War, Pandemic, and the Homemaker
Gillian Manford | Archives Clerk
his is a time of changing conditions, of different habits and different modes of living. Many of the things we… take for granted no longer exist or must be adapted to present-day needs. And because our food is of the utmost importance, we must be prepared to plan our meals not only to suit wartime supplies, but also to economize, in the endeavour to make a pound go as far as it used to. We must adjust ourselves to changed circumstances as well.”
This sentiment from the Stork Wartime Cookery Book, published in Britain in 1940, rings eerily true today. As our generation endures the COVID-19 pandemic, we are facing struggles and challenges we never anticipated, and we are forced to make sacrifices we never thought necessary. By looking to the past, to times when rationing and shortages were commonplace and individual sacrifice was a call to action, we can better appreciate our current situation and glean inspiration and guidance.
How can we limit shopping trips to mitigate danger? How do we provide for ourselves and our families while navigating shortages and ensuring access to resources for others? How do we balance our needs, like for food, with financial uncertainty and with scarcity? How can those with restricted time, health, or money still contribute to the good of the community? Many of these questions would feel familiar to homemakers during the first half of the 20th century. The First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War each asked citizens to ration or otherwise reconsider their consumption.
Two common themes in wartime cookbooks are personal sacrifice, and the optimistic notion of a direct correlation between these individual choices and triumph over a common ‘enemy’ — a concept that is familiar to us today, as we are encouraged to stay at home for the good of the community.
Frigidaire’s 1943 booklet Wartime Suggestions asserts that all of us are willing to make sacrifices when it comes to what we eat, because “we know that the food we do without will help speed final victory.” The booklet also describes situations, which again, many of us may be experiencing today: “wartime rationing and the disappearance of familiar items from grocers’ shelves have created many unique food-keeping problems… shopping is done less frequently… people are buying ‘variety’ meats they never used before, preparing foods they buy in cans [and] making greater use of leftovers.” This booklet discusses how to store foods properly to reduce waste, cook in batches, and make use of leftovers. It also provided recipes that worked around the food shortages at the time, of items such as sugar and butter (another thing any modern-day baker can relate to as they search the shelves in vain for flour, eggs, and yeast!).
Flour shortages, which were common during wartime, are addressed in the 1918 government pamphlet Potatoes and How to Cook Them, encouraging bakers to substitute potatoes for grains in their breads and biscuits. The booklet even includes a recipe for chocolate potato cake — a delicacy that sounds about as appealing as the drab cover promises.
The Stork Wartime Cookery Book, produced by The Stork Margarine Company in 1940, advertises its product alongside tips and advice for the wartime homemaker — a familiar positioning of commercial interests alongside a conspicuous demonstration of timely corporate do-gooding. The book addresses concerns of cooking and baking during times of reduced access to shopping and supplies, saying: “People who live a long way from the shops may find these recipes for home-made bread useful in an emergency…” Its multitude of recipes for ‘Emergency Bread’ conjures up the homemade sourdoughs and banana breads being baked during the current ‘emergency’, underlining the connection between food – baking bread in particular – and feelings of security in times of scarcity and uncertainty.
As we attempt to navigate unpredictable or limited access to ingredients, a brief look at the current headlines on cooking websites reads like the contents of a wartime cookbook: “100 Simple Ways to Turn Pantry Staples into Complete Meals,” “A Smart Reddit Tip on Where to Find Flour Right Now,” “Every Single Substitute for Fresh Milk We Know,” and “15 Ways to Turn a Can of Tuna into a Winning Meal.” The recipes in the community compiled Victory Cook Book (1943) similarly emphasize shelf-stable ingredients and ‘filling out’ dishes with grains — Kellogg’s All-Bran is featured heavily, and breadcrumbs were in seemingly everything. It provides recipes for ‘mock foods’, such as pickled cherries emulating olives or pickles made with watermelon rinds, which were a carryover from the Great Depression. How to Save in Your Kitchen (1943) gave tips on how to reuse brewed tea leaves, grease, and tobacco ashes, and the Second World War government pamphlet, Save Fat And Bones (c.1939-1945), encouraged homemakers to save cooking fat to make soap.
