In his history of British military grub since 1707, author James Mannion serves up a welter of cracking recipes, fascinating factoids and riveting social history.
Did the British really invent lasagne? What is Baby’s Head Pudding when it’s at home? How does Prince Harry prefer his bangers and mash? How do you prepare a snake steak? These are just some of the questions answered in the pages of Bully Beef And Boiled Sweets.
Jon Wilde meets James Mannion to find out more.
JW: What inspired you to write Bully Beef And Boiled Sweets?
JM: It started with my granddad, Joe Griffin. One of the proudest moments of my life came in 2011 and involved joining him and the few surviving number of 771 Squadron’s telegraphist air gunners on Remembrance Sunday in the march past the Cenotaph. It was an extraordinarily moving and humbling experience to stand there amongst all these men who had served in WW2 without question and with such honour.
I remember coming away from the Cenotaph, thinking that I’d like to do something to express my gratitude to the remarkable men who have made such enormous sacrifices in defending their country. Gradually the idea took on a form. Previously I’d talked with my agent about doing a book on cooking. I’d read Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook, a guide to sophisticated cooking for the would-be Harry Palmer among us. I realised there was nothing quite like that on the market these days. Most modern cookbooks are aimed squarely at a female audience, largely because there’s an outdated assumption that women do most of the cooking and men aren’t really interested. I couldn’t find cookbooks that were aimed specifically at men or books that would encourage men to experiment a bit more with their cooking. It occurred to me that I could write a book centred around army food. The men in the forces knock up these brilliant dishes using very few fresh ingredients in very difficult circumstances. If they can manage to make these meals, then surely anyone can. That’s when the idea for the book started gathering momentum. When I started researching it, I realised there was a fascinating, largely untold history with regard to food and the British Armed Forces.
JW: In the book you quote Napoleon Bonaparte as saying, “An army marches on its stomach.” If the German soldiers had been served better grub in WW2, might history have turned out differently?
JM: It might well have done. In WW2, German rations were certainly inferior to the grub that British soldiers were being fed. The daily German ration consisted of just a loaf of bread, a handful of biscuits and some spuds. Their British counterpart received bread, cheese, meat, tea, jam, chocolate, rum and tobacco. Towards the end of the war the Germans were fighting on so many different fronts it must have been difficult to get any food to them at all. They were starving, particularly in Russia. Nobody, let alone a soldier, is going to be at their best in that condition.
It’s not only a question of staving off hunger. A good meal inside you can be a real morale-booster.
JW: Presumably, you’ve tasted all the recipes in the book?
JM: Erm…most of them, yes. I missed out some of the recipes from the chapter devoted to the stuff that soldiers are reduced to eating when they run out of supplies. I didn’t get round to eating a snake steak, but only because I didn’t run into any snakes. I couldn’t find any Iranian Mars Bars. As explained in the book, these were specially made for the late Shah of Iran in the late 70s and somehow ended up in the ration packs of British soldiers many years later. I did sample the spit-roasted wood pigeon though, which I would highly recommend.
JW: You managed to get some well-known names involved in the book, supplying their own recipes. Did that take much persuasion?
JM: Not really. It occurred to me that there were quite a few celebrities who’d spent time in the services and so I managed to get some brilliant contributions, including Andy McNab’s Lamb Tagine, John Lewsey’s Full English Breakfast and Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. I did approach Prince Harry’s representative at Clarence House and, even though the prince wasn’t able to spare the time, I did manage to get his recipe for bangers & mash in there.
JW: I was interested to read in the book that there were plenty of carrots consumed by the typical Tommy during both Worlds Wars, in the belief that carrots improved night vision. Is there any evidence that carrots enable one to see in the dark?
JM: Like a number of urban myths, there’s an element of truth in it. Carotene certainly improves eyesight but so do many other things. No matter how many carrots you eat, you’re unlikely to be able to see in the dark as well as an owl or a badger. I suspect that the army put the word around in the hope that it would encourage soldiers to eat more carrots and other fresh vegetables.
