In 1942, the Culinary Arts Institute of Chicago printed a special wartime edition of The American Woman’s Cookbook to prepare American kitchens for World War II. Institute Director and editor Ruth Berolzheimer prepared the popular cookbook’s 5th edition with plenty of new recipes designed to stretch food budgets and use rationed food effectively. “To become a good cook means to gain a knowledge of foods and how they behave, and skill in manipulating them. The recipe by itself, being helpful as it is, will not produce a good product; the human being using the recipe must interpret it and must have skill in handling the materials it prescribes.” Berolzheimer’s book wasn’t just a list of recipes, it was a guide to being an effective cook who could work effectively in any situation. With World War II just entering the American home front, the wartime edition was designed to prepare homemakers (as housewives were then called) for what could be a long war with many shortages and unusual kitchen scenarios.
I’ve copied several passages from the “Wartime Cookery” section at the end of the book that shed some light on the changes that typical meals underwent during the war. I’m trying out a new kind of blog post: I’ve written some comments and explanations in blue where I thought something was interesting or could use some context. Hopefully my comments don’t make this post seem too cluttered! Keep in mind that this book was written in 1942 before most food and product rations were announced and before Americans knew how long the war would last.
“Food shortages in this as in all wars will be due to lack of man power for production, lack of transportation facilities for distribution and reservation of shippable foods for the armed forces. This was is only complicated by multiplication…the number of places from which food cannot be shipped and the wide scattering of places to which our food supplies must be distributed to feed our own and allied military forces. Many of the imports are in the condiment class and we will learn to do without them for the duration. Some are valuable foods- sugar, bananas, chocolate- and for these we will need to substitute. Sugar was the first staple to be rationed during the war. Meat, dairy, coffee, dried fruits, jams, jellies, lard, shortening, and oil were also rationed throughout the duration. Among beverages, maté can easily replace Oriental tea. The book says that maté is “a beverage similar to tea, made from the roasted leaves of a South American tree. It has a refreshing and stimulating effect…but contains less caffeine and tannin and has no astringent qualities. The flavor is heavier than tea with a floral bouquet.”
Besides these fundamental difficulties always associated with wartime, the modern woman in America has become accustomed to foods prepared outside the home to be purchased by her in tin cans. Metal shortages are threatening these supplies and if they become acute, may cut them off altogether. According to historian Susan Strasser’s book “Waste and Want” (great book, by the way) scrap drives were an important part of home-front memories and helped participants feel like they were personally involved in the war. However, due to logistics and other issues, they often weren’t actually very effective in turning scrap into war material.
Since fats and oils are the basis both for soaps and gunpowder as well as for foods, the household will probably be called upon to curtail their use. According to the War Production Board, the glycerin in three pounds of waste fat could make one pound of gunpowder. 350 pounds could fire a shell in a twelve-inch cannon. Before the war, most glycerin came from locations around the Pacific Ocean that were close to much of the fighting with the Japanese. On the bright side is the eagerness of the modern woman to pit her intelligence against a knotty problem. She will need to learn not only to prepare all the food needed in her household, but to raise her own garden and poultry and to save every last bit, as has not been done in several generations.” Well, I’m sure many families had been scrimping and saving in their kitchens during the Great Depression and during World War I. But, I suspect that this book was written with a middle-class audience that might not have experienced anything like rationing before World War II.
The Return of the Soup Kettle
“The family soup kettle comes back in to its own with the returning necessity for using every bit of food that enters the kitchen and the reduced supply of canned soups. Practically all leftovers except sweets may go into the soup kettle.
When making stock use the bones from steaks, chops and roasts, ham bones, the gristly end of tongue, carcasses of toast poultry and poultry feet…Drain all vegetable liquors well as the liquid from canned vegetables into the soup kettle. If the drippings in the bottom of the roasting pan are not used for gravy, chill and add all but the fat to the soup stock. Use the fat for other purposes.
Leftovers which are not sufficient for another meal may go into the soup kettle. The half cup of creamed fish and the few tablespoons of vegetables left over are the basis for a chowder today. A fried egg or a bit of omelette or cooked liver may be minced and added to the soup just before serving. Use common sense and imagination and delicious soups will result.” I had never thought about this before, but I suppose everything just breaks up in the soup. What a way to save every last morsel of nutrition and stretch your food budget!
Use More Perishable Meats
“Smoked meats and the larger cuts of fresh meats can be shipped to the armed forces. Besides the smaller cuts the more perishable parts of the animal- liver, sweetbreads, kidneys, heart and tripe- are left for those on the homefront. This is no hardship but a distinct advantage, for these parts contain more vitamins than those that we are more accustomed to using sand since there is no waste they cost less.” The Pennsylvania Dutch and many other ethnic groups had been using these cuts of meat for many years, but I suppose it wasn’t in mainstream American food culture at the time (maybe because more and more Americans were living in urban places and not involved in the production of food). The fact that the book has to encourage people not to throw out this meat during wartime tells us a lot about what was “normal” food before the war.
