchers carry placards saying, ‘Not a Penny off the Dole’ and ‘Hands Off the People’s Food’ (p.201). This sustained sense of not having of enough to eat is there throughout the novel, in a low-key way: it is part of the tragedy that it is what the people of Hanky Park have come to expect and accept as best they can.

However, Greenwood also wrote a story a few years later which focused wholly on the experience of hunger during the thirties, and especially on a very hungry child. The story was called Any Bread, Cake or Pie? and he wrote it in nineteen-thirty-seven for a new collection of short stories called The Cleft Stick (with illustrations by the artist Arthur Wragg, Selwyn & Blount, London, 1937).(1) The central character in the story is called Harry Waring, and in all conventional ways he is presented unsympathetically. He has learnt to fend for himself, and has become the ‘cock’ (that is champion fighter) of his whole school. Inside and outside school, his first instinct is always to use his physical strength and aggression to get what he wants. That is presumably what life in Hanky Park has taught him. His main ambition is to leave school, which he can do in two months’ time, when he is fourteen, so that he can become an apprentice at Marlowe’s engineering works, and ‘maybe then, when he was earning real wages … his days of hunger would be over’ (p.183). Nearly all his dreams, apart from being paid by Marlowe’s, are equally about food. He remembers a café where he had a memorable feed funded by the contents of a purse he found, If that happened again, he would have ‘steak and some onions; then a thick chunk of cake and some ice-cream … aye and some cigarettes and then I’d go to the pictures’ (p.188). He wishes he were older so he could rob shops with the help of a gun. He even tries to manufacture another found purse incident, except that this time he steals one from a woman’s pocket, only to find it contains only three ha’pence and a bundle of pawn-tickets. He cunningly thinks that if he returns it to the address on the pawn-tickets, he might get a reward greater than the three ha’pence. Alas, this goes wrong when the woman’s husband answers the door, grabs the purse and slams the door.

All he can do is to continue to use his wits, his lack of scruple, and his muscle to try to get more to eat:

YOUNG HARRY WARING WAS RAVENOUSLY HUNGRY. HE ALWAYS was hungry. He had sat all the afternoon in the classroom with that awful feeling of emptiness distracting him from what the teacher had been saying. He had been rebuked for inattention, but he did not care. For two pins he felt he would have bashed the teacher who was a small weedy individual whereas Harry was ‘cock’ of the school: he could fight and beat any of the other boys, and to be admitted to membership of his gang in North Street was a much-sought-after-privilege.

Walter Greenwood, Any Bread, Cake or Pie?, p. 183.

Harry is clearly not alone in having to look after himself and in being an under-fed growing child – he searches for food with his small gang of other boys, and that group meet many other boys all out on the streets seeking any chance to eke out their inadequate diet at home. Harry is a bully, and thinks nothing of thieving from shops (he manages to eat some raw bacon scraps he grabs from a grocer’s), and from other (also ill-fed) boys, to assuage his constant hunger. The boys have learnt that they can sometimes beg uneaten scraps of ‘bait’ (packed lunch) from the men who are in work by chanting ‘bread, cake or pie’ outside Marlowe’s works when the hooter signals the end of the working day. However, today is Thursday and the pickings are likely to be poor – the remains of the weekend joint have been eaten in sandwiches earlier in the week, and ‘today the most you could hope for was a few pieces of bread and butter, dry from having been immured all day in the pocket of a jacket hung up in the engineering shop’ (p.187). One boy is lucky and is given a package by a man leaving the works – the boy is sharing it out when Harry steals the whole package and runs off with it: ‘it tasted good. Beef-dripping sandwiches with plenty of salt on. But it only put a keener edge on his appetite’ (p.187).

In his efforts to get food at Marlowe’s he misses tea at home, but returns asking if his tea has been kept for him. His mother has done her best, but is pre-occupied with finishing the washing job which will bring in some money:

She answered that his ration was in the cupboard, that he would find tea in the pot, but that there wasn’t any milk left. He found two thick slices of bread and margarine on a plate. He ate them sulkily … .

