When World War II broke out, I was a young child living in London, England. Our part of town on the east side took the brunt of the “London Blitz,” enduring relentless air raids at day and night. Eventually, it was decided that parts of the civilian population and especially the children had to be evacuated to the safer countryside up north.
My older sister and I were lucky. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews offered us shelter in their little old farm house for the duration of the war, which at the time had no end in sight. They were complete strangers to us, but their kindness, in all likelihood, saved our lives.
Even in retrospect, it is hard to imagine how we survived those horrifying times. Although, we were relatively safe from the bombings, we had little else to count on. Everyone was focused on the war effort and the defense of our country. Life as we had known it was in complete disarray. Worst of all, there were no regular food supplies. All the goods we take normally for granted were unavailable or rationed. In rural areas, where we now lived, people were by and large on their own.
Thankfully, the Andrews knew a thing or two about self-reliance. Their farm was small but it was run efficiently, making the most of its land and livestock. I clearly remember the vegetable garden behind the house: Tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers potatoes, green beans and lettuce grew side by side, row by row. At harvest time, the pantry was stocked like a produce department in a small grocery store. An adjunct apple orchard and berry patch provided fresh fruit in the summer and fruit preserves, made by Mrs. Andrews, throughout the year. A few chickens gave us fresh eggs and for meat supply, Mr. Andrews went out on his bicycle once in a while to hunt rabbits and wild turkey.
Being so young, it was easy for me to make the transition from the big city to life in the country. I was too young to appreciate the differences in lifestyle. As an adult, however, and especially when I had my own children, I often looked back to these years on the Andrews farm with fondness and gratitude – not only because these kind people had kept me out of harms way, but also because they had taught me many things I benefitted from all my life. Among those is a deep appreciation for fresh, healthy food.
I remember specifically the days of spring when I got all excited about planting new seeds in the ground, anxiously awaiting them to grow into something as big and as beautiful as the vegetables pictured on the little envelopes they came in. I recall baskets filled with green and red apples freshly picked from the trees and eating them safely unwashed and unpeeled, because they had not been sprayed with insecticides. I particularly treasure my memories of the home-made bread that I was given as a special treat the moment it came out of the oven. Mrs. Andrews was an artisan baker who probably could have become rich in a place like New York City, but she never gave such things a second thought. She and her husband just did what was necessary to survive, and they took us kids graciously along.
After I was allowed to return to London toward the end of the war, my parents tried hard to make up for the time we had lost living as a family. As soon as food rationing ended, my mother would buy us every treat she could get her hands on, from fish n’ chips to chocolate to ice cream and candy. There was practically no sugar available during the war years and her appetite for sweets was stronger than ever. Her intentions towards us kids were all good, but the nutritional quality of our diet worsened considerably.
Thankfully, I was an extremely active child always playing in the streets and therefore able to burn off the empty calories and extra fat. Besides, I was way too young to distinguish healthy food from junk. And yet, the time spent on the farm with its vegetable garden and apple trees has left an indelible impression on me and has influenced my eating habits throughout my adult life. As a mother, I did my best to pass on to my own children what I had learned through early exposure, hoping they would continue a good tradition of healthy living.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun. You can also Gustafson follow on Twitter at twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD.