June 25, 2013

WWII cooks adapt to rationing

Health of Americans improves with less meat, sugar, and fat.

WWII poster asking Americans to constrain their cooking and eating habits.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

Smith discusses rationing of food during the war. Behind her is one of the government's posters urging people to sacrifice so soldiers could eat better.

Scarcity of everyday food items may seem like a hardship, but rationing of ingredients during World War II was actually good for Americans’ health. Animal fat and sugar cane were needed to make explosives, and domestic sugar supply was cut even further by the diversion of Hawaiian and Filipino cargo ships to military purposes.

Wartime householders cooked mostly from scratch, served vegetables from their own “Victory Gardens” and kept a close tally of the family’s rationing points. Many women also worked in war industries and had to find shortcuts to get meals on the table.

Even though losing weight was not foremost in the minds of the Home Front citizenry, they clearly benefited from the kind of diet that many are advocating today.

Therese Ambrosi Smith, a volunteer at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, has studied the effects of rationing on America’s eating habits and offers the best lessons learned from the period.

Smith shares tips in her talks at the park’s Visitor Education Center in Richmond, Calif.

Cake recipe with less sugar still popular

Smith proves you can bake a delicious, low-fat, low-sugar cake using a 1940s Rosie recipe that originated on the Home Front. The “Dump Cake” is so named because you dump all the ingredients into a pie dish in which you mix, bake and serve.

The recipe calls for no butter or lard, substituting a healthy oil such as canola, and only one cup of sugar.

Smith acquired the tried-and-true dump cake recipe from Kay Morrison, a Rosie who also volunteers at the park. The recipe makes a good-tasting, firm yet airy cake, with cocoa giving it a reddish tinge. You can eat it with your hands and lick the sticky dough off your fingers.

WWII poster asking Americans to constrain their cooking and eating habits so fighting men could be well nourished.

Wartime cooking practices — using less meat, fat, and sugar — serendipitously resulted in Americans weighing less, an average of seven pounds less, according to statisticians.

Today the same strategy can help reduce America’s waistline, which has grown significantly in the past 70 years since the war ended.

Research in the past 50 years has shed light on how eating healthier can help prevent heart disease, diabetes and certain kinds of cancer.

Patriotic chefs save good stuff for fighters

During the war, people cheerfully did without their favorite recipes as an act of patriotism, a way they could do their part for the war effort.

“Our food is fighting,” declares a 1942 government poster that Smith uses in her presentation. “People understood that men fighting the war needed more calories than civilians on the Home Front,” explained Smith. “They couldn’t get the food they were used to, so they had to adapt.”

“Rationing was a way of making sure the available food was spread out among all the people, not just the ones who could afford it (at premium prices),” Smith said. Produce from prewar sources couldn’t be shipped because much of the supply of rubber, gasoline, and oil had to be reserved for military vehicles.

1944 government poster encouraging Americans to grow more fruits and vegetables for Home Front consumption.

Victory Gardens yielded healthy abundance

The Office of War Information encouraged people to grow vegetables in their backyards (and community gardens) and to can the surplus for off-season consumption.

In the war years of 1943-1945, civilians grew 40% of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed on the Home Front.

Twenty million Victory Gardens were in cultivation during these years, yielding 8 million pounds of produce.

The government published weekly bulletins to let people know about changing rationing requirements. The bulletins offered alternative recipes that helped home cooks make the most of their rationing points.

Smith serves up slices of Dump Cake, a World War II recipe made with a minimum of sugar.

Rationing spawned a plethora of commercial war time cookbooks, such as the Betty Crocker wartime booklet “Your Share,” as well as packaged meals like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

At times, householders relying on commercial canned goods had to choose between rationed products with different point values due to their availability.

For instance, a cook might choose canned peaches for dessert and do without canned tomato paste needed to make spaghetti sauce.

Not faced with shortages of essential food items today, we can nonetheless be inspired by the sacrifice of World War II householders whose health was generally improved by consuming less.