Dining Through the Decades: 1940

American Factory Workers

After a brief recovery from the Great Depression (some wondered what was so great about it), and no jobs, American was again forced to endure other hardships due to the horrors of World War II. The men marched off to Europe and later the South Pacific and the women marched out of the kitchen and into factories.

Food Rationing and Victory Gardens

The government restricted each American to 28 ounces of meat per week plus limited the amounts of sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs and coffee permitted. As a result, sales of convenience and prepared foods increased. Margarine replaced butter. In fact, margarine was a relatively new product to many and to make it look like butter, coloring was artificially added. Rationing, substitutions, and making do with less dominated most of this decade. Home cooks made sugarless cookies, eggless cakes, and meatless meals. Food was prioritized to the troops and farmers and manufacturers were obligated to supply military needs that created food shortages for consumers. Posters proclaimed: “Do with less, so they’ll have enough”. Food rationing using ration cards was introduced in 1942 and ended in 1947 The government restricted each American to 28 ounces of meat a week plus limited amounts of sugar, gasoline, butter, milk, cheese, eggs and coffee. The production and sales of convenience foods soared while the use of margarine replaced the restricted butter. The Victory Gardens provided vegetables helped to fill out dinner menus since canned goods, frozen fruits and vegetables were also rationed. Ground beef became popular; hamburger was only seven rationing points as compared with 12 for a T-bone steak.

The government encouraged Americans to plant Victory Gardens similar to what they had done in World War I.  Reflecting the times, women’s magazines of the day featured recipes for fresh vegetables, while the vegetable sections of popular cookbooks grew larger. Home canning became a necessity to not waste the precious harvests of fresh produce from garden cooperatives.

On the Home Front

After the war, many new products were introduced to the American public. These “convenience foods” (dehydrated juice, instant coffee, cake mixes, etc.) came about because of the military interest and research in using these products for the troops. Many people could not afford to “eat out”; thus, many restaurants closed for good. People entertained differently with pot luck suppers and progressive dinners becoming popular. Neighbors pooled their rationing points to help the cause. Vitamins were recommended to help with the nation’s nutritional needs. This more than likely helped fuel a burgeoning supplement industry that we experience today.

Uncle Spam

Even though Spam had been introduced to the American palate a decade before, it played a major role in a convenient form of meat to the American table. The troops soon tired of their main course of rations – Spam. During the war, the U.S. government bought 98% of Hormel’s products – Chile Con Carne, Dinty Moore Beef Stew and canned hams and of course, Spam. Soldiers called Uncle Sam, “Uncle Spam”. Americans did not go on vacations due a rubber shortage for tires. But they did go to the movies, so popcorn consumption soared.

Starvation Overseas

World War II was extremely hard on those living in Europe. In July, 1943, a great tank battle occurred in the Ukraine between the Germans and the Russians with the Russians emerging as the victor. Some historians consider this a turning point for the war. In Leningrad, starving people ate anything they could find – leather shoes, briefcases; they stripped wallpaper off and ate the paste. In India, the British took rice to feed their troops and almost six million Indians starved or died from malnutrition. In the Netherlands, Anne Frank wrote in her diary about the bland diet that included slimy, very old cabbage. In Leningrad, people resorted to cannibilism. The siege ended in 1944 with the death toll from starvation at about 1 million people.

Ancel Keys, K Rations and a Starvation Experiment

Ancel Benjamin Keys (January 26, 1904 – November 20, 2004) was an American scientist who studied the influence of diet on health. When it appeared that the U.S. would be in World War II, Keys went to the Quartermaster Food and Container Institute in Chicago to inquire about emergency rations. After some frustration and lack of interest from the Institute, he eventually worked on the development of the K ration for military troops in the field.  The initial ingredients of the K-ration were procured at a local Minneapolis grocery store—hard biscuits, dry sausage, hard candy, and chocolate. The final product was different from Keys’ original ingredients, but most of Keys initial suggestions did make it to the final product. The small container weighed only 28 oz. but provided 3200 calories a day.

Keys was not finished yet. Interest was building about how to treat mass starvation and how-to bring people back to normal nourishment afterwards in the best possible way to avoid metabolic complications. 1944 Keys carried out a starvation study with 36 conscientious objectors. The participants were eventually placed on a reduced 1800 calories/day for 6 months.

After and during the starvation period, the Keyes subjects exhibited a psychiatric syndrome, called semi-starvation neurosis. They dreamed and fantasized about food; they were anxious and depressed; they hid their food in their rooms; they often binged. Participants exhibited a preoccupation with food, both during the starvation period and the rehabilitation phase. Sexual interest was drastically reduced, and the volunteers showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation. Is this what happens in a less serious way to people who become chronic dieters?

TIDBITS AND TRIVIA

1941 McDonald’s opened their first hamburger drive-in near Pasadena, California.

1941 Cheerios breakfast food was introduced by General Mills contained 2.2 percent sugar.

1942 Americans struggled to find wartime food easy to prepare and at the same time lose household help. A new cookbook, entitled How to Cook A Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher was published to help these shortages. The Chapter headings told the story: “How to Be Sage without Hemlock: How Not to Boil an Egg”; “How to Keep Alive”; How to Be Cheerful Though Starving”; “How to Practice True Economy”.

1942 H.B. Resse decides to concentrate his marketing of his peanut butter cup which he sells primarily to the military. He charges a nickel for one cup which then led to a larger one in an orange, yellow and brown wrapper as we can recognize today.

1943 Spam is still with us after its introduction 6 years ago and again becomes all too familiar to GIs. In Britain civilians and troops consider it a luxury and vast shipments are also made to Russian troops.

1945 U.S. food rationing on all items except sugar ends but food remains scarce in most of the world. Black markets exist throughout Europe.

1947 The first commercial microwave oven is introduced by the Ratheon Co. of Waltham, Mass. