We are living through a time made for feasting with the imagination, an act precedented in Second World War prison camps.
“Am cooking Mum’s old favourite tonight – scalloped potatoes on ham. It makes me think of her every time I make it.” Over the past few weeks of pandemic lockdown my sister has reverted to our mother’s old reliables, recipes so tried and true they were never recorded, just absorbed. She is not alone in changing her cooking habits. From stress baking to rediscovering the oven or learning how to turn it on for the first time, many who are lucky enough to have a constant supply of food are making meals differently. Comfort, whether it be found in a bag of take-out or a homemade gourmet meal, is high on the list of goals. One friend has been relaxing into one of the few methods of travel still open – eating her way around the world. “So far our family has made food from Lebanon, Greece, Palestine, Belgium, next is France, Italy, Mexico, we are also planning South Africa, Canada and beyond.”
Her efforts echo the tastes of Audrey Goodridge, a British woman who contributed international recipes to an odd little cookbook with an unwieldy title: Prisoners of War Cook Book: This is A Collection of Recipes Made by Starving Prisoners When They Were Interned in Changi Jail, Singapore. The collection was compiled by a Canadian prisoner, Ethel Mulvany, and contained over four hundred recipes from the women interned at Changi Jail. Audrey was young and pregnant when the British colony of Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942. The invaders had no plan for feeding the tens of thousands of military and civilian prisoners who quickly became their responsibility.[i] Over the next three and a half years of the war those prisoners were always more than hungry.
Audrey and hundreds of other women in the jail were forever talking about food, trying to fill their bellies with words. They were not alone. During the Second World War prisoners around the world were enthralled by what some called “cooking with the mouth.”[ii] Over time the Changi women developed elaborate afternoon rituals, dressing in the best they had and setting an imaginary table. Gathering around, they delved into their culinary memory banks searching for something sustaining. Ethel Mulvany, organiser of the imaginary feasts, found literary inspiration for them in Newfoundlander Ned Pratt’s poem, “The Depression Ends.”[iii] Written in the depths of the Depression it describes a table in the skies laden with food reserved for the world’s destitute.
In Changi recipes were shared like poems and Audrey was the most prolific of these culinary poets. To escape her hunger and worries over the daughter she had given birth to just weeks after being imprisoned, she travelled on gastronomic reveries to Spain for Lamb cutlets a là Navarra, to Italy for Cauliflower a là Romana, up to Vienna for Schnitzel, on to Russia for Fish Zrazy, and all the way back home to England for Chocolate Biscuits. Not all the women of Changi who participated in these afternoons of food talk were keen to go global. Many just wanted to go home via the taste of the most coveted food of all, bread.
At the end of the war Ethel returned to Canada with not much more than the $14 the Salvation Army had given her, and with her recipe collection. She had it printed up and by 1947 had sold 20,000 copies of the slender volume, flogging it in church basements and community halls around Ontario. She raised $18,000 (over $200,000 in today’s funds).[iv] With this fortune she sent food to former POWs hospitalized in England which was still under strict rationing.
The prisoners in Changi Jail never had any of the ingredients to make the recipes they talked about. Their flights of fancy never took the hunger away, but did take the prisoners away from their hunger. For a brief time each day the women could go wherever they wanted, eat the food they dreamt of and savour the company of the friends, families and lovers they yearned for. Audrey Goodridge and her daughter Pip both survived the war, aided in part by those communal flights of fancy.
Isolated in our homes we too can summon our imaginations–and technologies–to break bread with distant companions and collectively dream of how to craft a better world out of this hardship.
Suzanne Evans, former research fellow at the Canadian War Museum, is the author of a forthcoming biography of Ethel Mulvany, The Taste of Longing.
[i] Felicia Yap, “Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees of the Japanese in British Asia: The Similarities and Contrast of Experience,” Journal of Contemporary History 47:2 (2012): 325.
[ii] Cara de Silva, “Introduction” in In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin, trans. Bianca Steiner Brown, ed. (New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1996), xxix. For a list of prisoner recipe collections from the Second World War see “Culinary Imagination as a Survival Tool,” endnote #5.
[iii] E.J. Pratt, Many Moods (Toronto: Macmillan, 1932).
[iv] Ethel Mulvany, from a series of 1961 taped interviews with Sidney Katz done in preparation for a Maclean’s article about how Ethel and others survived in Changi (Mindemoya Pioneer Museum Archives, Manitoulin).