Walter Greenwood, Any Bread, Cake or Pie?, p. 188.

At the end of the story when all his strategies have given him only a few scraps, we leave him at night-time and see him not so much as a selfish bully – though he is that due to his circumstances and upbringing – but as the hungry child he also is, weeping from hunger: ‘His head sank on to his crooked arm, and he began to blubber unrestrainedly: “I’m ‘ungery … I’m ‘ungery …’ (ellipses sic, p.193).

The illustration is on unnumbered pages between pp. 184 and 185 of the story (photograph taken by the author from the copy of the book in his collection).

Here is the double-page illustration which the Sheffield-trained artist Arthur Wragg (1903-1976) drew to go with the story. It is a phantasmagoric, expressionist illustration which shows in one scene the contents of Harry’s day as it is reflected in his mind – a scene full of images of his travels through Hanky Park since his dawn paper-round, and of the food he has wanted, but has not been able to eat: eggs and bacon, pies, fish and chips. The dejected figure at the centre of the image is the defeated Harry, cock of the school, but still very hungry, and weeping for hunger.

Chris Hopkins’ blog about Walter Greenwood is here.


Note 1. For the only published article discussing this work by Greenwood and Wragg see: Full article: ‘The Pictures … Are Even More Stark Than the Prose’ (Sheffield Telegraph, 2 December 1937): word and image in Walter Greenwood and Arthur Wragg’s The Cleft Stick (1937) ( Note 2. Harry’s inability to concentrate at school due to hunger should be something only from history, but recurrent reports from teachers and a report sponsored by Kellogg’s suggest that it is an issue which has returned. See R2_Kellogg_A_Lost_Education.pdf ( (2013) and reports in the Guardian such as this one from 2019: Tired, hungry and shamed: pupil poverty ‘stops learning’ | Education | The Guardian.

Evelyn Waugh, Rationing, and Style: ‘the Period of Soya Beans and Basic English’(Part 2)

Posted on  by Val Hewson

By Chris Hopkins

Here is Part 2 of our literary food blog on Evelyn Waugh, by Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University.

The book is infused with a kind of gluttony … which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.

Evelyn Waugh, Preface to Brideshead Revisited, 1945, Revised Edition, 1959.

In November 1943, having been unwillingly transferred from the Marines to the Royal Horse Guards, and after having tried unsuccessfully to join the SAS, Waugh was sent on a parachuting course, though he was then forty years old. He actually enjoyed very much the sensation of jumping from an aircraft. However, in landing from one jump, he fractured his leg, and was given a period of leave to recover (eventually extended unpaid until June 1944) during which he began a new novel, to be published as Brideshead Revisited in 1945. (1) It is a novel filled with nostalgia and about nostalgia, but by no means without a critical if idiosyncratic theological framework. Even before this, in a diary entry for 29 August 1943, Waugh had written of his now changed feelings about Army life and of his urgent need to return to his work as a writer. It is perhaps particularly significant that he used a metaphor based on wine-production and cellarage to talk about how he saw the relationship between his experience and his writing at this point:

I dislike the Army. I want to get to work again. I do not want any more experiences in life. I have quite enough bottled and carefully laid in the cellar, some still ripening, most ready for drinking, a little beginning to lose its body. I wrote to Frank [Pakenham] very early in the war to say that its chief use would be to cure artists of the illusion that they were men of action.

Evelyn Waugh, Diaries, p. 548; also quoted in Eade, pp. 320-1).
In civilian clothes. Evelyn Waugh in 1940s. By Carl Van Vechten Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress). Public domain.

The vintages must be used at the correct time if they are not to spoil. Unlike his novels of the thirties and even his 1942 novel, Put Out More Flags, this new novel is not mainly about the now, about the modern and modish, but was to be a reflection, Proustian in some respects, on the decades of the twenties and thirties, and their relationship to the wartime present, as well as on various specific lives in the light of eternity and ‘divine grace’ (Preface, location 2). Perhaps in terms of the novel’s larger ambitions, its treatments of food and drink are not primary, but they are nevertheless prominent, and a key part of the work’s atmosphere. As Waugh saw, looking back from the perspective of nineteen-fifty-nine, what he and many others experienced as privations of personal pleasure and indeed style influenced the way the novel recalled the recent past. Here are some of Waugh’s reflections in 1959 on the time when he wrote the novel:

It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English, and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful. I have modified the grosser passages but have not obliterated them because they are an essential part of the book

Evelyn Waugh, Preface, location 8.

