1940’s America: War in the Kitchen
Shopping sprees. Two refrigerators, a pantry, maybe even a separate freezer. A different dish at breakfast, lunch, and dinner for every day of the week. Welcome to the latest version of the American culinary lifestyle, where everything is plenty and nothing cannot be bought. Our diets as Americans are vastly different from past times, due in part to the increased availability of products from all over the world. Even though our country is currently involved in armed conflicts in the Middle East, our supermarket shelves are constantly stocked and restocked with commonplace food items like there is no tomorrow.
1940s America, on the other hand, had World War II to deal with. 16 million American soldiers were stationed overseas fighting the Nazi and Imperial Japanese war machines. To feed these numbers, huge quantities of food, and supplies had to be diverted from kitchens around the country to feed the increasingly demanding war effort. 150 million pounds of spam alone were distributed among the American forces over the course of the war. Yet, what were the house cooks, be it mothers or maids, to do? Introduced originally in 1942, food rationing on these kinds of commodities for people of various ages, including babies, was the only way for those at home to purchase these goods. The Office of Price Administration (OPA) was in charge of printing and distributing these cards among the population, with rationing continuing on some goods, including sugar, until 1947, two years after the war was officially over. So many families had to invent new recipes and cookbooks in order to keep their families well-fed.
Something even the government encouraged was for people with self-standing houses and spaces on roofs of their buildings to grow fruits and vegetables in cleverly named Victory Gardens. From these sources, people would have to rely more on things they grew themselves rather than wasting rations on foods that may be vital for feeding soldiers overseas. Some of the vegetables people grew include tomatoes, carrots, peas, beets, and lettuce. Even swiss chard and kohlrabi (a vegetable similar to turnips) became staples for many Americans in their kitchens. People were encouraged to can or pickle their leftover vegetables because buying canned goods was very taxing on the ration book.
A very famous cookbook published in 1944 by Joanne Lamb Hayes, Grandma’s Wartime Kitchen, became a sort of manual for many women cooking at home. Organized by type of preparation, this book displays hundreds of recipes ranging from evaporated whip to Swedish meatballs, and even how to can vegetables and make them taste good. One recipe, something the book calls a “Star Salad,” utilizes two substitutes: corn syrup for sugar, and gelatin as a preservative so that the salad will not have to be eaten immediately. The recipe also calls for several other ingredients, like celery salt, fresh greens, Worcestershire sauce, and optional mayonnaise. The preparation requires few tools and effort. A full copy of the recipe can be found in the book.
I hope this article was a good preview for how people cooked and ate during hard times, when the supermarket did not have porterhouse steaks, gourmet cheeses, or fifty different varieties of bread. Everything needed to be conserved and used for a specific purpose, and the concept of canning and instant meals has become ubiquitous in American culture since then. The 1940s were a time where most food items came locally, without much effort to get it to your table. While variety had to be compromised with the outbreak of war, the decade became a culinary revolution that continues to effect America’s culinary tradition.
Cover image source.