Of War and Wales

by Arden Egerton

Imagine a beautiful land with mountains and not many roads...with a magical feel. You’re in Wales, a small country in the United Kingdom. My grandparents, Judith and John Egerton, whom I call “Nana” and “Poppa John,” grew up in Wales at the end of World War II. Nana was from a little village called Panteg in the countryside of South Wales. Poppa John grew up in a small, secluded village in Mid Wales.

During World War II, when Nana was a little girl, ships in the harbors near Panteg were bombed by German airplanes. When the sirens blared, they had to run over to their neighbor’s house and hide under a big metal table, which was called an air raid shelter. Since they weren’t allowed lights, because the Germans might spot them, Nana and her mum and dad would play games in the dark in the shelter.

There wasn’t a lot of food because of the war. Food was rationed and they rarely had any treats. There were German prisoners of war (POWs) who were captured by the U.K. and kept near Nana’s house. The POWs worked in the fields and grew all the vegetables for their village. Nana told me, “Our mothers felt sorry for them, as they were young—often only seventeen. Our mums would cook Welsh cakes and bring them to the POWs in the fields.” Welsh cakes are small, warm, sweet biscuits with raisins in them and sugar sprinkled on top. When Nana cooks them for me now, the whole house smells delicious.

Each house in Wales only had one pot, because they had to give all the other iron pots and pans to the war effort to make airplanes. On Wednesdays, the butcher would come to their village in a horse-drawn cart. They didn’t have much meat. The ladies would go down to the village center and the butcher would sell them bones (mostly from lambs) with bits of meat on them. Nana’s mum would put the bones in the pot with water and the onions, carrots and cabbage that were grown by the POWs. This would boil all day and become a Welsh stew called cawl. Nana remembers eating it as a child. “We’d serve it with thick slices of bread called ‘doorsteps,’” she says. “You’d dip your doorstep in the liquid that the bones had been simmering in all day and eat that.”

Nana also shared this story with me about what it was like growing up under World War II rationing: When she was a young girl, she went with her family to vacation in Bournemouth, in the south of England. They stayed at a seaside bed-and-breakfast. The woman who owned it felt so sorry that Nana had only ever had powdered eggs and had never eaten strawberries that every day she’d give Nana a real, fresh egg for breakfast and strawberries for tea. But Nana got hives all over because she’d never had them before—her body was allergic!

When Poppa John remembers his childhood in Wales, he remembers all the local food. His family caught rabbits in cornfields and picked mushrooms off the lawn. They had bacon, because their neighbors had pigs and shared the meat. Other neighbors gave them chickens and eggs. On Christmas Day, they always had an orange, a banana and maybe a bar of chocolate in their stockings—they got all these just one time the whole year. Poppa John even remembers loving the canned Spam that his mum would fry up. “I can’t think of any food that I didn’t like,” he says. “Food was so welcome that anything would please me.”

When Nana and Poppa John grew up, they went to medical school at the University of Cardiff, in the capital of Wales, and they met over a dead body in their class! After that, they had four children, one of whom is my dad. When my dad was only two, they moved to Texas. Now, they live in the hills in Austin, but still cook Welsh meals (especially those wonderful Welsh cakes!) for their children and their awesomely amazing grandchildren.

Iechyd Da! (That’s Welsh for “Cheers!”)

Arden Egerton is a fourth grader at the Khabele School. She loves cooking breakfast for her family on the weekends and baking and decorating birthday cakes. Her favorite kitchen tool is a spatula.