In January of 1942, the United States Office of Price Administration began to limit the amount of various products that any resident could buy. Tires were the first product to be rationed, but soon nylon, cars, typewriters, bicycles, and gasoline were also rationed. Most rations began sometime during 1942 and all were lifted by the close of 1945 .
It was food rationing, though, that brought the war home, affecting anyone living in America's daily life than any of the other rations . Meats, canned vegetables, fats, sugar, coffee, cheese, and canned fish were among the items rationed . Primarily, food rationing affected white upper-class Americans living in cities that had few or no children. These people, who used to be able to spend a higher percentage of their income on food, were now being stripped of the luxury to eat indulgently and instead had to shift their eating habits to conform to the rations . These were also the families most likely to have a maid or cook. Half of the women who were in these jobs left them for higher-paying war work. So, in many cases, not only were the housewives forced to eat differently, but now they were also responsible for cooking . There’s really an emphasis on habit here; people who had tighter budgets, more specifically families with more children living in rural areas and often people of color, were stretching their budgets using the same techniques that the rations mandated. Families that fell into this category had to make fewer adjustments while rations were in place and felt the effects much less than people with more money to spend on food.
The resentment that those most affected (upper-class white folks) held for the rations program was only made worse when it was suggested they eat offal, e.g. the tongue, sweetbreads, and other organ meat of animals. The problem was these were the people who could afford the pricier cuts of meat and thought of the offal as the junk only fit for the trash. The poorest populations, by contrast, were used to making use of the every part of the animal. The offal sometimes took longer to prepare than, say, a tenderloin, but it was the meat that these groups could afford. (Surprise, liverwurst is delicious. So are pig feet. Be stuck up all you want, but you're missing out.) The groups that were preparing and eating these cut of meat were primarily the working class and/or people of color who had a vastly different level of privilege than the upper-class white folks. The lower demand of the offal made it accessible to the lower class. How someone experienced rations was pretty clearly linked to the way that their race and class intersected. White, upper-class folks were really vocal about their anger towards meat rations and also had the privilege to be able to make themselves heard .
Food writing was suddenly a defunct profession. While there were publications like The Victory Cook Book, which was published with the intent of helping women feed their families while under rations, the artistry of food writing was no longer relevant. In careful, insinuative protest of the rations, M. F. K. Fisher wrote and published her book How to Cook a Wolf in 1942. She subtly comments on the program throughout her book, stressing that eating is political and that in many ways rations are not practical because of the ways that people can still get around the system. She explains, "a nation lives on what its body assimilates," setting up eating as a political act. In the beginning of the book she also makes the point that during rations being thrifty was stylish and seen as patriotic if, and only if, you were being economical because of the war as opposed to your own budget. Many of the recipes included in the cookbook are impractical or illegal, including the recipe for steak tartare. This recipe is followed by an explanation of how people refuse to eat the dish and the ways in which roast beef provides a more economical option. She also includes a chapter entitled "How to Be Cheerful Through Starving" in which she describes a woman who forages for her food because she has little money and creates incredibly, if strange, dishes with the found ingredients . Fisher uses her work as a food writer to express how the consumers’ reactions are also ridiculous (the restriction on meat shouldn’t have been that big of a deal, but people freaked out because, god forbid, we eat like the working class, the horror). She creates a careful critique of the program, specifically the way that it didn’t address underlying inequity, and also the way that people reacted to it .
The food rations in the U.S. seemed artificial because, unlike in Britain or other countries, their effects weren’t visible (Also, it should be noted that in Britain and Germany, rations restricted diets to unsustainably meager portions). As one might expect, a sizable black market for meat existed. Americans felt a kind of triumph in getting around the rations. (aren't systems just there for us to figure out how to get around them?) Americans cheated the system for their culinary enjoyment. In Britain, though, people were defensive of the black market because it was more of a means of survival than anything else . Those who had money for luxury foods had to adjust to the rations in more dramatic ways, but they were also the people who could afford to get around the system. It seems as if it was the rations that were threatening the consumer’s freedom and way of life more than the possibility of an Axis victory. There is something counterintuitive about the notion of giving up freedom in order to protect it. But just because these efforts weren’t directly visible didn’t mean they weren’t important. Rations made it possible for American soldiers to eat heartily at around 4,300 calories a day .
