(OR, HOW DID YOU GET BY DURING THE WAR, MOMMY?
Foreword: Originally, “Hard Times” was written in 1997 for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, a newsletter I was writing for throughout the 1990s, with the understanding that I retained all rights to my articles. That article was so long that it was divided into several issues of the CCE (editing not being my forte) but it also contained a great deal of information about The Great Depression in the USA throughout the 1930s. I’ve decided to present my material about the Depression in a later article so that it stands alone. Consequently, my bibliography at the end of this article includes my research for the 1930s and the Great Depression. However, that being said—my parents were children of the depression and young adults during WW2 and I think the two major events were forever meshed in their minds.
“It isn’t that hard times are coming, but soft times are going” – Harpo Marx
“Nobody minds a war once in a while if it doesn’t last too long and isn’t in your own neighborhood” – Bertrand Russell
If you are a baby boomer, or younger, chances are you don’t remember much about World War II.
I was born near the tail end of 1940 and just barely remember ration stamps and the little yellow packet that you broke open and blended with white oleomargarine to make the margarine look more like butter. After I began researching material for this article and reading whatever war time cookbooks I could find, I realized I remembered more about WW2 than I first thought.
I remember paper drives and flattening tin cans to give back for the war effort. I remember ration stamps because my mother kept our ration booklets long after the war ended, “just in case” she might need them again. Ration stamps were not, as you might imagine, the size of postage stamps, but rather were tiny, measuring 15/16th of an inch by 7/16th of an inch. These were kept in a kitchen drawer, along with mom’s Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook.
“The first step in developing the rationing system” writes Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book ‘No Ordinary Time’ “Was the creation of a list of essential items in short supply. Each item was
then given a price in points and each man, woman, and child in the country was given a book of stamps. The stamps in each ration book—worth forty eight points each month and good for six months—could be spent on any combination of goods from meat, butter, and canned vegetables, to sugar and shoes….”
As for those empty cans that fruit or vegetables were in, the empty tin cans were soaked to remove the labels and then flattened by opening both ends. Then the cans were collected and melted down into solid metal “pigs” for re-use in the war industry. Every scrap of fat was saved for the war effort and there were frequent paper drives. But most importantly, on the home front, was rationing.
Throughout most of my adult life, I was aware that rationing existed during World War II, and I think I vaguely assumed that things were rationed so that those items could be used by soldiers, sailors and airmen. That was partly true—but often there was a far more important reason for many rationed items.
For instance, did you know that one primary reason sugar was rationed was that the army and navy needed the alcohol, derived from sugar, to make smokeless powder which fired the guns—and not only gunpowder, but torpedo fuel, dynamite, nitrocotton and thousands of militarily important chemicals.
Also most of our sugar came from Hawaii—islands deeply involved in the conflict, where cane fields had been bombed and refineries demolished. Sugar, incidentally, was the item Americans missed most during the war.
Explains Doris Weatherford, in her book “AMERICAN WOMEN AND WORLD WAR II,” “The chemicals needed for war production had an important trickle down effect; fuel-oil shortages meant chilly houses and all things made of metal, from safety pins to refrigerators, became scarce. Recipes had to be modified” she writes, “because everything from Hawaii’s pineapples to Indonesia’s spices disappeared…” (Which explains why a can of pineapple required 22 ration points!)
When coffee beans became rationed (much to the dismay of Americans on the home front, for whom coffee has always been a favorite beverage), it was partly because the ships which would ordinarily bring coffee (and other imports) to this country were needed for the war effort.
Shortly after Thanksgiving in 1942, coffee rationing took effect. The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, immediately announced that the limitation of one cup of coffee per day would be observed in the White House. (Although Mrs. Roosevelt strived constantly to set a good example, she may not have won a vote of approval from everyone living in the White House – for one thing, the First Lady was almost always indifferent to what she ate or drank; food was never important to her, an indifference that was well known to everyone who came in frequent contact with her.
We learn in “Home Front America” by Robert Heide and John Gilman, (published in 1995 by Chronicle Books), “As an example of the wartime point system, which had to be paid for in both cash and stamps or tokens, it went as follows:
pork chops one pound … 7 points
Hamburger meat, one pound, 7 points
Butter, one pound…16 points!
Pineapple juice, a 46 oz can….22 points
Times were tough, but I don’t think it made much of an impression to me as a young child. We didn’t have much but neither did any of the neighbors. It seems to me we always had enough to eat, if not a lot, and there were never any processed or packaged foods. My mother baked her own bread twice a week in large roasting pans. (I do remember feeling deprived that class mates at school had that wonderful fluffy Wonder bread for their sandwiches while we had to “make do” with homemade bread!).
We grew up on a lot of one-dish meals made from the cheapest cuts of meat, such as kidney stew. Who could have imagined years later that these one dish meals would be touted by nutritionists as the healthiest kind of meal?
Everyone had a victory garden; during the peak
war years, there were an estimated 20 million victory gardens, and my grandmother had a large hilly backyard full of fruit trees that yielded generous crops of sour apples for making apple sauce. That apple sauce was canned without the use of sugar, during WW2, and for many years after, we’d open a jar of applesauce and sprinkle a little sugar on it to sweeten it a bit. We had mason jars of unsweetened applesauce in the cellar cupboards long after the war ended. If you grew your own vegetables, and canned them, you could use your ration stamps for other things—and, of course, by not using all of the stamps allotted to your household, you were contributing towards the war effort.
The best trick, of course, was to be able to prepare meals with foods that were not rationed at all. One woman, in “The Home Front” recalled, “I looked down the ration list and found that mutton wasn’t on it. Wonderful! We’d learned to cook mutton during the depression so that it tasted just wonderful. Why it was never rationed is beyond me but for us it was a bonanza. I asked our butcher to get me a whole mutton and he split and aged it….then kept one half of it in the butcher shop for me…”
And, perhaps reflecting on meats that were rationed and those that weren’t, Gourmet Magazine published the following poem:
“Although it isn’t
Our usual habit
This year we’re eating
The Easter Rabbit”
Canned fish was rationed (a one pound can of sardines “cost” 12 ration points—but fresh, frozen, salted or pickled fish was not. Hard to imagine, today, that fish such as Halibut wasn’t rationed, nor shellfish such as crab and lobster! The ONLY kind of fish I remember eating as a child was salmon patties made from canned salmon. In her book “The Presidential Cookbook” Housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt proudly related that lobster was served frequently to President Roosevelt during the Depression and War years. Says Mrs. Nesbitt, “We served them cold, stuffed, broiled, boiled, in salad, Imperial, Newburg, Thermidor…Red Meat was rationed, lobster wasn’t!”
Housewives were admonished, in a victory cookbook, to shop early in the day, plan the family diet carefully, add up the points before going shopping, to use 8 and 5 point stamps whenever possible and save 1 and 2 point stamps to make the count come out even, since the grocers could not give change “in blue stamps.
The United States was almost hopelessly ill-prepared for war. The Nazis had spent six years plotting and planning for their takeover of European countries and no one seems to know just how long the Japanese had planned and prepared for war before their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Even the Japanese were surprised with the success of their attack.
It took a tremendous, almost unbelievable effort on the part of Americans on the home front, to build ships, airplanes and ammunitions, not only for ourselves, but also for our allies.
“For more than a year” novelist Winston Estes stated in “Homefront” “new defense factories and plants had been sprouting up from the landscape as though the ground underneath had been fertilized, and still they continued to appear, larger and more mysterious, turning out arms and munitions in unthinkable quantities…under Henry Kaiser’s leadership, the average time to deliver a ship was cut from 355 days in 1940, to 194 days in 1941, to SIXTY DAYS in early 1942..”
Additionally, our allies—Great Britain and Russia – were also in dire need of airplanes, ammunitions and tanks. Were it not for the Lend Lease Plan, which became law after a long and lengthy debate and much controversy—there would have been no way for England and Russia to continue fighting—and win. FDR declared that the defense of Britain was vital to the United States and authorized the navy to turn over to Britain thousands of naval guns and ammunition, three thousand charges for bombs and two dozen PT boats.
In 1941, the USA was far from prepared for war. Even though $30 billion had been set aside for defense, there wasn’t much to show for it. A large proportion of the money had gone into plant expansion and tooling up.
