The other day, I was watching a show I like called Supersizers Go. I’m not sure where the name comes from, but the show is by two British TV personalities, and each episode features them spending a week eating the way people did in a particular period of British history. They bring on social historians, chefs, and, if applicable, people who lived through the period. It’s part social history, part comedy (the woman is very goofy), and part cooking show. The last one I saw was on World War II, and they inspired me to do a little exploration of my own on the subject of how people ate during the war, and in particular children.
As you can imagine, Europeans suffered the effects of war more than Americans. The British had virtually no meat, butter, fresh eggs or wheat flour and people had to find ways around them. Powdered eggs, spam, evaporated milk, as well as a whole slew of new dishes, became daily fare. The governments of both Britain and the United States set up food administrations which managed rationing and helped to guide people through these difficulties. Due to the unique circumstances of the war, people accepted government advice in areas of their life that they might not otherwise. Under the auspices of newly set up food administrations, booklets, advertisements, and other materials were circulated to help women keep their families healthy and guide the population through a new food landscape.
Today, these documents offer a fascinating glimpse into the era and how the war affected families. The irony is that the austerity combined with an openness to following nutritional recommendations led to a very healthy population. This is probably largely attributable to the new centrality of vegetables and the reduction of sugar, refined flour, and meat. Thus another use of these recipes is as a treasure trove of advice and recipes for inexpensive and healthy eating.
One campaign that the British Ministry took on was the promotion of carrots for children. This was because carrots were one food that they had in good supply, and it was said that they would help you see in a blackout.
Other products that were promoted included oatmeal, powdered eggs, and spam. The administration circulated plenty of booklets on how to best prepare dishes with these items.
I especially like another one where the Ministry brazenly insults British cooking. It starts, “No country in the world grows better vegetables than we do, and probably no country in the world cooks them worse.” Ha! Can you imagine US propaganda saying such a thing to its people?
On the US side, similar changes were happening. People were encouraged to eliminate waste, grow home gardens, and cut down on calorie-dense foods that could be sent to the troops. Plenty of ads and leaflets circulated here as well.
One that I especially love was actually designed during WWI, but I’ll include it anyway because the spirit and message continued through the second war.
What woman wouldn’t respond to this sexy lady of the land over the frumpy 1940s homemaker? We see in all these documents, however, that this was a war effort that women lie at the heart of, and even children were expected to do their part.
Another interesting source I found was a booklet with recipes for school lunch kitchens, published by the USDA in 1943. These wartime recipes (fresh salads, homemade bread, soups, and inexpensive meat stews) sadly all sound far better than anything kids probably eat today.
One thing I noticed is that many recipes call for “soya grits.” This refers to something like textured vegetable protein, or tvp, which can be found today in the natural foods section of the grocery store. It had only recently been “invented” and the government tried to promote its use as a way of cutting back on flour and meat. It remains a good product for making ground beef dishes go further, or as a way of adding a meaty quality and protein to vegetarian dishes.
Another interesting source, Victory Cookbook: Nostalgic Food and Facts from 1940-1954, is a compilation of imagery and recipes from the era by Marguerite Patten, who worked in the British Ministry of Food during the war. I would like to leave you with a couple of recipes inspired by this book. One is for a dish that is popular with children, called Sausage Rolls. She says that these would have been part of children’s celebrations. I propose my own variation of this dish, which is fun and delicious. (Margarine would have replaced butter, but I see no reason to use cheap margarine now; and cheese and yogurt are my own additions)
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1/4 cup plain yogurt
- 1/4 cup shredded cheddar or other sharp cheese
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 4 hotdogs or other sausages, nitrate-free (and skinless if you are feeding a very small child); or 1/2 lb raw sausage meat
Blend the dough ingredients together and knead gently until a dough forms. Form into a disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 15 or 20 minutes. Remove dough from the fridge and roll out with a bit of flour. Slice into strips about 3-4 inches long. Slice the hotdogs into 2 inch batons. Wrap the hotdog in dough and pinch the end to seal. If using sausage meat, place a small spoonful onto the end of the strip and wrap. Place on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 until golden.
Another section of this book discusses the promotion of salad by the Ministry. One of the recommendations is a nice recipe for a salad that can take you into the colder months. I tried it and really liked it! It has a lovely crunch and a bit of sweetness and it’s a great way to put together a salad when tomatoes and lettuce are out of season or when you haven’t gone grocery shopping in a while. This is my adaptation
- 2 cups of grated or finely shredded cabbage hearts
- 1 diced apple
- 2 ribs of celery, diced
Toss this in a vinaigrette made from:
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp cider vinegar
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 tsp mustard
- salt and pepper to taste
Letting it sit for a few minutes will help the cabbage wilt and the flavors meld together. The recipe actually also calls for potatoes, which can be added for a heartier meal, but I think it requires more dressing than the recipe requests.