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Comfort food and books for comfort — The story of Woolton Pie and a new book about WWII

The Cafe Cocotte

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Christina Stock

Sometimes I find inspiration for this column and a recipe in a book, sometimes a recipe inspires me to find a book. Today, an Associated Press reporter writing about a new book on World War II and the Churchill family inspired me to recall the story of a charismatic politician who is mostly forgotten, even by his countrymen in Great Britain.

I remember as a young woman in 1985, living in Normandy for a year to study, when I encountered an old British gentleman. I only remember that his name was Wilfred — I have forgotten his last name. He was vacationing in Deauville, but often walked over the tiny bridge of the river Touques to the less-fancy Trouville-sur-mer, to sit at his favorite coffee house overlooking the fish market. It happened to be my favorite coffee house, as well. At the time, all I could afford was a cup of single espresso and fortunately, the water was free — this was a rarity.

So we sat outside when the weather was good and inside when the brutal winds would swipe into the coast from the English Channel.

After seeing each other several times, he introduced himself and we got to talk. I was always fascinated by different aspects of history — especially learning from “normal” people and eyewitnesses — Wilfred had been smack in the center of one of the most horrific times in London’s history. Here is one of his stories I remember, which, of course, also has something to do with a recipe.

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In 1943, the population of London was desperate, packing up its children to move to the country for safety, with only the adults, the Royal family and some of the heads of parliament remaining in the city.

As The New York Times published on Dec. 14, 1960, Earl Woolton, a Lord and former chairman of the British Conservative Party, became “Uncle Fred” to the British people when he served as Minister of Food in 1940 to 1943.

Wilfred was a young man at the time, working in an almost empty bakery by day, and in the evening he was working for the war effort, recycling anything he could in a makeshift underground cellar factory.

Now, remember, entire European countries had fallen into the hands of the Nazi German military, succumbing to its military that had built the autobahn — the first highway and the first strategically planned road since the Roman Empire — to move its military troops and tanks fast from factories to either of its borders.

The only countries that were safe were Adolf Hitler’s allies, Spain, Italy and Turkey — Switzerland declared itself neutral — and then there was Great Britain. Great Britain who would not bend and denied Hitler his full triumph.

Furiously, Hitler demanded a solution and a ruthless Nazi campaign began with the goal to starve Britain into submission. Rockets at that time were not reaching far enough until later in the war. According to Wilfred, when Lord Woolton talked on the radio, he found comfort in his voice. It was always calm and rather boring sounding. He said that rich and poor must share the food fairly. Meat was impossible to get, but fish and potatoes were still available.

Woolton gave his countrymen a recipe that he recommended and ever since then, it was called “Woolton pie.”

I wish I had recorded his stories, but as far as I remember, Wilfred said that he did change the recipe after the war only to go back to making it in the ‘70s after the original recipe.

The New York Times said about Woolton in the article, that he was referred to as “the greatest quartermaster since Moses.” He was known for being frank, but fair to the public, whom he called his “customers.” They said that even housewives liked him. One wrote, “Thank you for feeding us so well, even though we are fed up.” A 7-year-old girl proposed to him in a letter, “I would like to marry you because I think you would be kind to little children and would feed us well.”

How heartbreaking would it be to read something like this in the midst of war?

Accompanying this story is the recipe, of course, and an Associated Press release about a fascinating new book about World War II.

“Lord Woolton Pie — the official recipe (as published in The Times on April 26, 1941)

In hotels and restaurants, no less than in communal canteens, many people have tasted Lord Woolton pie and pronounced it good. Like many another economical dish, it can be described as wholesome fare. It also meets the dietician’s requirements in certain vitamins. The ingredients can be varied according to the vegetables in season. Here is the official recipe:

Take 1 lb. each diced of potatoes, cauliflower, swedes and carrots, three or four spring onions — if possible, one teaspoonful of vegetable extract (for us, vegetable bouillon), and one tablespoonful of oatmeal. Cook all together for 10 minutes with just enough water to cover. Stir occasionally to prevent the mixture from sticking. Allow to cool; put into a pie dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and cover with a crust of potato or wheatmeal pastry (Wilfred used mashed potatoes with a little bit of water and flour with one egg), bake in a moderate oven until the pastry is nicely browned and serve hot with a brown gravy.

Now to the book:

A new saga about World War II

Erik Larson’s next book centers on Nazi blitz of London

By Hillel Italie

AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Erik Larson’s next book tells a story he knows has been heard before.

“The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz,” which comes out next March, is set during the Nazi bombing of London in 1940-41. Countless books and movies have documented those fateful months and Winston Churchill’s call to “stand up to” Hitler, so that time would be remembered as the British empire’s “finest hour.” But Larson said in a recent interview that he felt there were ways to dramatize those events that have yet to be fully “exploited.” He is drawing upon everything from the diary of Mary Churchill, the prime minister’s daughter, to intelligence reports and other materials only recently declassified.

“My goal was to put us there in that first year of his prime ministry,” said Larson, known for the best-selling “The Devil in the White City,” his novelistic portrait of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

During a recent telephone interview, Larson said he thought of doing the new book after moving from Seattle to New York in 2015 and for the first time viscerally sensing the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Had I been living in the apartment I’m in now I would have seen the smoke,” he said. “I started to think about how you cope during a time like that.”

Larson will juxtapose the Nazi blitzkrieg with such parallel narratives as Churchill’s urgent campaign for aid from the United States and Britain’s efforts to camouflage Churchill’s country home from the Nazi bombers.

“There was all kinds of stuff that I wondered at first if I should use,” he said. “I finally just said, ‘I’m into this. By god, I like it.’”


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