Friday, 23 February 2024

Foodie Freak: World War II eating

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My mother-in-law Jane recently died. Last week we attended the funeral; it was a nice service, and afterwards the family got on a boat and we dropped her ashes at sea.


It’s been a difficult time for my wife, her brothers and sisters, but the process of sorting through their mother’s belongings has begun. She was quite a reader and the number of books she owned is daunting.


Her children started picking through the books, taking those that interested them, yet there are still boxes and boxes of books left over for an estate sale.


Going through her books turned out to be a very amusing task since not only did she read these books but she made corrections in them and notes about their content. There are pages and pages of these corrections and editorial comments. It made for several bursts of laughter in an otherwise somber weekend.


As an author I dreaded looking at her copy of my book; thankfully she didn’t have any notes in it. Probably out of pity, I can only guess.


My mother-in-law wasn’t a fancy cook. I wouldn’t even call her a foodie of any sort. Her cupboards were filled with good, but not great, ingredients and very simple cookbooks. Why does anyone need three copies of The Joy of Cooking?


She was a Minnesota native like myself and never tried to develop her palate beyond that simple Midwestern fare. She would boast about the local restaurants in her (tourist trap) town when in reality they were, well come on, anywhere you can eat lunch while someone else a couple of seats over is throwing squid to the sea lions … enough said.


Throughout her married life, she did the meat and potatoes style of cooking for the weekday family meals while my father-in-law Charlie was the gourmand who would whip up “something special” on the weekends.


I remember at one of the first meals I ever had with them, the first plate was set in front of me and all my eyes saw was a gray slice of bread and a bright red tongue. I’m sure my father-in-law was setting me up to exclaim “WHAT THE HECK IS THIS!”


Actually it was a slice of pate de foie gras and a pimento marinated in extra virgin olive oil. But that really set the stage for my future encounters with his food.


Sunday dinners with them educated me on many levels and contributed much to the cook and person I am today. A week doesn’t go by when I find myself cooking and thinking “What would Charlie do?”


Now I find myself not only loving the refined haute cuisine that he used to serve but wanting to learn more about all food, whether it be tripe or simmered chicken gizzards (now a favorite of mine). Point of interest: my father-in-law died back in 1991.


Although most of my mother-in-law’s cookbooks didn’t interest me I did find one book in her library that caught my attention and it’s called “Grandmother’s Wartime Kitchen” by Joanne Lamb Hayes.


Being not only a cooking anorak but a really big history buff as well, I have been reading it with enthusiasm and have become quite fascinated by how the World War II American wartime kitchen worked. The book is filled with recipes, anecdotes, and quotes about food and shopping during the big war.


I was surprised when I read the part about how when Pearl Harbor was bombed every housewife went out and emptied the store shelves of sugar. That surprised me since I would have thought that the meat section would have been cleared out.


Then I remembered that this was in the period of infancy of the home refrigerator/freezer, and not every home was equipped with a large amount of cold storage, and so buying large amounts of meat would have been wasted.


Also, homemakers who remembered the problems from the not-so-distant past of World War I knew that if you wanted sugar you better get it now. This mentality of buying it now and in huge amounts was one of the reasons why the U.S. started food rationing for the rest of the war.


This rationing caused the American homemaker to become incredibly creative in their shopping and cooking to keep a family fed on very little food. Meat had to be stretched further so fillers became popular. Food from the garden had to be preserved so home canning became commonplace. Meatloaf, Swedish meatballs and Salisbury steak are all recipes where bread is added to ground beef in a way to stretch your meat supply all became popular during this time.


During World War II America took it upon itself to be the Allies’ bread basket. Essentially, America was feeding the world while the American people were getting the leftovers. The “yard bird” was born from this, raising your own chickens in your backyard, even if you lived in town. Chicken and eggs were hard to come by so raising your own just made sense. The American Victory Garden became a vital part of the war effort and still holds a part in American culture.


Saving bacon grease was something that every household did. Not only was the grease popular to cook with but when it had served its purpose as far as it could in the kitchen the now useless leftovers were still saved and taken to collection centers at the local butcher’s, where he would strain it and give you some money for it. It was then sent out and turned into glycerin, and that glycerin was turned into gunpowder. Ah, bacon! Killing people on so many levels.


I grew up with a can of bacon grease under the kitchen sink and never thought about it twice. Up until about a decade ago even I had a can of bacon fat under my sink, just because that’s what people do. I’ve since lowered the use of bacon in my diet and then filter and refrigerate any bacon fat that I do rend for a final use before I throw it out.


As I read through this book I kept thinking how these recipes could do so much to help people now-a-days to stretch their budget. These principles are handy and still applicable. I’m picking out recipes now to try out and serve to my family, and putting together a grocery list.


How can you not be intrigued by recipes like “California Chicken” that has no chicken in it (the protein is tuna), or “Emergency Steak” made from wheat cereal and ground beef?


Many of the recipes remind me of my childhood when my mother and grandmother used to make Pork-U-Pines and Apple Brown Betty. In the Midwest many of these culinary traditions are still served to this day and seem rather odd when I go back for a visit, almost like I’ve traveled back in time. It also makes me realize how spoiled Californians are when it comes to food. I remember as a child thinking having an artichoke was like touching a diamond.


Reading this book has also caused me to wonder what would happen if this generation was required to make the sacrifices that were made in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. People may complain about and protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet (not including the families of fallen soldiers) they have had to make no personal, home-altering sacrifice to support them in any way, not when compared to the past.


To finish this column, I thought that I should tell you one last thing. My maternal grandfather died of throat cancer after a lifetime of smoking, my maternal grandmother was burned to death after she fell asleep while smoking and now my mother-in-law has died, unable to breathe after a lifetime of smoking. So don’t smoke, and if you do, quit. It’s far easier for you to quit smoking than for your family to deal with you being gone.


Goodbye, Jane.


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community. Follow him on Twitter, http://twitter.com/Foodiefreak .

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