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Waste not, want not

Wartime kitchen economies can be adapted to modern-day healthy food movements

A second card says: 'Hang your pledge by a cord or a ribbon in the dining room where your household can see it daily.' And it also urges households to 'Place your Win-the-War card prominently in your window where the public can see it and where the members of the household can read the imperative reasons for food saving set forth on the back.'
Waste not, want not
A second card says: 'Hang your pledge by a cord or a ribbon in the dining room where your household can see it daily.' And it also urges households to 'Place your Win-the-War card prominently in your window where the public can see it and where the members of the household can read the imperative reasons for food saving set forth on the back.'

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/8/2014 (1105 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

No, the list on the left doesn't come from the latest bestseller on food and diet trends. This message came from the U.S. Food Administration in 1917, and it offered advice on eating during wartime.

As we mark the centenary of the start of the First World War this month, it's interesting to look at the effects on the home front. Here in Canada, the war caused massive changes in the way people cooked and ate. In Western Canada, there was a tremendous push to boost agricultural production, and across the country, homemakers were encouraged to stringently economize, in order to divert as much food as possible to Europe.

Salt Cod Cakes


Salt Cod Cakes

Women were told to think of themselves as "kitchen soldiers." Pamphlets and posters exhorted the importance of gardening and preserving, of cutting back on food consumption, especially of meat and wheat, and of reducing waste. Thrifty new recipes illustrated ways to stretch menus with vegetables, fruits, fish and grains.

In the Archives of Manitoba you can find a copy of the Food Service Pledge, which many Canadian women signed and hung on their kitchen walls.

"Realizing the gravity of the food situation," the small card reads, "and knowing that Great Britain and our Allies look to Canada to help to shatter Germany's threat of starvation, I pledge myself and my household to carry out conscientiously the advice and directions of the Food Controller that requisite foodstuffs may be released for export to the Canadian Divisions, the British forces and people and the Allied armies and nations."

In Winnipeg, the Recipe Committee of the Local Council of Women released a small booklet entitled War Cookery (also stored at the Archives). Intended to help women who were battling food shortages and rising food costs, this 1918 booklet offers a lot of cheap-and-cheerful, stick-to-your-ribs recipes. It also provides a fascinating social history, giving a vivid sense of the everyday hardships faced in many Canadian homes.

The culinary value is, well, variable. It's doubtful that anyone will be rushing to make Oatmeal Soup, for example. Many recipes will seem terse and possibly mysterious to the modern reader. (What exactly constitutes "a teacup full of jam?")

In other ways, though, War Cookery feels strikingly current, especially in its advice to consume less wheat, meat and sugar. Vegetarian entrées include Creamed Peanuts with Rice, Boston Roast, made from bean purée, and something intriguingly called Vegetarian Chicken. You can see precursors to today's veggie burgers in loafs and sausages that use "nut meats." There are also War Breads made not with white flour but with whole grains and alternative grains like oats, buckwheat, corn and rice. Dessert recipes, like Conservation Pudding, are designed to cut back on fat, sugar and wheat.

What wartime householders did from hard necessity, many people now choose to do, sometimes for health reasons, sometimes on ethical grounds. For many modern consumers, the war's "Meatless Mondays" and "Wheatless Wednesdays" have spread to the whole week. More and more people are trying to buy local products and reduce food waste, which in affluent North America has hit shameful levels.

The forced frugality of the war years also resonates with the voluntary simplicity movement, which celebrates the satisfaction of doing more with less.

Wartime recipes offer a poignant way to mark the war and to remember its place in Canada's history. In that spirit, I tried out some dishes from War Cookery, which are reprinted directly from the booklet. I knew I couldn't expect "caviar, champagne and canvasback ducks," as one wartime pamphleteer rather sternly pointed out. I was just happy to end up with dishes that were nourishing, economical and, on balance, pretty tasty. (I've added my own interpretations of the brief, sometimes enigmatic instructions, as well as possibilities for a few peacetime extras.)


Cod fish balls

Put 1 lb. of salted cod fish to soak overnight. In the morning, drain and pull to pieces, removing all bones. Pare 6 medium-seized potatoes and boil with fish until soft. Drain and add one egg, 1 tbsp. butter, a little minced parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Shape into flat cakes. Fry in a hot pan with enough crisco or dripping to keep from sticking to the pan.