The connections Waugh makes between food and wine and other matters of style is notable. Nineteen forty-four is the period of ‘soya beans’ and of Basic English, both, in Waugh’s view, drastic reductions to full and proper ways of living. The Soy Info Centre’s invaluable time-line on the History of Soya Beans in Britain and Ireland explains that:

During and after World War II soy flour is used extensively as a substitute for meat, milk, eggs and flour in a vast array of foodstuffs … [it] developed the image of a bad-tasting ersatz foodstuff, and the English came to dislike any food with the name ‘soy’ attached to it, in part because of poor product formulations and the use of low-quality soy flour (2).

Basic English was clearly considered by Waugh a linguistic or stylistic equivalent to soya beans, wholly unable to substitute for the real thing. The idea of Basic English was formulated by Charles Kay Ogden in his book, Basic English: a General Introduction with Rules and Grammar (1932). Basic English was not intended to replace English as a natural language, but to be used by speakers of English as a second language, and to make international communication in English clearer and simpler. This second aim was associated during the war with an idea that Basic English could help sustain world peace in a post-war world. Basic English simplified English by reducing the number of words, both verbs and nouns, while retaining a more-or-less ‘natural’ word-order. Ogden argued that most everyday communication could be readily managed with only eighteen verbs and a core vocabulary of two-thousand words. These precepts are still in practical use – notably in the Simple English Wikipedia (3). Orwell based the ‘constructed language’ of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Secker & Warburg, 1949) on Basic English, fearing its potential for restricting not just free speech, but the expression of free meaning. Clearly, Waugh too saw Basic English as an impoverishment of natural English, and a sign of the times.

Brideshead Revisited certainly does use a more purple prose than Waugh had ever used before (except in the way of parody), but as Waugh realised, this was not just an incidental feature, but something deeply embedded in the conception of the novel. Here for example is the nostalgic opening of chapter one of Book One, which follows on from the much more austere Prologue, and which describes Captain Charles Ryder’s unexpected return to Brideshead when the Army sends his unit there:

‘I have been here before’, I said. I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were cloudy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of particular splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest (location 229). (4)

Strictly-speaking, purple prose is always a critical term, indicating a prose style which is so excessively decorative that it inevitably fails to hold the reader’s attention or to construct a clear meaning. In that sense, Waugh’s prose here is not purple, because it surely does work superbly in its context, but it is perhaps nearly as rich and ornamental as you can get before turning purple.

It was Waugh himself who made the connection between rationing, food and style in the novel in his Preface, and indeed there is a richness about the description of food in the novel which is equivalent in many ways to the novel’s love of the nostalgic, emotional and rhetorical charge of the past. Of course, the food recalled was indeed at the time a Remembrance of Things Past. Here is the most elaborate description of food, (French) cooking, and wines in the novel. As a foil to Charles Ryder’s knowledgeable enjoyment of this superb meal in Paris is Rex Mottram, who pays for the meal, but does not at all understand its quality:

I remember the dinner well – soup of oseille [sorrel], a sole quite simply cooked in a white-wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviar aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and with the duck, a Clos de Bèze of 1904.

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and a better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion, had learned another passion than his (locations 2420 and 2470). (5)

Perhaps one would not want to consume such prose all the time, but given the drabness of wartime rationing (which of course went on into the later nineteen-fifties), this response is not mere gluttony, but a heroic recreation of fine food, of food as art (even if Waugh’s own war was not entirely deprived of some decent food and wines – though I personally suspect that entire bottle each of 1920 Dow’s may have been a mistake, in terms of both style and appreciation of the virtues I imagine it to have possessed).

Read Part 1 here.


