By T.W. Paterson
The federal government saw rationing as an opportunity to educate Canadians in wholesome eating habits — sort of a subliminal Home Economics 101.
Canadians weren’t expected to just keep the home fires burning during both world wars, they were expected to do it with less.
I can vaguely remember, as a kid, trying to wrap my head around one of my mother’s recipes which, as did her wedding day and her cook books, dated from the Second World War. One day she told me she was going to bake an eggless, milkless, butterless cake. (This was long after the war, I should add.)
I just didn’t get it. I was no cook but I’d watched her enough times to know that eggs and butter and milk were common, even essential ingredients, in most desserts made from a recipe. (Bought mixes weren’t part of the Paterson household until many years later.)
But she calmly proceeded and, voila, in due course, a delicious cake from the oven without these three ingredients.
My mother and tens of thousands of other Canadian women had learned to do with less and to be innovative during wartime rationing. (Somewhere in my treasures I have my grandparents’ ration books containing the coupons which had to be presented when buying certain commodities which had been deemed essential; the coupons were proof that the purchaser was entitled to the foodstuffs and, once clipped, circumvented double-dipping.)
Canadians, today, can’t even imagine rationing; a walk down a supermarket aisle is so far removed from wartime restrictions as to be on another planet. Variety and selection are now so great as to give you a headache — nothing like going to the corner grocery store and presenting your precious coupons for limited quantities of sugar, butter, meat and a host of other basic commodities.
But there was more to wartime rationing than restricting personal consumption in the name of a national emergency. As if the federal government didn’t have enough on its plate, it saw rationing as an opportunity to educate Canadians in wholesome eating habits — sort of a subliminal Home Economics 101 — and to promote what they cannily called “patriotic foods”.
This oblique toning up of the civilian populace was the result of a 1941 study by nutrition experts that showed more than 60 per cent of Canadians suffered from some form of vitamin and mineral deficiency. Hence the slogan, “Eat right, feel right – Canada needs you strong!” As a magazine headline put it, anyone who knowingly consumed a faulty diet was an ally of Hitler.
“Food will win the war,” was another catchy slogan, meaning on both the Home Front and Overseas. The ambitious program included, according to the website Wartime Canada, “a concerted propaganda campaign to promote certain ‘patriotic’ foods, the wartime launch of an unprecedented national nutrition campaign, and the introduction of literally thousands of individual controls on the price, production, and distribution of everyday foods…”
Part of Canada’s role during the last war wasn’t just feeding its own military personnel and encouraging a healthy general population, but feeding some of its Allies, particularly Great Britain, with Canadian grains and other essential foodstuffs via North Atlantic convoys. Hence, as Canadians were reminded over and over again, food truly was a “weapon of war.”
The government wanted Canadians to eat nutritionally while giving first precedence to its armed forces and allies. At its peak, in 1941, Canadian food exports accounted for 77 per cent of British wheat and flour consumption “as well as 39 per cent of bacon, 15 per cent of eggs, 24 per cent of cheese, and 11 per cent of evaporated milk”. Even by war’s end Britain was importing 57 per cent of its wheat and flour from Canada; all this at the expense of hundreds of ships sunk by German U-boats.
Canadian service clubs organized campaigns to pay for milk, jams and other forms of food relief not just for Britain but for Russia, Greece, France and other Allied nations. They also made up parcels of food for Canadian prisoners-of-war.
No wonder the government wanted Canadians to tighten their belts.
There was more to governmental intervention than the obvious: Canadian farmers and food suppliers had lost most of their European markets. Thanks to government controlled supply and demand, no producers suffered unduly. Foodstuffs such as apples and lobsters which didn’t qualify as essential but had lost their export markets, were promoted as “patriotic foods.” In short, by eating an apple a day Canadians not only kept the doctor away but kept fruit growers in business.
Eating Canadian lobster was extolled as “patriotic and pleasant” and propaganda even included recipes for lobster cocktail, lobster à la king, and lobster sandwiches. (For lobster lovers, this really was, to mix my metaphors, having their cake and eating it, too.)
To help their country and themselves, many Canadians planted Victory Gardens, first conceived during the previous world war, in backyards, vacant lots, even in front lawns. This spontaneous gesture wasn’t altogether welcomed in Ottawa where senior government Mandarins feared that inexperienced gardeners would actually harm the war effort by creating a demand for garden tools, fertilizers and sprays, all of which were made from materials needed by Canada’s war industries.
Nevertheless, in 1944 it was estimated that well over 200,000 Victory Gardens were in operation nationwide and were producing a staggering total of 57,000 tons of vegetables that didn’t have to be provided by professional farmers, thus allowing more of their production to go overseas. This time, the government backed off.
Home canning, encouraged by pamphlets and hands-on demonstration by home economists, became the fashion even with the restrictions on sugar, flour and milk, and thousands of teenagers volunteered to serve as unskilled and cheap labour in farmers’ fields.
Little was allowed to go to waste — not even cooking fat and bones. There was no making soup when a pound of household fat could provide “enough glycerine to fire 150 bullets from a Bren gun,” and two pounds could “fire a burst of 20 cannon shells from a Spitfire or 10 anti-aircraft shells”. Long before today’s green bin recycling program, Canadian housewives were encouraged to be a “munition maker” in their own kitchens. In five years of war the Winnipeg Patriotic Salvage Corps alone collected one million pounds of bones and fat. What the national total, 1939-1945, was staggers the imagination; in short, an awful lot of machine gun, cannon and anti-aircraft shells.
Few Canadians appear to have objected to the inconveniences of rationing and price controls from December 1941 on, even though they affected such everyday basic foods such as sugar, tea, coffee, butter and meat (not to mention gasoline and alcohol). In fact, price controls after months of periodic shortages and price surges at the start of the war ensured stability in the household when everyone was on an equal footing. (This, by the way, is when saccharine and soybean products — in place of peanuts! — and other ersatz products — became part of the Canadian diet.)
Which isn’t to say that restrictions on sliced bread, iced cakes in bakeries, chocolate bars, soft drinks and meatless Tuesdays then meatless Fridays in restaurants were popular. Making home life even more difficult was the prohibition of the use of tin cans for commercially produced fruits and vegetables — tin was too precious for the Home Front.
Which finally brings us back to my mother’s eggless, milkless, butterless cake which even had a patriotic name: “Canada War Cake.” It got away without those three ingredients by using a mix of hot water, brown sugar, lard, raisins, flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and cloves.
No wonder I remember it as having been delicious, even without the Big Three.