The Power of a Family Dinner

During the German occupation of Jersey, food ran scarce—but the islanders' spirits stayed strong
July 24, 2019 Updated: July 24, 2019

I have a farmhouse table in my kitchen, built with wooden slats and grooves wide enough to collect every crumb. Its legs are adorned with red crayon marks courtesy of my toddler. It is not the most ornate table in the world, nor is it the neatest, but it is my favorite place in my house. 

That my family eats dinner together is my strictest rule. I do this so we can talk, I do this because I enjoy it, but mostly, I do this because of my grandfather’s stories from the war.

Visits to Jersey

I learned about World War II on my grandfather’s knee, in the half-light of dusk, during visits to his house by the sea on the English Channel Island of Jersey. This island, only 14 miles off the coast of France, was the only place that had truly been home for my grandparents.

Their family histories went back hundreds of years on this little island, and they took an ownership of everything “Jersey”: the cows, the cream, the 40-foot tides. It was an ownership and grounding they passed on to me.

jersey boat
Low tide at St. Brélade’s Bay in Jersey. (David Genders)

I remember these visits as a series of snapshots: racing my grandad along the beach, the wind blowing my hair into my ice cream with the chocolate flake on St. Catherine’s breakwater, my granny’s guest room that flooded with the scent of lavender from the fields when she opened the window, the propane stove and porcelain cups lowered by rope over the cliffs down to the beach at low tide in order to enjoy a steaming cup of tea in the hot sun. 

Every night, my granny cooked up a dish of meat and Jersey Royal potatoes. In the morning, we would have thick milk from Jersey cows, the kind that left mustaches on our faces and made us full before breakfast.

Remembering the War

What I loved most about my visits to the island were the stories I would hear around the dinner table, when the plates were cleared and time stretched leisurely before us, allowing my grandparents to return in memory to some of the most impactful years of their childhoods.

I learned about Winston Churchill’s decision to demilitarize the Channel Islands in 1940; about the German planes that bombed the harbor of St. Helier, shattering the windows of the family photography shop; about the pamphlets that fell from the sky demanding islanders hang a white flag from every house in unconditional surrender; about the fear they felt when the Channel Islands became the only piece of British territory to fall into Hitler’s hands. 

Guernsey / Jersey, Deutsche Soldaten
German soldiers in Jersey in 1941. (Dey/CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)

For my grandparents, the hardest part about the occupation was not knowing what was going to happen. They didn’t know that the Allied soldiers would win the war. They didn’t know that Jersey would be liberated in 1945, and that they would narrowly escape starvation thanks to the Red Cross. All they knew was that their homes were suddenly in enemy territory, and it looked like the enemy was winning.

In 1940, the island was occupied and cut off from communication with the rest of the world. Wireless sets were confiscated, curfews were enforced, weapons and ammunition were to be turned in, and clocks were set forward an hour to conform to Central European Time. German troops arrived on Channel Island soil, 11,000 in number, marching through the streets and requisitioning houses or cars for their use. 

Jersey, Saint Helier, Monument on the Liberation Square
A monument in St. Helier’s Liberation Square, commemorating the Jersey’s liberation from German occupation. (Shutterstock)

Naturally, widespread panic about food developed. On an island, there is only so much food to go around, and even less so in wartime. Islanders who could afford it began to “panic buy” butter, sugar, and meat, resulting in the enforcement of strict rations. In May of 1941, the weekly adult ration of food was 11 ounces of meat, 2 ounces of butter, 3.3 pints of milk. 

Resilience

What strikes me most about my grandparents’ stories, as I look back now, is not the hardness of the times, nor the difficulty of the rations, but the resilience they and their families had. They talked with fondness about the ways they became resourceful. 

When tea and coffee became scarce, they made their own from carrots, parsnips, and sugar beets. They still boiled their water, sat down on the couch, and enjoyed the ritual of a cup of tea. When salt ran out, they learned to evaporate seawater. 

When the Germans insisted that every pig and cow be accounted for, islanders resisted in their own way. A friend of my granny told me a story about a pig that died on one farm and was taken, undercover in a wagon, to several other farms. That week, several farmers reported a dead pig and toasted their luck at the undercover hog roasts they enjoyed with friends. 

As the Germans dotted the pristine beaches with landmines and bunkers, access to the water became more limited. Fishing was severely restricted because the Germans feared the Jersey men would use fishing as an opportunity to escape. Where low water fishing was allowed, my grandad would hunt for limpets, which his mother would use for limpet stew: fried in a little fat with flour, parsley, and thyme, and served with a thick gravy over a well of mashed potatoes. 

They would talk, over limpets or razor fish, or seaweed soup, about how not to give in, how to remain strong in the face of occupation. I imagine them around their little kitchen table with a vase of flowers, my grandad with his parents and sister, still participating in the act of sitting down to eat together, still claiming the ritual of family dinner as important and valuable, even when food sources were tight and constantly getting tighter. In sitting down to eat, in keeping this one sacred act consistent, they refused to surrender to the Germans. 

I have the recipe for Limpet Stew, among several others from the occupation, passed down to me by a cousin. I find it so moving that this recipe was written down, because it implies that it is worth remembering. The war forced choices upon everyone, and my family chose to stay loyal to their values, one of which was taking time to sit down together and enjoy the act of eating. 

Limpets cling onto a rock
Limpets. (Shutterstock)

I think about my granny, providing my grandad a cooked meal every day of his married life, and the security it brought to their home, the room it created for conversation, for sharing stories with me. I think about my grandad’s mother, who in a time of fear brought security to her home by sitting around the table to eat and to talk. 

 Even in hard times, when the very core of our identity is shaken, there is power in continuing to provide our families with the steady refuge of the dinner table, whether we are serving lamb and mint sauce or limpet stew.

When we sit at a table and enjoy a common meal, we serve up more than good food. We serve up courage. 

Limpet Stew

  • 1 quart limpets
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • Salt
  • Thyme, parsley, and one small bay leaf
  • 1 pint green peas
  • Mashed potatoes, to serve

Put the limpets in to boiling water; boil for 10 minutes. Remove shells and intestines. Then take the soft tops off and mince the hard parts.

Put a little fat, butter or oil, in frying pan. When hot, add flour, a little salt, thyme, parsley, and bay leaf. Fry till brown, stirring all the time. Add enough stock or water to make a thick gravy, add limpets and peas (strained), stir and simmer for 15 minutes.

Serve in a well of mashed potatoes.

Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com

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