The other day I went to see a wonderful little exhibit at one of my favourite London museums, the Imperial War Museum. The Ministry of Food explores how Britain adapted to food shortages on the home front during the Second World War. From the Women’s Land Army, which tilled the fields while the men were away, to the role of the Commonwealth countries in getting supplies to Britain, to rationing and the government information campaign on how to stretch those meagre weekly allowances into passable meals, it was a fun look at a rather bleak culinary period.
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My own father was born into this environment, and my granny was one of the housewives who had to feed a growing family on a less than ideal diet. Growing up in Germany she had servants and housekeepers; she didn’t really learn her way around a kitchen until she was raising a family in wartime England. The family joke is that this is why she was such an ghastly cook – anyone who learned to cook in wartime Britain didn’t stand a chance!
Central to feeding the nation, of course, was encouraging people to grow their own vegetables to alleviate pressure on a restricted food supply. The number of allotments doubled over the course of the war, and vegetable gardening at home, previously thought to be a bit gauche, became the norm as people planted war gardens or victory gardens, both in Britain and in the allied nations abroad.
As I was going through the exhibit, I couldn’t help but notice that it all had a whiff of the familiar. These days waiting lists for allotments are at an all-time high in England; farmers’ markets are super trendy; Michelle Obama has planted the White House Kitchen Garden, the first vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave since Eleanor Roosevelt’s WWII victory garden. Back then, of course, the war was against a foreign enemy; now it’s a war on food miles, processed supermarket junk and unsustainable agricultural practices.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this interest in “growing your own” coincides with a reprint of The Victory Garden Cookbook, which originally accompanied the PBS gardening show of the same name in the 1980s. This cookbook won’t win any awards for style, but my mum’s sticky, dog-eared copy has long been a firm favourite of mine for its excellent ideas for cooking a whopping 37 vegetables. Along with the baked onions that cause a riot every year at the Christmas dinner table (they’re so good that everyone wants the last one), this is my favourite recipe from the book.
I often add a layer of cream cheese frosting to the top of this casual cake, but it’s really not necessary. It’s so moist and flavoursome that the sweet potato shines on its own. A true taste of the garden.
Sweet Potato Spice Cake
Adapted from The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 large apple, peeled and grated
1/2 pound (225 g) sweet potato, peeled and grated
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350F / 180C. Grease and flour an 8 inch square pan.
In a medium bowl combine the the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg, and whisk together with a fork. Set aside.
Peel and grate the sweet potatoes and apple. Set aside.
In a large bowl with a wooden spoon, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Stir in the grated sweet potato and apple, then add the dry ingredients, stirring until everything is just becoming incorporated and there are a few dry patches left. Mix in the nuts, and make sure there are no dry patches of batter left.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the centre of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until the cake springs back lightly when pressed and a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack before icing with cream cheese frosting if you wish, and cutting into squares.