Note 1. See Evelyn Waugh: a Life Revisited, by Philip Eade, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2016, pp. 321- 327 for some of Eade’s account of Waugh’s military career during this period, including a quotation from a letter to Laura Waugh about his enjoyment of parachuting.

Note 2. See History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in the United Kingdom and Ireland (1613-2015) – SoyInfo Center, based on a book of the same title by William Shurtleff and Akiko Ayoyagi (Soy Info Centre, 2015), which can be downloaded in full from the site.

Note 3. Information drawn from the Wikipedia entry on Basic English, which also gives links to Basic English word-lists still in use in various contexts and indeed in the Simple English Wikipedia. See: Basic English – Wikipedia.

Note 4. Some indication of the nature of Waugh’s post-war editing can be seen by comparing the 1945 original of this quotation with the 1959 revision:

‘I have been here before’, I said. I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fools’ parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as is given us once or twice in a life-time, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

(Readers Union with Chapman and Hall unrevised edition, London, 1949, p.15; 1945 editions are not that easy to obtain, being quite collectable; I have underlined textual differences between the 1945 and 1959 versions here, and again in Note 5).

Note 5. In the 1945 version, the first quoted paragraph is identical, but the second had a considerable expansion which spoke of the impossibility of describing a fine wine in its own terms, and saw all such accounts as influenced by the describer’s own emotions:

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and a better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion, had learned another passion than his (p. 135).

A concise overview of the textual complexities of Brideshead Revisited across its manuscripts and editions is given in Robert Murray Davis’ ‘Notes Towards a Variorum Edition of Brideshead Revisited’, in the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, vol. 2, part 3, p.4 (12/1/1968).

Evelyn Waugh, Rationing, and Style: ‘My Last Case of Claret’ (Part 1)

By Chris Hopkins

Today our literary food blog is taken over by Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, for a two-parter on Evelyn Waugh.

The book is infused with a kind of gluttony … which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.

Evelyn Waugh, Preface to Brideshead Revisited, 1945, revised edition, 1959.

Philip Eade, one of Waugh’s most recent biographers, writes that Waugh was ‘repelled’ by ‘the abysmal wartime food as a result of which he experienced real hunger for the first time in his life’ (1). He and a fellow officer refused to eat the sheep’s heart served to them in one billet in March 1942 – they were told they must then find their own food in future (2). Some, of course, might consider these experiences a potentially beneficial experience for an author whose social attitudes were not always inclusive. However, like many others with the wherewithal, Waugh did his best to ameliorate wartime conditions wherever possible, and being myself fond of fine cooking, I am inclined to sympathise to an extent with his wartime food and wine cravings, at least. Sometimes, especially early in the war, his pessimistic culinary expectations were not met. Eade reports that when in early December 1940 Waugh went to join the Royal Marines at Chatham as a lieutenant (his application having received ‘strong’ support from Winston Churchill), he wrote to his wife Laura about a welcome surprise:

The food is absolutely excellent … on the first evening there was a cold supper on account of a play which was being given to us in our own theatre. I was led to the supper table with profuse apologies, and found lobster, fresh salmon, cold birds, hams, brawn, exactly like the cold table at the St James’s. Afterwards, several rounds of excellent vintage port. (p. 284).

In civilian clothes. Evelyn Waugh in 1940s. By Carl Van Vechten Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress). Public domain.

Things were, of course to get worse, as pre-war cellars and stocks were eaten into.

Lieutenant and then Captain Evelyn Waugh’s diary for the war years refer to meals taken as a guest at friends’ houses, as well as in restaurants and at his club, White’s. Some meals are judged as good, others as bad, but generally little further detail of what was eaten is given. However, what he and fellow diners drink is always recorded in detail, as are any cigars smoked. For example, here is part of his diary entry for the weeks from 1 April to Saturday 11 April, 1942:

[arrived at a dinner-party] rather tipsy from drinking champagne at White’s [club], where wine is now rationed – no port in the bar and only one glass in the coffee room (pp.519-20).

Or for 12 October 1942:

I have reached my last Havana cigars – fifty left in reserve. And my last case of claret (p. 529).