While our present ‘enemy’ may be different than it was during the Second World War, the encouragement given in these recipe books to think communally, or even globally, is a familiar one: “Don’t say, ‘My little bit won’t count,’” reads Save Fat And Bones, “That’s what Hitler would like you to feel… you must realize how your bit will be multiplied if two million homes in Canada contribute a like amount… your effort is worthwhile.”
Unsurprisingly, much of this effort did, and still does, fall disproportionately to women. The First World War pamphlet How to Save Sugar (c.1914-1918) underlines the role of women during times of food shortages. With the encouragement that “the housewives of Canada have shown a splendid spirit and a ready willingness to do their part,” women are reminded that “with them lies the solution of Canada’s sugar problem.” The burden on women to adhere to rationing regulations and work around shortages all while caring for their families — and potentially also entering the workforce — foreshadowed the ‘modern woman’ who could ‘have it all’ (or, more realistically, ‘do it all’).
Today, we are seeing how women are affected differently by the pandemic due to the expectation that they fill these multiple roles. The UN recently warned that gender inequality is being magnified by COVID-19, with women more likely to work in underpaid and often undervalued professions which put them at greater risk of infection — as grocery clerks, personal support workers, and in child care, to name a few. Women continue to take on a larger percentage of unpaid household and caregiving work which has only grown with the closure of schools and increased needs of older or ill family members. A perusal of online homemaking and cooking sites retrieves articles such as “How a Single Mom and Nurse Practitioner Is Feeding Her Family Right Now,” and “Can I Still Cook For My Family If I Feel Sick?,” which reveal the continued societal pressure to provide both family and community support in times of crisis. It seems that the modern woman who wants to have it all, is also expected to do it all, even when she’s sick.
In the present crisis, fears surrounding food supply have resulted in a resurgence in vegetable gardening, reminiscent of the ‘war gardens’ and ‘victory gardens’ of the First and Second World Wars. During April 2020, many nurseries rationed their daily orders, pickup times at garden centres quickly filled to capacity, and popular edible plants such as basil, tomatoes, and peppers were often sold out online. Although initially closed under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, an order designed to stop the spread of COVID-19, Ontario’s community gardens have now been deemed an essential service and allowed to reopen in hopes of addressing issues of food insecurity.
During wartime, gardening was promoted as a civic duty, and manuals like House and Garden’s Wartime Manual for the Home (1943) outlined everything the novice would need to answer the call to ‘garden for victory.’ Alongside the promise of un-rationed access to fresh produce was the feeling that one could do “something tangible in the struggle,” as WWI US President Woodrow Wilson said.
Similarly, while the average balcony gardener won’t produce enough to sustain a family, the positive psychological impact of gardening is nevertheless real. For those feeling isolated or adrift during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is the opportunity to connect with the rhythms of the natural world, work towards a clearly defined goal, and forget about the news for a time. As the Wartime Manual for the Home suggested over 75 years ago, growing a garden will provide “an interesting, useful outdoor activity at a time when opportunities for normal recreation are limited… you will have one thrill after another as Mother Nature unfolds her miracles… you will discover many new pleasures, and wonder why you didn’t have a garden long ago.”
Community spirit, individual sacrifice, sharing resources, and thinking outside the box were the qualities our grandparents and great grandparents adopted and embodied in order to physically and psychologically endure the hardships of war and economic depression. Through pieces of everyday ephemera like cookbooks and household manuals, we can relate more intimately to the experiences of our predecessors and see ourselves in history. By looking to the past we can find practical information, still-useful tips and tricks to get by in times of restriction, but we also find moral support — the reminder that our struggles are shared with those around us and those who lived before us, and real evidence that individual fortitude and sacrifice really does contribute to a communal good.
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