Save All Fats and Oils
“Save every ounce of fat; use what you need for cooking and take the rest to your meat dealer, who will pay you for it. These reclaimed fats are not used for food but in the manufacture of munitions and soap. Fat to be sold to the meat market must be clear and free from water or other liquid. Keep a container near the stove with a fine wire strainer in the top. Pour melted fat through the strainer to remove bits of meat or crumbs.” The average income in 1942 was a little under $2,000 annually. Butchers paid four cents per pound of scrap fat, which could help stretch a meager budget.
Fish and Sea Food are Plentiful
“There will probably be no shortage of fish or sea food. Some fish which are caught long distances from shore and dish which can be salted and shipped to the armed forces may be less plentiful but there is usually an abundance of fresh water fish to take their place. Free use of fish is a national economy since they live on food not suitable for human consumption. They are a home economy because there is very little waste and they require only a short cooking period.” The U.S. government had also used the same message during World War I, encouraging people to eat this “fighting food” with posters, “Four Minute Man” speeches, and films.
Cheese is American
“American cheese manufacturers are producing many of the types of cheese formerly imported from Europe…Some of the harder cheeses are being shipped to the armed forces but the softer cheeses are likely to be plentiful. The high protein, mineral and vitamin content of cheese makes it an excellent alternative for meats that are limited for home use. Cottage cheese may be made from sour milk or from skimmed milk and a rennet tablet… Rennet is made from an enzyme found in the stomach lining of ruminant animals. Use cottage cheese with fruits and vegetables in salads and with whole-wheat wafers for dessert and accomplish the dual purpose of saving sugar and adding minerals and vitamins to the diet. Keep cheese in a cool place and wrap in waxed paper so that it does not dry out.”
Salads for Variety
“Salads are an excellent means for utilizing small amounts of leftover fruits and vegetables. Leftover meat and fish may be fish may be extended by combining with vegetables and serving as luncheon salads. The vitamin content of leftover foods is said to be better preserved if the foods are served cold than if reheated. If transportation facilities become so restricted that the varieties of food available are limited to those produced within a relatively small area, the problem of the homemaker will be to serve those foods in such a variety of ways that they do not become monotonous. Carrots, green peas, fresh spinach and chard seem like entirely different vegetables when served uncooked in salads. Avocados, where they are available, are a valuable way to supplement diminished supply of food fats and add Vitamin A.
Domestic vegetable oils from some source will probably be available for dressings but many will prefer bacon drippings and cracklings for hot salads.” Millions of Americans (including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House lawn) grew Victory Gardens in their yards to grow fruits and vegetables that probably ended up in these salads.
Serve Meatless Dishes
“If the supply of meat becomes limited the homemaker may turn to other foods to give her family the necessary proteins, Dried peas, beans and lentils are good protein foods; so are nuts, which supply fats as well. The pea beans ordinarily used for Boston baked beans are being bought up for the armed forces but other beans such as pinto beans, soybeans or cowpeas may be used in their place.
Leftover baked beans may be used in soups, sandwiches or loaves; they combine well with onions, green peppers and tomatoes. Purchase bacon when available on the rind and use the rind to season bean or lentil loaves. Place the rind fat side down on the loaf before baking and remove it before serving. Loaves made from nuts and bread crumbs will not need added fat because of the fat in the nuts. Entire dependence should not be placed on these meat substitute dishes but they may well be used two or three times a week.” I wonder if this would have been a shocking suggestion to Americans who had just endured years of Great Depression. I imagine many families were already used to doing without meat on an every-day basis…
Pies are Still Possible
“The substitute for pie when fats need to be conserved is the fruit-filled yeast of coffee cake.
Fats rendered at home can be used for pastry. If you’re not saving your extra fat to make gunpowder, then apparently you can save it for a pie instead. Chicken and bacon fat are preferable to fats from seasoned roasts. Have fat well chilled. Save fats by making deep-dish or one-crust pies. Choose fillings which require less sweetening and fewer eggs. Prunes, raisins, dates and fits are rich in natural sugars and may be used as loon as they are available. Extracted honey, corn sirup, brown sugar, molasses or sorghum may be use when available to sweeten both cream and fruit fillings…” Thank goodness for pies! But on a serious note, its interesting to see how this cookbook assumes that Americans weren’t willing to give up dessert even in wartime. This seems to me like a sign that dessert was an entrenched part of mainstream American food culture.
Pretty interesting stuff! The Wartime Cookery section also included a 30 day schedule of meals for readers to use in their own kitchens which I will type up and put into another post. In the meantime, here are some good online sources for further reading about rationing and food on the American home front during World War II:
Smithsonian blog post on wartime rationing.
National Archives digitized homefront documents including some about rationing.
Library of Congress classroom materials (lots of good digitized stuff!) relating to the WWII homefront.
Good article on World War II poster campaigns (behind a paywall)
Materials on rationing from Ames, Iowa (see how rations changed food on the local level).
Digitized material on the homefront from the National World War II Museum.
thank you so much for your dedicated and thorough article.