Or for 24 October, 1942:

Basil and I drank a bottle of Dows 1920 before dinner and another after it (p.529).

Or for 3 April, 1944:

drank a great deal of good wine which is getting scarcer daily but still procurable by those who take the trouble (p.561).

Part of the diary entry for 4 May 1944 is an exception, for the whole menu and accompanying wines are detailed, perhaps because Waugh as host is (justifiably) proud of its splendour, four years into rationing:

That night —- and John Sutro dined with me. I gave them a fine dinner – gulls’ eggs, consommé, partridge, haddock on toast, Perrier Jouet ’28, nearly a bottle a head, liqueur brandy, Partaga cigars – an unusual feast for these times (p. 562).

In uniform. Evelyn Waugh by Howard Coster. Circa 1940. National Portrait Gallery collection. Creative Commons licence.

Waugh generally-speaking seems to have managed to find wine and more-or-less decent food throughout the war, no doubt because he had the right contacts, and spent some of his literary income on the matter. In his diary entry for his thirty-ninth birthday, in addition to parenthood, he certainly thought wine (and cigars) worth mentioning and seemed to have enjoyed both on the majority of days in that war-time year:

A good year. I have begotten a fine daughter, published a successful book [Put Out More Flags], drunk 300 bottles of wine, and smoked 300 or more Havana cigars. I have got back to soldiering among friends … health excellent except when impaired by wine.

Evelyn Waugh, Diaries, 28 October 1942, p. 530. Also quoted by Eade. p. 315).

However, this does not mean he was not feeling the effects of rationing (as well as wine) – he was a bon viveur with a strong liking for French wines and cuisine in particular – and Europe was, of course, completely cut off for most of the war so that new supplies of many luxuries were often unobtainable. In Part 2 of this blog, we shall see how rationing affected not just Waugh’s dining habits (to an extent), but also his literary style.

Read Part 2 here.


Note 1. Evelyn Waugh: a Life Revisited, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2016, p.73, in a kindle edition. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text.

Note 2. The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Michael Davie, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1976, p.531, entry for Saturday 20th March 1942. All subsequent diary references are to the same edition and page numbers will be given in the text.

George Orwell’s Frankfurter: an Early British Fast Food Experience (1939)

By Chris Hopkins

Here’s Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, for another ‘literary food’ blog for Heritage Open Days. But be warned: Chris says this one is perhaps not best enjoyed with a meal.

George Orwell’s just pre-war novel Coming Up for Air (1939) opens with this striking if unusual sentence: ‘The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth’ (Penguin edition, p.5). We then have to read on for another one-hundred-and-nineteen pages before the first-person narrator, George Bowling, tells us what the idea is! He is going to revisit the country village where he grew up, Lower Binfield, not with his wife and children, but on his own, one day when he can take a day of work without them knowing (he has secretly won seventeen pounds on a horse and has been pondering what to spend it on). To be fair, the intervening one-hundred-and-nineteen pages have been usefully occupied with George reflecting on his life so far, and on the next war which he is convinced will be coming soon (he thinks it is probably most likely in 1941). George wants to go back to Lower Binfield because he has been thinking that it represents life as it was before 1914, before he went to the trenches, before he lived in a city suburb, before he became a life-insurance salesman, before, he became, in his own words, ‘fat and forty-five’, before, he thinks, the modern world began.

Before he finally tells the reader about his idea, though, he has a number of present-day experiences which seem to feed into it. Which takes us back to the false teeth (much commoner then in younger people because of the lack of dental care, and because fluoride toothpaste was not invented and marketed until the mid-nineteen-fifties). George has chosen a ‘cheap American dentist’ in London to make him his new false teeth, but arrives early to be fitted with the new set, and decides to fill the time with some food and a coffee. It is not normally the kind of place he goes to (he prefers a pub), but George goes into a modern ‘milk-bar’ and orders a coffee and a couple of frankfurters:

I bit into one of my frankfurters, and – Christ!

I can’t honestly say I’d expected the thing to have a pleasant taste. I’d expected it to taste of nothing, like the roll. But this – well, it was quite an experience. Let me try and describe it to you.

