“No jokes please, we’re British”: Surprise Potato Balls 1940s.

I realised I’d been neglecting my 20th century history, so today’s experiment is an attempt to rectify that.

In all honesty I chose it because of the title: surprise potato balls. What’s not to like?

The recipe came courtesy of the Ministry of Food, which was the government department tasked with rationing during World War Two.

Technically, the original ministry was established in 1916 to regulate food stocks and deal with supply and trade issues. This first ministry was disbanded in 1921 and for the next 18 years Britain was presumably overflowing with unregulated cheese and never-ending supplies of luncheon paste.

But alas, with the dawning of World War Two the nation was plunged into desperation again, and the second ministry was set up in September of 1939. Its role was similar to the first one, but as well as rationing it was also tasked with researching ways food could be used and preserved.

Ration books were issued to every person in the land with different coupons depending on your age and health. Pregnant women and nursing mothers, for example, were allowed a supply of 1 pint of milk per day when (by 1942) the typical allowance for others was 3 pints per week.

By the end of the war the only things not covered by rationing were fresh fruit and veg. The government, eager to encourage the use of as much of these non rationed foodstuffs as possible, published leaflets with an array of questionable and unappetising enigmatic and inventive recipes for desperate cooks to try out at home. And the veg with the most potential? The humble spud.

Oh, how the ministry loved potatoes. Perhaps Lord Woolton, the minister for food during World War Two had shares in a potato farm. Perhaps he just loved chips. But the ministry churned out pro-potato propaganda as if people’s lives depended on it. Which, I guess, they sort of did.

A superfood?

“There is no vegetable more useful than the potato”, one leaflet cried. The potato provided “fine energy” as well as being a “protective food”, crowed another. People were advised to eat at least 12 ounces or even 1lb of potatoes a day, in any form they could stomach.

Don’t get me wrong – I love potatoes. Any type of potato is fine by me, but I have to admit that even I’d begin to find a never ending diet of mash, chips and roasties a little dull. So, to prevent people getting too bored, the government created the not at all creepy character Potato Pete – a cheeky, slightly pervy potato cartoon who they hoped would appeal to housewives everywhere.

Why are your eyes so red, Potato Pete?

Potato Pete even came with his own potato recipe book, complete with brightly coloured pictures of him spouting out catchphrases, or linking arms with delighted and presumably lobotomised human women who skipped off giddly into the sunset with him, a potato.

Do you remember Doctor Carrot and Potato Pete?
Who knew the pied piper of housewives was a potato?

Making Surprise Potato Balls

One of the recipes in Potato Pete’s recipe book is for Surprise Potato Balls. The writers of the booklet did at least have the wherewithal not to call them Potato Pete’s Surprise Potato Balls, but I still found them hilarious, because I have the sense of humour of a ten year old.

They were straightforward enough: mashed potato with grated carrot and parsley, rolled into balls. I peeled the potatoes, which was a mistake because the ministry actually encouraged people to eat the skins to minimise waste.

One the balls were done, each one was filled with a teaspoon of Branston pickle and then rolled in breadcrumbs and baked for 15 minutes.

The surprise was obviously meant to be the shot of sweet and tangy chutney, but in reality it was how underwhelming these were. I’m not sure what I expected, it being a wartime recipe and all, but the potato was extremely bland. The recipe had said to use milk only if it was absolutely required, which it wasn’t, so I hadn’t. There was no butter or margarine included. This meant that the flavour was quite lacklustre and a little watery.

I served the potato balls with brown gravy (another war time staple, for fashion reasons as much as culinary ones) and the whole effect was of a meal of filling, hot, beigeness. And I suppose that was the point: war was not luxurious. People were making the best of what they had and if a meal could manage to fill you up without tasting outright awful then that was cause to stick it in a recipe book and encourage others to try it.

Potatoey, gravy, chutney goodness.

If you’d like to see Potato Pete’s Potato Balls in full swing (gross) then head over to YouTube where you can watch me make these.

E x

Surprise Potato Balls

450g or 2 cups of potato
A jar of sweet pickle, such as Branston’s
1 large carrot
Teaspoon chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
Breadcrumbs

  1. Chop and boil your potatoes. (For a more authentic WW2 experience don’t peel them first.)
  2. Once they are soft, drain the potatoes and mash them with a fork.
  3. Grate the carrot and add it to the mashed potato.
  4. Add the salt, pepper and chopped parsley and combine fully.
  5. Roll the mixture into balls that are slightly smaller than the size of your palm and place on a baking tray.
  6. Make an indent in each ball with your finger and dollop a teaspoon or so of pickle into the hole.
  7. Reseal the holes and roll each potato ball in breadcrumbs.
  8. Bake in the oven at 180 degrees C (356 F) for about 15 minutes.
  9. Serve with brown gravy.