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VE Day, Mock Crab, and Mock Bananas

At their VE Day party, my mom remembers sandwiches with flavours like mock crab and mock banana, along with buns, jellies, and blancmanges. Hang on! Mock banana?

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Just a few minutes ago as I pen these words, I was chatting with my mom on FaceTime. I know I’m supposed to be at the cutting edge of technology, but I still find it amazing that I can be in the USA and she can be in the UK and we can both enjoy real-time video conversations on our iPads. This made me think about the fact that I was re-reading a couple of classic science fiction tales by Isaac Asimov a few days ago (see Living in Splendid Self-Isolation), but — even though these were set 3,000 years in our future — the master himself didn’t predict anything like the wireless networking and video conferencing capabilities we enjoy today. Mom reminded me that today, 8 May, is the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. Generally known as VE Day in the UK and V-E Day in the USA, this day celebrates the formal acceptance by the Allies of World War II of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces on Tuesday, 8 May 1945, thereby marking the end of World War II in Europe. As mom told me:
My memory of VE night is very intense. As a 14-year-old, I was happy that our dreadful war was at an end. Two weeks before the War started, my Dad, who was on Royal Naval Reserve, had been taken away by the Police, at dead of night, to re-join the Navy, and he had then spent the following six years getting himself sunk on the Hermes and the Prince of Wales and then serving on the Russian Convoys, so it was wonderful that he would soon be home, safe at last. As you can imagine, Winston Churchill’s announcement that the War in Europe was now over was a great relief to me and I looked forward to the Celebrations that were being arranged for that night on Thirlwell Bank, a cul-de-sac off Thirlwell Road, Heeley.
I just bounced over to YouTube, as you do, to find this video of Winston Churchill announcing Germany’s unconditional surrender in his VE Day speech.  
Mom went on to tell me that she had written a letter about her remembrance of VE day to her local newspaper, the Sheffield Star, and that this letter had been published today. A copy of her letter is as follows:
VE DAY, 8TH MAY 1945 At long, last, this dreadful war was over. All our news had been on the war in Europe, so the Japanese War seemed far away. But our War was over. No more bombings. No more worries about the arrival of the Telegram Boy bringing bad news. Just a time to celebrate that we were all still alive and here. All the neighbours gathered at the bottom of the yard to listen to our beloved leader, Winston Churchill, give his wonderful speech on the radio. We listened to the announcement, cheered our lungs out, raided our precious rations, and set off to Thirlwell Bank where our street party would be held. Thirlwell Bank was a cul-de-sac and so could be quite private. The preparations started. The people on Thirlwell Bank brought out their tables and chairs and made one long table the full length of the Bank. They covered the table with sheets and people began to bring in plates, cups, and cutlery and set everything up. Everyone brought something to eat, including sandwiches with flavours from our Wartime recipes (mock crab, mock banana, Spam, etc.), along with buns, jellies and blancmanges. Everything was deposited in cellars to keep cool because there were no refrigerators at that time. And there was a huge Guy, looking remarkably like Adolph Hitler, sitting on a chair atop a massive bonfire. And then it was time for the fun to start. It was magical. The “blackout” had become a “dimout” a few weeks earlier, and my sister and I had spent many evenings roaming round Heeley, savouring the magic of lights seeping through curtains — we thought this was wonderful after all those years of complete black when darkness came. But tonight, even the curtains were open and naked light streamed out of every house on to the festivities. The food was consumed and then the bonfire was lit. I noticed that the adults seemed strangely excited, but all joined in the fun. And then, Adolf caught fire — the excitement grew and there was a sort of explosion — not an enormous one, but one which caused much amusement among the adults. I learned later that a firework that had been saved from the beginning of the War for just such an occasion had been placed in a strategic position on Adolf’s body, and this was the explosion all the adults had been waiting for. The evening ended with everyone singing the lovely songs made famous by Dame Vera Lynn, and then we all went to bed, happier than we had been for several years. What a memory!
Hang on! Mock bananas? Did that catch your eye as it caught mine? What on earth is a mock banana when it’s at home. I asked my mom, who tells me that they had all sorts of “mock” food recipes in those days. In this case they boiled and pureed parsnips and added “banana flavor” (don’t ask). My mom says that, as hard as this may be to believe, mock banana didn’t taste as good as it sounds. Well, color me surprised! I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be 9-years old when the war started in 1939 and to live through those desperate years. I also cannot imagine the joy everyone must have felt when the war ended and everyone’s exuberation at that VE party. If I ever get my time machine working, I will make a point of popping back to that day, contributing some really good sandwiches of my own, and unobtrusively observing my mom and the rest of our family as they were back then (well, as unobtrusively as I can be in my Hawaiian shirt). If you are interested in reading more, I wrote a couple of The Times They Are a-Changin’ columns a few months ago. In Part 1 we meet my mom as a young girl; in Part 2 we learn how, if the Guinness Book of Records had been around at that time, my granddad would have been a contender for the “Man who was on the most ships sunk in WWII” record; and in Part 3 we meet my dad as a young man and discover how he came to meet my mom. As an added bonus (you’re welcome), in Great Balls of Lightning! we are regaled with tales of my mom’s experiences with precognition and ball lightning (where else could you go to read this sort of stuff?).

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Tom Burke

Max, sounds like your (saintly) mum was born the same year as mine (1930). My mother passed last fall, sadly, missing what would have been her 90th on Cinco de Mayo. I tried to take every opportunity for her to tell my kids some of her stories about growing up in the Great Depression and WW2. It is hard for me to relate, let alone my kids. We are getting a tiny sliver of a taste of the concept of rationing and “doing without” during this Covid19 pandemic. I can almost hear my mother now, “…this is nothing! Now, back in my day….” I hope your mother starts lots of conversations that way. The Greatest Generation indeed!

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