It was this kind of detail that I was looking to seize upon for the book. In addition to the recipes, I wanted it to be full of strange, interesting, funny and engaging stories. The idea is that people can dip in and out of the book, hopefully being informed and amused as they go.
JW: After reading your account of how to catch a cod with a cola bottle I’m unsure how I’ve survived in the world without access to such knowledge.
JM: That’s the beauty of it. You never know when you’re likely to find yourself stranded by a river in the middle of nowhere without a net or fishing rod to hand. If you have a Coke bottle, then you’re sorted for supper because fish are generally stupid and lazy. Stick the bottle in the right part of the river and a fish will swim into it, guaranteed.
JW: Another interesting theory to be found in the book is that it was the British who invented lasagne and the Italians nicked the recipe.
JM: That theory does appear to hold up. A recipe for something very close to lasagne appears in Britain’s oldest cookbook, dating back to the reign of King Richard II. Mind you, the Greeks have also got a claim on it.
JW: You also point out a fascinating link between chilli con carne and cannibalism.
JM: Yes. This refers to a certain native American tribe from the 1600s who were so confident of victory in a forthcoming battle against the invading conquistadors that they prepared the basic ingredients of a good chilli, leaving ample room for the conquistadors themselves to be stirred into the pot after being chopped up.
JW: I was astonished to learn that it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the army began issuing boots for both left and right feet. Until that point, footwear was neither left nor right, merely neutral. Can this possibly be true?
JM: Seemingly, it wasn’t just the army. No-one wore left and right shoes and they didn’t seem particularly bothered about it. Then some bright spark came along and realised that there’s a bit of difference between a left foot and a right foot, and that proved to be a game-changer.
JW: At one point in the book you refer to some Indian chap who claims to live entirely on fresh air, with no need for food or water. Any reason to doubt his claims?
JM: He’s a yogi and claims to have survived without any sustenance for more than seventy years. I’m sure there’s a few reasons to doubt him. Surely he sneaks in the occasional bag of Quavers? But who knows? The mind is a mysterious and very powerful tool. Apparently, this chap is now under round-the-clock observation in an Indian hospital and the military are watching him closely to find out how he does it.
JW: It was Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader during the Cold War, who once remarked, “Without Spam, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.” Not surprisingly, Spam looms large in your book. Are you a fan of the stuff?
JM: I ate it as a kid and I sampled the melted cheese spamcakes that feature in the book. I have huge admiration for Corporal Liam Francis who fed an entire battalion of the Welsh Guard for six weeks on nothing but Spam after the Taliban shot down his supply helicopter and destroyed all the rations. That’s a great example of British resilience in the face of adversity.
JW: I have to ask this. Are the ruling ranks of the British army still putting bromide in Tommy’s tea to dampen his ardour and keep his mind on the job in hand?
JM: It wasn’t just the British who resorted to this kind of thing, of course. In the US army they used to add saltpetre to the breakfast eggs. Happily these practices are long gone. Not only was it morally dubious to add saltpetre to food to keep a soldier’s mind off sex, it could actually kill people, thereby playing into the enemy’s hands.
JW: Presumably, the army’s approach to food has progressed somewhat in the past century?
JM: Definitely. In the past, the logistics of getting food to soldiers was incredibly complex. Nowadays, in any theatre of war, they’ll set up food stations and have a kitchen to rival any restaurant. Also, the guys are now taught to cook for themselves and they’re given easy-to-prepare ration packs that can be simply heated over a stove. These days you’ll find fast food outlets on many military bases and the ration packs have been completely modernised. It’s all about making the soldier’s life as comfortable as possible in often very trying circumstances. Booze is only available at certain times although, if you’re in the officer class, you can have whisky in your marmalade if that takes your fancy.
JW: Any plans for the next book?
JM: Since I started working in journalism, one of my main ambitions was to write a book and see it on the bookstore shelves. I’ve now got photos of myself standing in Waterstones next to piles of Bully Beef And Boiled Sweets. I hope there’ll be other books. I’m just not sure what form they’ll take at the minute.