The frankfurter had a rubber skin, of course, and my temporary teeth weren’t much of a fit. I had to do a kind of sawing movement before I could get my teeth through the skin. And then suddenly – pop! The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste […] It was fish. A sausage, something calling itself a frankfurter, was filled with fish! I got straight up and walked out without touching my coffee. God knows what that would have tasted of.

George Orwell, Coming Up for Air, pp. 18-19

Orwell, as so often, is brilliant at using quite ordinary but carefully chosen words and precise rhythms to create the physical detail of George’s disgusting experience, of making the reader identify with what a modern food manufacturer might call the ‘mouth-feel’ of the frankfurter (though not one they would want to create – for an introductory definition of the word and idea, see Mouthfeel – Wikipedia). But more than that, Orwell turns the physical sensation of the frankfurter into something which both literally and symbolically stands for George for everything which he has concluded is wrong with modern life and the modern world:

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else (p.20).

The sense that the alleged sausage tastes of fish is especially significant for George because for him a quintessentially pre-modern activity in Lower Binfield was fishing – an authentic experience of his boyhood – which he recreates in his memory with a roll-call of the fish which populated its pools (now he fears all drained or polluted):

Roach, rudd, dace, bleak, barbel, bream, gudgeon, pike, chub, carp, tench. They are solid kind of names. The people who made them up hadn’t heard of machine-guns … .

George Orwell, Coming Up for Air, p.54

George has not been fishing since he was sixteen in Lower Binfield. He tried once during the First Word War in a forgotten pond full of fish, but his platoon was ordered to move before he could actually fish, and he tried once on holiday, but failed to convince his wife, Hilda, either that he actually knows how to fish, or that the outlay on a fishing-rod is justified. ‘Fat men of forty-five can’t go fishing’, he concludes pessimistically (p. 164).

It might seem that George’s world view is a simple one: past good, present bad. Actually, though, he is more complex that that, and so is this novel. He knows very well that many things in Lower Binfield were bad: the boys’ cruelty to birds and animals, rural poverty and over-crowding, girls pregnant at the age of fifteen, probably through incest, his parents’ shop going bust, even the horrors of the Boer War, precursors to worse to come. He also quite likes his new false teeth at times, they cheer him up, and they are surely, in developed form, a modern innovation. If you haven’t read Coming Up for Air, I recommend it, not least for the way in which Orwell’s prose makes something quite ordinary, an everyday object, a food-item, a frankfurter, and tasting itself, into a fascinating symbol and experience of the modern world (even though I’m not convinced that frankfurters, or fast-food, and being ‘streamlined’, and fascism, are quite as much the same modern experience as that prose makes you feel they are!).

Follow this link for a frankfurter experience.

Fresh from a WW1 Field Kitchen: a Palatable Recipe from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1928)

By Chris Hopkins

For our fourth Heritage Open Days blog, Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, looks at food in a German novel which was tremendously popular in Britain.

Dust-wrapper from Putnam’s Cheap Edition, 1930, scanned by the author from copy in his collection.

Erich Remarque’s novel about the trenches was first published as a newspaper serial in Germany in 1928 and grabbed public attention both because it remembered a war which many people did not wish to talk about openly at this point, and because it was seen as vehemently opposed to war (leading to the work being denounced by Nazi newspapers, and later being banned and burnt when the Nazis came to power). It very soon appeared as a book, quickly became a best-seller in Germany, and was translated swiftly into some twenty-two languages. The English version by A W Wheen was published in 1929, with the German title, Im Westen nichtes Neues translated as All Quiet on the Western Front (rather than the more literal, ‘Nothing New in the West’.) This equally became an immediate best-seller both in Britain and the USA. Many readers and critics (though by no means all) who were veterans of the trenches saw it as capturing trench warfare for the ordinary infantryman with astonishing accuracy, often leading to a sense that whichever side one had fought on, the war was a shared experience of futile agony. The American film-version (directed by Lewis Milestone, produced by Universal Studios, 1930) was also a critical and public success, and both novel and film have been written about extensively ever since.