Writes Doris Goodwin, “Among the crucial instruments of war, planes were still a major problem. Though a bottleneck in engines had been cleared up, propellers were now in short supply and the production process as a whole was nowhere near as fast as it would have to be for the U.S. to catch up with Germany…the brightest spot in defense was smokeless powder production –(made from sugar!) which had been almost nonexistent two years before. However, by 1943 munitions output would be 83% greater than in 1942, merchant ships 100% higher, naval ships 75% higher. The United States had come a long way since 1940 and 1941 when the army and navy needed all they could get of everything—tanks, bombs, planes, ships, rifles…”
“American ingenuity” explains Ms. Goodwin, “by 1943 had also filled the critical gap in the rubber supply after Pearl Harbor…by 1943 83% of the 308,000 tons of new rubber supplies would come from synthetic rubber…”
President Roosevelt was able, in his Fireside Chats, to mobilize the American people like no one ever before and no one ever since has been able to do. When FDR told the American people to go out and buy maps so that they could follow along with him where the war was being fought, America citizens by the thousands raced to their stores to purchase maps; entire stocks were sold out and one store manager said that, in the 24 years he had been in the map business, he had never seen anything like it.
When the President put out a call for aluminum, a two week drive to collect worn out pots and pans and other scrap aluminum yielded an amazing stockpile of dishpans, coffee percolators, skillets, ice cube trays—even artificial legs! In “Home Front America” authors Robert Heide and John Gilman write, “Vast amounts of scrap metal, car fenders, metal bars, old pipes, oil barrels and the like were loaded into huge vans and dumped into fenced-in vacant lots to be recycled into planes, tanks, ships and guns for ammunition. President Roosevelt sent an official White House letter to Boy Scouts and Girl Scout groups in 1942, urging them to participate in scrap drives…”
The need for rubber was so great that President Roosevelt devoted a Fireside Chat to this topic. For starters, FDR called for a rubber drive, the result of which was so overwhelming that in two weeks time, more than five hundred TONS of scrap rubber was stockpiled—everything from garden hoses to doggy bones, old rubber tires and rubber boots.
Gas rationing was initiated in 1942—not because of a shortage of gasoline—but as a way of saving rubber, needed for tires. Silk stockings were rationed and became a hot item on the black market because the silk from which stockings were made was needed to make parachutes and gunpowder bags.
It was during the summer of 1942 that rationing and price control went into effect. Writes Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book “No Ordinary Time”, “In his April address to the nation, the President (Roosevelt) had explained that rationing of scarce commodities was the only equitable solution to the shortages brought about by the war…to ensure a sufficient amount of cotton and wool to supply the army with more than 64 million flannel shirts, 165 million coats and 229 million pairs of trousers, the War Production Board mandated a new “Victory” suit for civilians, with cuffless trousers and narrower lapels. Reductions in the amount of cloth allowed also led to shorter, pleatless skirts, rising several inches above the knee, and to the creation of a new two-piece bathing suit…”
Meat rationing went into effect in 1943, although the ration was fairly generous, allowing about 2 ½ pounds of meat per person, quite a lot compared to what was allotted to our British allies.
Marguerite Patten tells us, in “We’ll Eat Again” that the meat ration for an adult in Great Britain PER WEEK consisted of 4 ounces of bacon and ham. Sausages, she explains, were not rationed but were hard to obtain. The English ration for butter was 2 ounces, cheese 2 ounces, eggs one shell egg per week (if they were available), but often, the allotment was one egg every two weeks.
“Sugar and coffee rationing,” writes Doris Weatherord (author of “AMERICAN WOMEN AND WORLD WAR II”), “were implemented by a simple coupon plan—a stamp equaled a pound and one pound of sugar was the same as another. Meat, however, was more complex because a pound of beef steak is not equal to a pound of pork ribs. Thus the concept of ‘point rationing’ had to be introduced. Ration stamps were allotted value so that one had to spend more points (as well as dollars) to buy good cuts of meat than to buy inferior ones…”
And then there was the issue of hoarding! “Hoarding,” says Ms. Weatherford, “made it difficult for the poor to compete with the rich, whether it was in obtaining sugar or coffee. Hoarders, she explains, “accounted for more of the problems in 1942 than actual shortages. Hoarding was less of a problem with the meat supply because people did not have large freezers, as they do now, and could not stock up.” (And I’d like to point out that American people did not have food stamps, the WIC program or any other kind of government subsidies to provide assistance for the poor in the 1930s or 40s). I also remember reading somewhere that those who had experienced WW1 and were familiar with rationing and shortages, stocked piled (hoarded) things like sugar and coffee well in advance of the laws going into effect.
(to be continued)