Today is Anzac Day. A day to remember the folly of war, celebrate our freedoms, and to remember those that gave their lives for our freedom.
By Jeremy Ryland
Today we celebrate Anzac Day and the soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom. We also celebrate the resourcefulness of the wives, mothers and girlfriends of the Australian soldiers, who developed a biscuit with good nutritional value that could also remain edible for many months, without refrigeration on the ships of the Merchant Navy.
The Anzac biscuit is based on a Scottish recipe and is made from rolled oats, sugar, plain flour, coconut, butter, golden syrup or treacle, bicarbonate of soda and boiling water. Because of the war, eggs were scarce and the binding agent for the biscuits was golden syrup or treacle.
At first, the biscuits were called Soldiers’ biscuits, but after the landing at Gallipoli, they were renamed Anzac biscuits. The original biscuits were hard and often ground up and used like porridge. Today softer Anzac biscuits are still a popular snack and are a reminder of our gallant forefathers.
But of course, Anzac Day is more than just biscuits. Anzac Day is an important day. A day to honour the men and women from all walks of life who have served and serve in the defence of this country. Anzac Day is rich with national sentiment and is in many ways our national day – representing values we like to share – hard work, decency and compassion.
Nationalism is rising because people need to belong to something and it helps to define who we are.
War is such a futile exercise and is largely managed by older men hiding in the safety of dining rooms in gentlemen’s clubs. Humans have been “at war” since time immemorial – originally fighting over food and the best cave and now over ideologies. The only positive thing about war is that it brings communities together for a common goal, like the women who developed the Anzac biscuit.
But how did the war affect daily life? Food was in short supply and rationing was in place in most countries. Imports become more difficult and food was required for the fighting forces, so there were always shortages.
During the past few years we have all had to conserve water. We are rationing water and we are all finding ways to save water, catch and store water and do without water.
More recently, we are being encouraged to reduce waste and buy only the food we need. Indeed, about 30% of the food we buy is wasted and ends up in the garbage. It is important to develop ways and habits to reduce food waste.
Wartime food rationing was similar – except that there was no choice. People made do and developed ways to cope with shortages.
Australians were relatively lucky and were rationed lightly compared to our allies. Rationing was introduced into Australia to ensure civilians did not hoard valuable resources and to ensure that our servicemen were fed adequately – unlike the draconian measures in wartime Britain which were designed to ensure equality and spread out very limited resources.
I was a child living in Britain in the late 50s and 60s – I had a ration book (I still have it in a cupboard somewhere). As a young child, I was not aware of the shortages, but life was restricted long after the war. In Britain, meat, bacon, tea, cheese, sugar, butter, eggs and milk were all in very short supply. There were no onions and very few oranges and bananas. And limited sweets and chocolate. I was brought up to value special treats which we shared in small amounts – but which are now available without any restrictions, to our detriment.
One side-benefit of rationing was that people were actually healthier than today. We were thinner due to a restricted but healthy balanced diet with less fat than today. In contrast, today’s obesity, diabetes and allergies are affluent diseases largely due to the abundance of all foodstuffs today!
Another benefit was that food prices were fixed, something we’d all like today! And fixed prices stopped discounting, ensuring the farmers got a reasonable margin as well.
People were encouraged to produce their own food. Parks were turned into allotments and people grew their own fruit and veggies. Everyone kept their own chooks – a common affluent practice today!
People became inventive. “Making do”, using leftovers and reducing waste were common. Rabbits and chicken became popular. There was no waste…bones were used to make soup, vegetables turned into bubble & squeak, tea was reused and dripping was used as a “butter” substitute. “Gypsy sausages” were made from fruit, stale bread and a little meat wrapped in cabbage leaves. And flavour was everything.
They say that “necessity is the mother of invention”. Many foods we take for granted today were developed because of war: canning, margarine, modern food processing, vitamin enrichment, freeze-dried coffee - are all the result of finding ways to feed troops.
At home, we were introduced to new foods, like Coca-Cola and hamburgers which were brought to Australia by American soldiers – along with Kraft processed cheese and Spam.
It is said that fewer went hungry, more food was produced and less wasted – leading to our food export economy. The war helped develop Australian exports.
However, the overall war diet was plain – lamb roast, stews, Cornish pasties, meat and three veg, scones – not as exciting as our modern cuisine today.
The understanding of cultural differences that have given us our wonderful diversity of food came after the war with a more open, better-travelled world. And many of the frugalities developed during the war have helped us to better understand human nutrition. For example, “war cake”, similar to Anzac biscuits, was developed to confront the problems of cooking on a tight budget and with limited resources – and is now promoted for allergy suffers as it contains no milk, no eggs, no butter, no white sugar and no preservatives.
Some of our best and tastiest dishes are the result of post-war immigration and frugality – spaghetti bolognaise, beef casseroles, pies, lamb roast, apple crumble.
One aspect of family life which was healthier back then is the family meal. Recent research shows that most families eat together less than four times a week and that 60% of families always or often have the television on at the same time (TV was born after the war in 1959).
The family meal is important – an important social ritual that improves communication and relationships. Research shows that teenagers who partake in regular family meals are six times less likely to experiment with drugs. And those that share in family meals do better academically and, of course, there are nutritional benefits.
And believe it or not, the research shows that over 84% of teenagers like eating family meals.
So today, on Anzac Day, remember the sacrifices of the soldiers in the past and celebrate the fabulous, varied, multicultural cuisine we enjoy today because of them.