During World War 2 when my brother and I were growing up, life centered around the war effort. We collected waste paper and scrap metal, we bought a Victory stamp each week and pasted it into a booklet which, when filled, could be exchanged for a War Bond. We squabbled over whose turn it was to squeeze the coloring capsule into the pack of margarine and who got to step on the empty tin can to squash it for the scrap pile. And we planted a Victory Garden.
Looking back, I can’t quite see the purpose of the Victory Garden. Rationed foods included meat, sugar and butter, but vegetables were plentiful and chances were slim that any of these home-grown plots would produce sugar cane or livestock. Perhaps it was just a ploy on the part of the government to keep the home front busy and make us feel that we were contributing towards winning the war.
Whatever the purpose, the idea was an instant hit with the public. People whose sole horticultural experience was limited to a couple of geraniums in a pot rushed to arm themselves with spades, hoes, and trowels.
The owner of a large estate in our neighborhood donated his lawn for the duration, and everyone in the immediate vicinity returned to the soil with a will, digging, planting, watering, and weeding.
Memories of the crops vary. My father remembered only broccoli—not a favorite of his—while I remember only the carrots and the tomatoes.
The carrots were actually quite edible, except for the few that we forgot to dig up. They kept growing through the winter, and the following spring when we rediscovered them, they were about a foot in diameter, reached halfway to the center of the earth and had the consistency of teak.
The tomatoes were another matter. They proliferated madly. We would strip the vines one day, only to find them laden again the next. There was no end to them -- they just kept coming.
Bushel baskets of them rapidly piled up in the kitchen, the pantry, the basement. There was no one to give them to -- everyone else’s tomatoes were growing at the same rate.
Serving tomatoes at every meal, including breakfast—sliced, diced, fried, grilled, pureed—made a barely perceptible dent in the supply. Leaving them to rot after all the effort of raising
them seemed unthinkable.
Then my mother discovered a quirk in the rationing regulations—people who undertook home canning received an additional sugar ration! Two birds with one stone —we got rid of the tomatoes AND got extra sugar. Needless to say, Mother would never have claimed the special ration without actually doing the canning, but after all, no one was going to quibble over an occasional topping up of the sugar bowl or the odd batch of fudge.
Blithely unaware of exactly what would be involved, she plunged into an orgy of canning
and for weeks the family found ourselves feeling our way through a kitchen thick with clouds of steam emanating from simmering cauldrons of tomatoes and boiling water.
Every horizontal surface was covered in Mason jars standing neck to neck alongside bunches of those metal clips that held the lids on. It was the middle of summer; no air conditioning in those days. Limp with heat and perspiration, my mother carried on doggedly until every last tomato was accounted for. The whole family lined up to admire the finished product—ruby jar upon ruby jar glowed enticingly through the slowly dissipating mist in the kitchen.
To keep cool, the jars were stored on a shelf in the basement—a fortuitous decision as it turned out. Mere days after completion of the project, the first jar exploded. My father leapt as though he had been stung. “What the hell was that?” he cried. We soon got used to it—for the duration of the war, life in our house was punctuated by a series of muffled bangs. We became blasé—“There goes another one,” we would murmur. We could go for months with no action and then several would detonate together. Three of them went off in a single afternoon while the minister was visiting. We never actually got around to eating any of the tomatoes, probably another wise decision.
“We could drop them on Germany,” muttered my Dad, but well out of Mother’s earshot.
The following year, except for digging up the giant carrots, the Victory Garden was abandoned. We won the war anyway.
Following ten years in the U.S. Diplomatic Service, serving in Bangkok, Paris and Mogadishu, Sara Palmer worked as a journalist and editor for publications in the U.S., England and the Middle East.