Still from the 1930 film: central character Paul Bäumer with a French woman (actress uncredited), when his platoon is behind the lines, and with his ‘gift’ of bread and sausage prominent. Though in both novel and film, this incident is relatively romanticised, the relationship is clearly in the nature of an exchange of scarce food for sex. Image from the Realart Pictures theatrical re-release of the film between 1948 and 1966 (scanned by the author from his collection).

Food might not seem the most central topic in a war book, but in fact there is a great deal of reference to food in All Quiet on the Western Front and it plays an important part in the book. The young men in the trenches (most schoolboys only months before) are hungry nearly all the time, and food is one of their few sources of pleasure and comfort, but ‘our provisions are generally bad’ (Vintage kindle edition, translated by Brian Murdoch, 1993, location 1272). A German veteran, Karl von Clemm, interviewed in Episode 2 of the excellent ‘People’s Century’ documentary, The Killing Fields: 1914, (BBC 1, first broadcast in the UK September 1995) recalls that they were often issued with soup made of dried vegetables, which was nicknamed ‘barbed wire’, because it was so hard and tasteless, unless you could find some meat to add. He says that a horse freshly killed by gunfire would be quickly stripped completely of its flesh by passing infantry so they could improve their meals (a YouTube copy covers French, British and German trench provisions from16.55 to 18.36 minutes in: People’s Century Part 02 1914 Killing Fields – YouTube). Poor food was common in British trenches too, and of course, delivery of hot, varied and nutritious food to the front-line was difficult, but the German situation became increasingly bad as the allied blockade of German ports had a major impact on food supplies for both civilians and soldiers.

All Quiet begins with a meal. It is the first thing the central character, Paul Bäumer, tells us about:

We are in camp five miles behind the line. Yesterday our relief arrived; now our bellies are full of bully beef and beans, we’ve had enough to eat and we’re well satisfied. We were even able to fill up a mess-tin for later, every one of us, and there are double rations of sausage and bread as well – that will keep us going. We haven’t had a stroke of luck like this for ages.

All Quiet on the Western Front, location 30.

The great stroke of luck the company has had is that they have been sent huge quantities of food – enough to satisfy even their hunger. It is, though, as Paul, says all a mistake (‘the Army is never that good to us’). When they were sent into the front trenches, there were one-hundred-and fifty men, but a British artillery barrage has caught the company badly, and seventy men have been killed. This is the good luck – Paul and his comrades have been sent seventy extra meals, which they do their best to eat. Of course, part of the point of this opening incident is to make clear, without ever having to state it, how much the war has desensitised these boys, has made the grossly abnormal, normal: they have no time, nor will, to think about seventy dead men, but are glad to eat their fill. The extra food is still at least a bodily and mental comfort, whatever outrage delivered it to them.

There are dozens of references to food in the novel – mainly to beans, potatoes, turnips, bread and beef, which are the most common rations (the beef is usually bully beef, and Paul says that when they can, they take enemy corned beef from captured trenches because it is so much better tasting). The turnips are fine as turnips, but have bad associations because the overall German food situation is so bad that the authorities have had to resort to ersatz foods. A new recruit reports, perhaps sarcastically, on his food in the barracks before being sent to the trenches: ‘Bread made out of turnips for breakfast, turnips for lunch, and turnip cutlets with turnip salad in the evening’ (location 392). They seem rarely to be given other vegetables (not even dried), but they do crave them (‘we want fresh vegetables’, location 2456) and they steal potatoes, peas, carrots and cauliflowers from the farmers’ fields when they can. We get a few references to Army meals: in the barracks there is ‘a watery rice soup’ (location 2015) with miniscule strips of beef, and there is one reference to luxurious sausages with red cabbage being served in the hospital, but the staples seem to be hashes or stews of corned beef cooked with potatoes or with beans, the last being most popular with the men.

German soldiers at a field kitchen in World War One (F7PHM6) (copyright History World Archive/Alamy Images and reproduced with their kind permission).

