On Nov. 11, we remember Canadian soldiers who fought and died in distant battlefields.
As we approach Remembrance Day, we might also spare a thought for the home front. The duties weren't dangerous, but they required tenacity and ingenuity. Many women found themselves doing war work while keeping their families going single-handedly. And in a dark and difficult time, they managed to get dinner on the table every night, not an easy thing even in peacetime.
During the two world wars, Canadian civilians were fortunate not to experience the extreme hardships of those living in war zones. But wartime cooking could be a challenge. With resources being diverted to the military effort, many staple ingredients were in short supply, and homemakers learned to do a lot with a little.
Wartime Canada (wartimecanada.ca), an online collection of archival material related to the Canadian experience during the world wars, points out that food was the ammunition of the home front. During the Second World War, proclaiming that "food will win the war," the government boosted agricultural production while rationing domestic consumption of sugar, tea, coffee, butter and meat. Public education campaigns encouraged cooks to get the most out of the food they had. The slogan for the new wartime nutritional guidelines was "Eat right, feel right -- Canada needs you strong!"
Some wartime food was an easy sell: "Serve apples daily and you serve your country too." Or, "It's Patriotic and Pleasant to Eat Canadian Lobster!" No argument there.
Other wartime dishes weren't quite as tasty, whether it was Spam hash or dried-egg omelettes. Canadian War Cake -- famously made without butter, milk or eggs -- was thrifty but tough and dense as a brick. Recipes for mock duck, mock cherry pie and mock whipped cream became popular mainstays in wartime community cookbooks.
In Britain, where some foodstuffs remained rationed until 1954, the menu included dubious-sounding dishes like Flour Soup and Beetroot Pudding, both documented by English food and gardening writer Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall in The Ministry of Food, a wonderfully informative history of the period.
Britons were also encouraged to eat potatoes, lots of potatoes, cheered on by a smiling cartoon tuber named Potato Pete.
The goal for home cooks was to be as thrifty and self-sufficient as possible. That could mean raising chickens or rabbits or planting a garden and "digging for victory." People foraged, canned and preserved. Propaganda posters emphasized efficient food planning, effective food storage, and the ruthless elimination of waste.
If all this seems like distant history, these are lessons many cooks are trying to learn today. No one wants to go back to ration cards and ersatz coffee, but even in these relatively balmy days, people are finding compelling reasons to make do and mend, to waste not and want not, to keep calm and carry on.
In the anxious aftermath of the 2008 recession, many food writers got nostalgic for the war years, finding inspiration in the period's cost-cutting recipes and cheerful frugality.
The urban farm movement draws on many wartime skills, though the push to allow folks to raise chickens in the city or replace their suburban lawns with vegetable plots is now linked to a desire for healthy, local, sustainable food. Many people now mark Meatless Mondays for ethical reasons, or celebrate Wheatless Wednesdays as part of a plan for healthier eating.
Some wartime recipes are tasty, some are fascinating historical curiosities, and some are just one more reason to pray for world peace. Here are a couple you might want to try.
Toad in the Hole, an eccentrically named dish of sausages and batter, is a comforting, slightly stodgy British food that helped to stretch a meagre meat ration. (Many Britons complained that the meat ration was further stretched by the sausages themselves, which were often more filler than pork: there were dark rumours about sawdust.)
Anzac biscuits allowed women to send a taste of home to soldiers overseas. They trace back to the First World War, when women with sons or husbands in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps needed a sweet biscuit that could make the long trek to Europe. (Parcels could take up to two months to reach frontline troops.) The biscuits are now sold around ANZAC Day to raise money for veterans' groups, and because the term "ANZAC" is legally protected in both Australia and New Zealand, any commercialized version is required to stick close to the original recipe. Also, one must never, ever refer to them as "cookies."
250 ml (1 cup) all-purpose flour
250 ml (1 cup) large-flake oats
250 ml (1 cup) desiccated coconut
250 ml (1 cup) brown sugar, packed
125 ml (113 g or 1/2 cup) butter
45 ml (3 tbsp) Lyle's Golden Syrup
30 ml (2 tbsp) water
Preheat oven to 175 C (350 F). Line rimless baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. In large bowl, whisk together flour, oats, coconut and sugar. Set aside. In small saucepan, stir butter, syrup and water over medium-low heat until butter melts. Stir into dry ingredients. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto prepared baking sheet, spacing 5 cm (2 inches) apart. Bake in centre of oven until light golden on bottom, about 15 minutes. Let cool on baking sheet for 2 minutes, then transfer biscuits to wire rack to cool completely. Makes about 2 dozen. Can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container between layers of wax paper.
Tester's notes: These were a peacetime hit at our house. They have no leavening (some recipes contain a smidge of baking soda) and no eggs, but they manage to be delicious just the same, with a chewy-crispy texture and caramelly taste.
Lyle's Golden Syrup is a pale cane syrup -- also called light treacle -- that's available at many supermarkets. (I got a jar at my local grocery store.) Rogers Golden Syrup is similar, or you could use corn syrup in a pinch, though you won't get the subtle, slightly toasty flavour. I know some people think parchment paper is an affectation, but it really does help with these biscuits, which can stick a bit.
-- Adapted from Canadian Living
Toad in the Hole
250 ml (1 cup) all-purpose flour
3 eggs, room temperature
250 ml (1 cup) whole milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper
30 ml (2 tbsp) oil
8 pork sausages
In a food processor, pulse flour, eggs and milk until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and set mixture aside to rest for at least 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 220 C (425 F). Using a medium baking pan, add oil and roast sausages for about 10 minutes, or until nice and browned. Pour batter over sausages. Bake, without opening oven, for 20-25 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Serve immediately.
Tester's notes: In terms of rib-stickingness, this dish would definitely do its wartime job. British-style bangers are best here, but you can improvise a bit with bratwurst, sweet Italian sausages or small breakfast links. It's crucial to let the batter sit for 30 minutes and also to have the pan and the oil piping hot when the batter goes in. (It might spatter up a bit.) Use an oil like grapeseed that has a high smoke point. And do resist the urge to check during baking, as the batter can deflate when the oven door opens. (I was impatient, and my batter wasn't as puffy as it should have been.)