Monday, June 12, 2023

World War II: Dealing with Scarcity

The coffee ration from 1942 to 1943 in the US was one pound every 5 weeks per person.
Ships to transport coffee (and naval protection for them) could be put to better use. 

Next month is the summer potluck dinner of the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor (CHAA). The theme of this year's dinner is 

"The Kitchen Front in WWII: Home Gardens, Rationing and Eating for Victory."

This is a very intriguing topic! I have started looking at books that describe what it was like to cook when many key foods were severely rationed, and many others were in short supply. About the era, M.F.K. Fisher wrote this:

"There are very few men and women, I suspect, who cooked and marketed their way through the past war without losing forever some of the nonchalant extravagance of the Twenties. They will feel, until their final days on earth, a kind of culinary caution: butter, no matter how unlimited, is a precious substance not lightly to be wasted; meats, too, and eggs, and all the far-brought spices of the world, take on a new significance, having once been so rare. And that is good, for there can be no more shameful carelessness than with the food we eat for life itself. When we exist without thought or thanksgiving we are not men, but beasts."

Wartime in the US: A Few Books 

Grandma's Wartime Kitchen: World War II and the Way We Cooked by Joanne Lamb Hayes.
Based on an academic study of American adaptation to wartime scarcity and rationing.
Although the recipes are somewhat adapted, they give a good idea of how people ate. 

How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher. Written near the beginning of the war.

M.F.K.FIsher wrote this book in 1942, before the actual experience of rationing and wartime shortages was a grim reality. Many of her suggestions are either very theoretical and not very believable or else based not on general scarcity but on experiences of poverty and want of good materials to cook because one couldn’t afford them. Here are a couple of very interesting observations that she included:
  • “Perhaps this war will make it simpler for us to go back to some of the old ways we knew before we came over to this land and made the Big Money. Perhaps, even, we will remember how to make good bread again.”
  • “In times of war, however, puddings can be pesky nuisances. If you are cooking for people who feel that because they ate some such sweet desserts once a day when they were young, they must perforce eat them once a day when they are middle-aged and working like everything to save democracy, you will be hard put to it to make their prejudices fit your food bill. Eggs and cream and cinnamon, not to mention fuel needed for long slow bakings, have suddenly become rare and precious things to be used cunningly for a whole meal or a weekly treat, not as the routine and unctuous final fillip to a pre-war dinner.” 
  • “It is often a delicate point, now, to decide when common sense ends and hoarding begins. Preparing a small stock of practical boxed and canned goods for a blackout shelf, in direct relation to the size of your family, is quite another thing from buying large quantities of bottled shrimps and canape wafers and meat pastes, or even unjustified amounts of more sensible foods.” 
Although How to Cook a Wolf is always mentioned as a book about food issues in World War II, as I actually read it, I realized that it’s really something completely different! It has lots of advice, but it doesn’t really document the wartime experience of Americans on the homefront, which is what I’m looking for at the moment. As a work of food literature, however, it’s very well-worth reading.

"Your Share: How to prepare appetizing, healthful meals with foods
available today." by Betty Crocker.
A copy of many pages of this original 1943 pamphlet is here.

What I've Learned So Far

Most citizens in the US were both patriotic and resourceful, and made the best of a difficult situation. However, there were many challenges to middle-class families: severe restrictions on coffee, meat, cheese, canned goods (to save metal), fats (needed for manufacturing explosives), sugar (because it was mainly brought from overseas and the ships were needed for war), and a few other commodities. Eggs, fresh milk, fruits, vegetables, and Spam were not rationed, but were at times scarce, and in fact markets were apt to run out of many types of goods, especially imported goods like spices or bananas.

Ingenuity was required of anyone who wanted to cook and eat -- unless one had enough money to eat in restaurants, where no rationing was applied. Home owners and renters with space planted Victory Gardens to grow vegetables to eat in summer and to put away for winter, so there are many recipes and explanations of safe canning processes. American cuisine was very centered on meat then, as it still is, so the small meat rations caused real difficulties. Most of the cooking, canning, and shopping was done by women, even those who had assumed full-time paid labor in war-supporting industries where the male workers had become soldiers. Author Hayes describes women who worked in a factory all day and returned home to cook dinner for their family and then gather and can vegetables from their garden until late at night.