In addition to meat rations, fats and sugar were restricted as well. Sugar was generally sold to commercial bakeries, making it hard to bake at home. The housewives had to rely on these bakeries and felt robbed of their freedom to put care into a baked good. Not only was it difficult to cook because of the rations themselves, but cooks had to constantly adjust to the different ingredients that were scarce or abundant. Certain staple ingredients, like eggs, wouldn’t be in stores for months and suddenly would reappear in excess . The rations took away the possibility of habits. Imagine going into a grocery store not knowing what you would be able to find. That sounds like a really awful stress dream I might have; no thanks.
The following is a riff on a recipe that appears in the 1942 Victory Cook Book published by The Household Science Institute in Chicago. The booklet is littered with pictures of a happy housewife feeding her happy family (husband, daughter, and son) at a happy table in the happy year of 1942. The cookbook makes a lot of references to nutrition as well, which was a burgeoning field at the time, creeping its way into the homes of Americans . Suddenly, there was a whole new way to obsess over food that wasn’t about flavor! The Victory Cook Book stresses maintaining normalcy while being flexible. How can we make cakes that still taste like cakes but don’t have all the ingredients cake have? How can we contribute to the war effort without feeling deprived of anything?
While more traditional recipes for apple pan dowdy have something more like a pie crust on top, this recipe makes for a cakier, more biscuit-like crust that soaks up some of the juices from the apples and molasses. Pan dowdy makes sense as a wartime dessert. Instead of sugar, the filling features molasses and I chose to lightly sweeten the crust with honey. Instead of butter, margarine is used. Chicken fat was a pretty common substitute as well . In the case of the pan dowdy, the original recipe does not specify which spices you might add to the apples, but instead it just gives the general direction of “spice lightly” which lets the cook use some creative freedom and ingredients they have on hand. The same is true with the fat in the topping. I used margarine because that wasn’t rationed, but if someone wanted to use butter and had an extra ration stamp, by all means, go for it. Flexibility was really important during this time, which might be part of the reason the recipe is written in such a sparse way; it does not condemn if a substitution has to be made.
Making this recipe was a little weird, to be completely honest. Both in the sparse style that it was written and in the ingredients, it felt super dated. Margarine?! The only person I know who buys that is my grandmother! Wild! But, it worked. The people who tried it liked it. There were happy contented smiles all around. It felt simple, but homey. Which is exactly the way it should.
Apple Pan Dowdy
modified from The Victory Cook Book (1942)
- 5 Apples
- Pinch of salt
- ⅔ cup molasses
- ⅛ tsp apple cider vinegar
- ½ tsp cinnamon
Preheat oven to 450 degrees fahrenheit. Peel, core, and quarter apples. Mix with remaining ingredients. Pour apple mixture into an 8-inch cast iron pan. Place in oven for 15 minutes.
- 1 ½ cups all purpose flour
- ¼ tsp salt
- 3 ½ tsp baking powder
- 4 tbs shortening (cold)
- ⅔ cup milk
- 1 tbs honey
Mix together dry ingredients. Cut in shortening until it is in pea-sized chunks. Slowly add milk to make a wet dough. Mix until just combined. Place mixture on top of the apple-molasses mixture (no need to be too neat here) and return to oven for 20 minutes or until the biscuit dough is golden brown on top. Serve warm with heavy cream, if available.
"Rationed Items," Ames Historical Society, accessed February 15, 2015. http://www.ameshistory.org/exhibits/ration_items.htm.
Warren C. Waite, “The Pressure of Red Point Rationing,” The Journal of Marketing 8 (1944): 422-424.
"Rationed Items," Ames Historical Society.
Warren C. Waite, 423.
Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (New York: Penguin, 2012), 432.
Lizzie Collingham, 431-432.
M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf (New York: North Point Press, 1942).
Allison Carruth, “War Rations and the Food Politics of Late Modernism,” Modernism/Modernist 16 (2009), 767-783.
Lizzie Collingham, 431.
Lizzie Collingham, 433.
Lizzie Collingham, 430-434.
Joseph S. Davis, “The World’s Food Position and Outlook,” Harvard Business Review 21 (1942): 43.
McCray, Doris, The Victory Cook Book, (Chicago: The Household Science Institute, 1942).