Wild Food Spring #2: “They Can’t Ration These”

In this series, Dylan Gordon considers cookbooks, memoirs and fictions about wild, foraged foods. Reviewed in this essay: They Can’t Ration These by Vicomte de Mauduit, Persephone Books, 2004 [1940].

Foods foraged from the wild are this year’s hot culinary trend, and all that limelight makes it easy to forget one fact: in much of history, and for many living today, wild foods are last resorts. Being turned to in times of famine often even makes them despised. In foraging’s last American heyday, sparked by Euell Gibbons’s 1962 hit Stalking the Wild Asparagus, that legacy spawned quick jokes about the kooky habit of “eating nuts and twigs.” Even today, when it comes to interest in foraging haute gastronomes share space with those interested in “free food,” and survivalists.

204px-Sample_UK_Childs_Ration_Book_WW2This contradiction is part of what makes de Mauduit’s WWII-era guide to the wealth of “Nature’s larder” particularly interesting. It bridges the gap between food as a bare need and food as a thing also subject to the most fickle or outrageous of desires. While keeping alive is a key motive—his book in hand, he hopes one might “live in comfort, in plenty, and in health even if all banks, all shops, and all markets be closed”—the Gallic Vicomte also dreams that when peace returns Britons might see his work as “a practical and valuable guide to better things” than the stalwart “joint with two veg.”

The contents evidence both aims. In each section, one finds short introductions to wild ingredients and simple recipes for them, three to five per page, interspersed with tips on the cultivation of more common species, or instructions for preserving foods through bottling, drying and so forth. An entire chapter is given over to substitutes for items ranging from coffee to firewood; others present natural, plant-based medicines, or describe handicrafts, tools and cosmetics to be made from natural materials. And for every simple Dandelion Salad (“wash and dry the leaves of young dandelions… pour over this a salad dressing”) there is a Cardoons in Sauce Mornay or a Partridge Savoy: no bare survival here, but instead a hearty helping of joie de vivre.

Do I recommend this book? As a fieldguide it falls a little short, with its brief descriptions, and engravings more decorative than botanical. Neither will be much help in the bush. But as an historical and literary document (in a beautiful new edition), or as an inspiration to those who want to experiment with living life closer to the earth, it has great charm. Well-larded with witty refusals to succumb to the dreariness of simply existing, They Can’t Ration These is above all about remaining spirited and engaged with the delights of what nature provides – a guide to living well, as a last resort.