Food Matters – Cooking During Wartime

On Monday, Canadians will observe Remembrance Day. This is not an occasion generally associated with food, as so many of our other holidays are. But if we go back to the Second World War, food was definitely a daily concern.

I’ve been doing some reading and listening lately about the abundance of food we have these days and how we actually waste so much of it, and what would I do if suddenly I couldn’t go to the supermarket or grocery store or even a farmers’ market to get pretty much anything I want. I also think about my dad this time of year…who was drafted into the Canadian army in World War Two, but was sent home when they found out he was a farmer. ‘Farmers don’t go to war’, he was told. So he went back to work on the family farm. Neither my mother nor my father ever told me any stories of food rationing or shortages, possibly because they had enough food from the farm. But a few years ago I discovered an old cookbook my mother had in her collection that would have helped her out during wartime.

Moms cookbookMom’s cookbook

It is the 1945 edition of ‘The American Woman’s Cook Book’.  It has an appendix dedicated to Wartime Cookery, with warnings about what ingredients you may expect to be short of, such as prime cuts of meat, sugar, lard, and other fats. It advises the cook of the family (assumed to be a woman) to save everything for the soup pot, take advantage of the availability of offal, eat more chicken (since it will have been raised nearby by a woman), and lots of fish, since freshwater fish will still be available. How times have changed!

Kate AitkenKate Aitken

I have also delved into another cookbook which looks a little more modern, but only because it’s a modern reprinting of ‘Kate Aitken’s Canadian Cook Book.’ This was a staple in my mother’s little spot in one of her kitchen drawers she reserved for small cookbooks and recipe clippings. Again, published in 1945. Kate Aitken was known to any Canadian woman who listened to the radio, as she was on three days a week during her CBC years. To listen, go to this page in the CBC archives. I made a batch of muffins from one of the recipes in the cookbook, molasses spice muffins, but I have to admit that they were quite dry to my palate and not very sweet, which is actually a perfect reflection of wartime cookery. Not too much fat, (only 3 tablespoons) and little sugar (4 tablespoons of molasses). If you want the recipe send me a note in the comments.

Back to my dad. During the war he was a farmer, who stayed in Canada to farm, but what about those who weren’t farmers, but wanted to grow their own food? As they were in World War One, people were encouraged to build Victory Gardens. The curious part about World War Two is that there was a reluctance at first, on the part of the Canadian government to endorse Victory Gardens or provide any means of support for them. The agriculture minister of the day, James Gardiner, actually discouraged people from establishing Victory Gardens. In a posting on, I found this excerpt from the Canadian Public Archives:

“Gardening on such a small scale invited inefficiency in its (i.e. the government’s) opinion, due to a wastage of seed, fertilizer, tools, etc. and lead to overproduction of some crops. They adhered to this opinion despite scores of letters received urging the Federal Department of Agriculture to support Victory Gardens, and despite the very active Victory Garden movement in the United States of America…. By 1943, however, problems of shortages of food supplies for the Allies (although not domestically in Canada itself) inclined the federal government towards Victory Gardens.”

And if I might issue a gentle reminder: Backyard gardening remains a very viable alternative to purchasing fresh produce, especially here on Vancouver Island, with our temperate climate.

One more thing: Another blog post on wartime cooking from my colleague Amy Jo Ehman in Saskatoon. I think you’ll enjoy it, and sounds like she had better luck with her recipe than mine.

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