Sometimes, the men think of favourite meals from home (‘buckwheat pancakes with bacon’ in one case), but ironically in fact such meals have disappeared: food for the Army is prioritised and the civilians are starving. When Paul goes home, he is given by his mother the great treat of potato pancakes with cranberries, but this is now a rare thing. Anticipating the situation, he has managed illicitly to obtain some army supplies for his family, and empties from his pack: ‘a whole Edam cheese … two Army-issue loaves, three-quarters of a pound of butter, two cans of liver sausage, a pound of lard and a bag of rice’ (location 1720). When his mother asks him if he has enough to eat ‘out there’, he says they manage. One night at the front, when the men are occupying a ruined factory and have nothing to eat, and cannot sleep for hunger, the character Tjaden (unhelpfully?),

Describes his local specialty, broad beans cooked with bacon. He is scathing about people who try to cook it without the right chopped herbs. But the main thing is that the ingredients all have to be cooked together – the potatoes, beans and bacon must not, for God’s sake, be cooked separately. Somebody grumbles that he will chop Tjaden into the right herbs if he doesn’t shut up at once.

All Quiet on the Western Front, location 424.

I am not saying that other dishes named in the novel might not be worth trying (those buckwheat pancakes, and no doubt miracles can be done with corned beef and potatoes, though not keen on the horse-meat …), but Tjaden’s favourite recipe is actually one I recognise and have often cooked and eaten, so it is my suggestion if you would like to try some food craved by these trench-dwellers, if not actually produced by a field kitchen. The dish is usually called Hanoverian Hot-pot and the way I make it is to fry onions, bacon and potatoes in rapeseed oil, then add stock and sliced carrots, and a sliced cooking apple. When the potatoes and carrots are not quite done, add broad beans, and green beans. Also add at this point two bay leaves, a bouquet garni, and chopped fresh dill (or dried if necessary) – which I can only hope are the right herbs according to Tjaden. Cook until the vegetables are all done and the apple has collapsed into the stock, thickening and flavouring it (if you like quantities and more precise timings here is a more professional recipe, with some minor variations from my method: Hanovarian bacon hotpot recipe | Schwartz). I hope it is palatable – a meatless version is good too – enjoy!

I’m not sure if Tjaden would approve of either of these versions of his dish (I do not cook everything together quite, and the apple seems essential and distinctive to me). I realise that my blog has had a slight change of gear towards the end, turning from lit crit to cookery, but the serious point about All Quiet on the Western Front remains. Food is important in the novel partly because it satisfies (for a while) a craving for the comfort of body and mind, but also at the same time shows that the lives of these soldiers are reduced to the basics. If they can sleep and find food, and stay alive, they can, in this abandonment of all other ambition, ask no more. Food in the novel is strongly linked to theft and lawlessness – the odd ‘lucky’ slaughter of comrades apart, it is the only way to get good food – but also to self-reliance: it is one of the few things the men can influence themselves and use their skills, knowledge and ingenuity on. They care nothing now for the nation-state they are supposedly fighting for, or for any larger social structure: they are set down in a world which makes little sense, and they must make their own way in it. The novel somehow simultaneously lets us understand the losses (including notable moral losses) brought about by being reduced to the basics, but also lets us appreciate how important those basics are. The comrade Paul most admires is Katczinsky, known as Kat, largely because of his food-gathering skills. The night when they cannot sleep for hunger in the ruined factory, and after Tjarden shares his recipe, Kat saves them by actually delivering real food:

Kat appears … he is carrying two loaves under his arm, and a blood-stained sandbag full of horsemeat in his hand …Kat has the knack of cooking horse-meat so it is really tender. You mustn’t put it straight into the pan or it will be too tough. It has to be parboiled in a little water beforehand. We sit around in a circle with our knives, and fill our bellies.

That’s Kat … he can find anything – camp stoves and firewood when it is cold, hay and straw, tables, chairs – but above all he can find food. No one understands how he does it … his masterpiece was four cans of lobster. Mind you, we would really have preferred dripping instead.

All Quiet on the Western Front, location 439.

What most satisfying and sustaining – sophistication or the most basic things? Depends on your situation. Lobster or dripping for you?