Looking for a recipe that would make a good potluck contribution for the CHAA dinner, I was not enthusiastic about most of the choices in these books. The limitations on available products are part of this problem, but I think my reaction also has to do with the considerable change in culinary styles and tastes from that time to this. Much blander and plainer dishes were expected then, compared to what I currently expect to cook or to eat when visiting other people. Meat-centered meals were the norm, so most of the recipes are trying to make up for the small quantities by adding other substances to meat loaf, or by using what was available, for example by making the stuffing for green peppers with Spam.

Above all, this project makes me conscious that even in the worst of times. some people are more privileged than others. The middle-class or wealthy housewives who could pay for the meat and butter that they were allowed by ration points were definitely better off than poorer citizens, better off than most Black Americans, and dramatically better off than the Japanese who were in the shameful detention camps. And in Europe, the war caused hardships that made these middle-class Americans look positively fortunate. Clearly, my project focus is about just a single part of the American population.

Blog post  © 2023 mae sander
For another post on this subject, 
see the follow-up post, World War II and how people coped


Iris Flavia said...

Interesting, sad subject.
The more so that somewhere there is always war and hence hunger and I see these spoiled kids who throw food away.

My name is Erika. said...

We have a nearby museum all about life during this war. It's interesting how supplies went into feeding the military, and I understand why they did that. Obviously you couldn't let those people go hungry. But I never thought about the class divide with food, and I wonder why restaurants didn't have to ration. Did you find any reasons why? Happy T day Mae. hugs-Erika

Kate Yetter said...

It is always good to be aware of waste. There is far too much waste in our society. I have worked in food service and I am amazed at the amount and quality of food that is thrown away just because of policy.
Happy Tea Day,

Sharon Madson said...

Very interesting post. I think in my late mother's things I found a rations ticket or book. I will have to look for it again. I remember her and my grandmother talking about things that were rationed. You are right kinds of foods were very different from the kinds of food we eat today. Even food I ate as a child in the 50s is very different. But, I have to say I love the old school, meat and potatoes. I also like pastas, and some fish. My hubby is also a meat a potato man. We are not gourmet eaters or chefs at this house. Simple here. LOL Happy t Day.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I would give up or trade all my meat rations for coffee rations. I somehow can't live without my caffeine. I can live on rice and beans if I must, but I can't live without my coffee. This was definitely an intriguing and interesting take on WWII. Thanks for sharing this really interesting information with us for T this Tuesday. Sorry. I missed you for some reason, but didn't mean to.

Lisca said...

How interesting. I often make a ‘depression’ cake, which doesn’t need eggs nor butter. I’ll look it up for you when we’re somewhere with wifi ( we’re travelling).
Please let us know what you eventually decided to bring to the party.
I’m sorry my blog is a mess. I’ve re-written it, but it’s made little difference. I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.
Happy T-Day,

Valerie-Jael said...

I grew up in London after the war and rationing was in place till 1952, so many things were still hard to get. Happy T Day, Valerie

eileeninmd said...


It is a sad subject but good to know most citizens step up and do what needs to be done. The cookbooks look interesting. Take care, enjoy your day!

nwilliams6 said...

Very interesting, Mae. I don't know how they did it. I guess we kind of got a little tiny taste of it during the worse part of Covid when you couldn't get toilet paper and some other things. No fun. I think it made that generation more appreciative of everything. Not sure Covid helped much with that.

Super interested to see what you come up with!

Happy T-day. Hugz

nwilliams6 said...

I think my last comment didn't come through so this may be a duplicate and a bit shorter. Very interesting information. I know they learned to be more appreciative. Wish I could say we learned that in Covid times but not sure we did.

Can't wait to see what you end up cooking!

Happy T-day and hugz

J said...

It must have so difficult to feed a family on the rations, my Grandma and my Mum always had to have lots of timed and dried foods in the pantry, I never realised rationing was still on in 1952 when I-was born,
Happy T Day. Jan S

Carola Bartz said...

I'm interested what you will come up with to bring.
My mom was a refugee toward the end of World War II and I have never seen her throw away food (except it was bad as in not safe to consume anymore). Somehow she instilled this in me and I, too, don't throw food away if it's still edible. It makes me furious to see how much food is wasted in this country, how perfectly fine food is thrown away without a second thought. This is a very interesting post, Mae - thank you.

CJ Kennedy said...

This was a very interesting and though provoking post.

CJ Kennedy said...

This was a very interesting and thoughtful post.