By Sarah Pridgeon
There’s an entrée I’ve been enjoying since childhood that’s more than just cause to fight over leftovers. It’s also an edible demonstration of the friendship between the United Kingdom and America – not to mention the generosity this country has always been known for. As seems the case with so many things, it all began with a world war.
As the threat from the Nazis dragged on and Britain watched its allies topple one by one, a new threat joined the most obvious concerns over bombings and invasions. We were hungry.
One of Adolf Hitler’s unpleasant brainwaves was to cut off the trade routes between Britain and her friends, ensuring that the civilian population was unable to import goods. This was a problem, because at that time we shipped over two thirds of our food from abroad.
Half of our meat was imported, as well as most of our fruits, cereals, cheese and sugar and almost all of our butter. Hitler knew this, and he also knew that cutting off our supplies would eventually force us to surrender.
It wasn’t long before our supplies were dwindling. Some say we were mere days from starvation thanks to the blockades keeping our imports from arriving.
That, of course, is when America stepped in. In 1940, a seaplane arrived off the coast of Antigua with a message for President Teddy Roosevelt from Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
In that message, Churchill laid bare the problem, summarizing all that Britain had lost but stressing that we were resolved to continue fighting. It would not be long, he said, before the country could no longer pay for supplies from America.
Now, by all accounts, Roosevelt knew it was inevitable that America would enter the war. His job was to prepare the people for that moment – and he needed Britain to still be fighting when it came.
Roosevelt also knew that America’s industry could arm both countries without too much stress, but how was Britain going to pay for it? After a few days of mulling it over, he made his statement.
He told the nation that America would need to be an “arsenal for democracy” before the crisis consumed her. He told stories such as the idea of loaning your hose to your next door neighbor to help him extinguish a fire in his home, using them to announce his plan to provide arms to Britain through a loan-lease program.
When that bill was signed into law, Churchill called it, “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation”. More was yet to come.
Shipments of aid began arriving in Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Inside them were tins upon tins of Spam® – an absolute godsend for our hungry civilians and troops alike.
By the time all was said and done, 1400 ships had taken part in the Artic convoy, bypassing the blockades to bring their aid to Europe. On top of all those arms and medicine, it’s estimated that the United States shipped a staggering 150 million pounds of canned meat to Britain and the Soviet Union.
It was perhaps even more of a relief for the latter army, which had been cut off completely; Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet leader, wrote, “Without Spam, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.”
When those shipments arrived, veterans tell stories of weeping soldiers who hadn’t seen meat for two years.
My father tells me that, by the end of the war, many Brits had come to recognize the assistance by giving this country the affectionate nickname of “Uncle Spam”. I also came across a marvelous poem written during that time, though nobody knows whose pen was responsible. It goes as follows:
“Now Jackson had his acorns, And Grant his precious rye; Teddy had his poisoned beef – Worse you couldn’t buy. The doughboy had his hardtack, Without the navy’s jam, But armies on their stomachs move – And this one moves on Spam.”
We used canned meat in everything we could think of, from pies and soups to salads and sandwiches. We used it so much that it became a running joke how sick of canned meat we’d all become. And while many people have forgotten how that hand of friendship turned the tide, we’re still eating it to this day.
In my own family, a favorite has always been corned beef fritters – though Spam is just as valid an ingredient. And so I offer you the recipe as my own small way of extending that hand back again:
In a mixing bowl, add two eggs to 4 oz of self-rising flour, then slowly add 10 fl oz of milk and whisk together until smooth. Stop adding the milk once the mixture is runny, but thick enough to stick to the meat.
Meanwhile, open a tin of corned beef or Spam that you’ve stored in the fridge for at least a day. Slice it very thinly – one can will provide ten or 12 pieces.
Heat a layer of oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Dip a slice of corned beef into the batter, then place it in the pan. You’ll be able to fit four or five fritters into the pan at once.
After about 30 seconds, the underside will have browned, so it’s time to flip them. Once both sides are cooked, you can keep the fritters in a warm oven until all the batches are done.
Corned beef fritters are best served with buttery mashed potatoes, peas and carrots. A plate of delicious flavors and a reminder of the foodstuff that saved two nations, thanks to the kindness of its friends.