Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Potato Buns and Snow Eggs: The WI at War

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Potato Buns and Snow Eggs: The WI at War

Article excerpt

On 4 June, members of the Women's Institute (including the long-serving president of the Sandringham branch, one Elizabeth Windsor) gathered in London at the Royal Albert Hall for their hundredth annual meeting. Besides the inevitable prize-winning fruit cake, items on the agenda included a lively debate on long-term care provision in the NHS, a talk by a City CEO, and some daring contemporary knitwear.

Such subjects may sound at odds with the popular image of the organisation as the official face of the blue-rinse brigade, but then the WI has always been about more than cake and conversation; Mary Gwynn notes in her new WI Cookbook (published by Ebury Press) that it "was, and still is, in essence a feminist movement in the true sense of the word", with "food and cookery at its heart from the outset".

The WI was formed in the middle of the Great War when "a group of women banded together to help their country and themselves". As the rather fierce "Aims and Ideals" section of an early WI manual begins: "Talk that does not end in any kind of action is better suppressed altogether."

A plum opportunity for such action came in 1917, when a German submarine blockade of Britain sparked panic that the country was running out of food. The infant Institute rolled up its sleeves and set to work; thousands of "Patriotic Rabbit" clubs were formed to increase meat supplies and small factories were set up to preserve surplus fruit and vegetables. Even the stones from the fruit were used to produce charcoal for gas masks, and Gwynn gives a recipe for rosehip jelly from a time when foraging was a necessity rather than a fad.

There was education to be done, too. In a song called "The Patriot Potato", published in 1918, the titular spud has some tuneful advice for WI members about nutrition and thrift:

   Very soon to the polls
   you'll be going,
   And wonderful things
   will ensue,
   But it's up to you now
   to be showing
   What women with 'taters
   can do. … 
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