My interpretation: Salt cod should be soaked in water in the fridge for at least 12 hours and up to 48. I ended up soaking my boned salt cod for 2 days, draining and replacing the water every 8 hours or so, which really got the salt out. I then roughly chopped the fish. I couldn't quite bring myself to vigorously boil fish for 15-20 minutes -- boiling salt cod can make it tough -- so I started the potatoes on their own and when they were almost tender, I lowered the heat to a simmer and cooked the fish for about 5 minutes. I then drained the fish and potatoes and mashed lightly. Along with the egg and butter, I added lots of pepper and parsley but no extra salt, and then I fried the cakes over medium heat in vegetable oil for about 3 minutes a side, until nicely browned.

Peacetime possibilities: I started out a bit apprehensively, but then I realized this recipe was basically a variation of the salt cod cakes often seen in Portuguese and Spanish cooking. I had never worked with salt cod before, and was initially skeptical that what looked like slabs of white flannel were going to turn into food, but the results were delicious. The cakes held together well, were crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and not salty at all. Given a free hand, I would add a little minced garlic and maybe some smoked paprika along with the parsley, and serve the fish cakes with some spicy mayonnaise on the side.


Corn meal muffins

1 cup cornmeal

1 cup flour, either white or rye

3 tbsp either sugar or molasses

1/2 tsp. salt

3 tsp baking powder

1 cup milk

1 egg (separated)

1 tbsp melted shortening

Method -- Mix dry ingredients, add yolk of egg, shortening, then milk; beat well; lastly the stiffly-beaten egg white. Bake 25 to 30 minutes in a hot oven in well greased muffin tins.

My interpretation: I whisked together cornmeal, rye flour (in good wartime spirit), salt and baking powder in a large bowl. I added milk, molasses, egg yolk and melted shortening, and mixed just until combined, and then folded in the beaten egg white. I filled 12 standard muffin cups about 2/3 full and baked at 215 C (425 F), but only for 12-15 minutes.

Peacetime possibilities: Made with rye flour and molasses, these are healthier but slightly stodgier than the corn bread I usually bake. They are best served warm with lashings of butter and jam.


Good pie paste and Economy pie

2 cups rye flour

1 cup white flour

1 cup shortening

Cold water enough to mix together after shortening well mixed with flours.

Line a pie tin with pastry made from rye flour; make a filling of stale sifted bread crumbs, moistened with golden syrup. Add 1 tsp of lemon juice and a few drops of hot water; season with ginger.

My interpretation: The recipe committee isn't exactly making this "Economy pie" sound enticing, but on closer examination, this is a good old-fashioned treacle tart. (Harry Potter likes treacle tart! Mrs. Patmore makes treacle tart for the Downton Abbey servants' hall!)

I initially tried the pastry recipe as written. It was patriotic but also rustic to the point of harshness. Still, I know that many contemporary bakers will use some rye flour in pastry: it adds a depth of flavour to savoury pies or sweet pies with robust fillings like dark chocolate. I kept in the rye flour but changed the proportions, using 2 1/2 cups white flour and 1/2 cup rye flour. I added 1 tsp sugar and 1/2 tsp salt and whisked it together. I then cut in 1/2 cup cold butter and 1/2 cup shortening, adding about 6 tbsp ice water and mixing with a fork just until the dough came together. I let the pastry rest in the fridge for 30 minutes before rolling out half the dough into a disc to cover a 9-inch shallow tart pan. (The recipe makes enough for a two-crust pie. You can cut it in half for the treacle tart.)

For the pie filling, I combined 1 cup Lyle's Golden Syrup, which can be found at some supermarkets, 2 tbsp lemon juice and 1/2 tsp ground ginger. I didn't use bread crumbs, because the density can really vary, making the recipe hard to standardize. Instead I used 1/2 cup chopped rolled oats, putting half on the pie shell, covering with the syrup mixture and then topping with the other half. I baked at 190 C (375 F) for about 25-30 minutes. (Don't overbake or it can get very sticky.)

Peacetime possibilities: Possible upgrades: I would add the grated rind of one lemon to the filling. Some fancy recipes for treacle tart also add 1 egg and about 3 tbsp whipping cream for richness and to help set the filling. You can serve with clotted cream, whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Read more by Alison Gillmor.


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Updated on Wednesday, August 13, 2014 at 6:27 AM CDT: Fixes headline, replaces image, adds slideshow, formats text

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