Beyond Bubbies

Last night, I got to play on stage. As a journalist who writes about food and sustainability, typically when I speak in front of an audience it is about my research. And while I always tell lots of–what I hope are entertaining–stories of the people I meet in the field, it’s focused on the big picture issue of how to feed this planet, sustainably. When I was invited to speak as part of the Beyond Bubbies event in Toronto–an evening of storytelling about food, recipes and grandmothers–I said yes immediately. It was a wonderful opportunity to share a family story.

My grandmother came of age during the Second World War in London, England and she told me many stories of how hungry she was, living on government rations. Food always made its way into everything she talked about. For the performance last night, I transcribed an interview I did with my grandmother a few years before she had her major stroke, about a night of air raids during the Battle of Britain. I tweaked it a bit so it worked as a monologue and, after offering the audience a little explanation of who my grandmother was–and her obsession with where her food came from–I transformed myself into her, and spoke her words. What a thrill! Here’s what she said–in her words:

My mother improvised a bomb shelter. She’d cleared out the coal cellar under the stairs. We had a margarine box to sit on… and a candle which we kept alight. I had a little toy suitcase where I’d packed my stockings… a change of clothes. Just in case. And we’d sit  underneath there as the bombs were falling on London. Listening. That’s what you did. Listen. To the noise of the planes.

If they let a bomb down, you can hear it go shhhh…. You can hear the swish as it falls to the earth. But a landmine–that is different. It floats down. In silence. The land mine quietly floats down and everything explodes.

One night a land mine hit. It was just down from us. It was horrendous. The doors and window rattled and shook. Oh, it was horrendous. My mother said to me, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll get a new house.” Because our house wasn’t much good. But it hit down the block and flattened a whole area. There were a lot of people killed.

After the landmine exploded, we were knocked up. The air raid precaution men knocked at the door, which meant we had to go to help. We had to go to Pound Lane. There was a church there. With a big hall they’d opened for a rest centre. So that if you were bombed out you could go there. My mother and I had to get there as quickly as we could.

It was moonlight. It was magnificent. The moonlight was wonderful. The planes looked lovely. It was all silver. My mother said “You know they can see us.” We had to run along the high street and go from doorway to doorway.

And then at the rest center these rations mysteriously appeared. I made hot cocoa out of powdered milk. Somebody must have brought bread. Because we had cans of bully beef… I made sandwiches for people. And I took their names and addresses down and they slept there…

Their homes had been ruined. Maybe they’d lost someone. But at least I was able to give them something to eat.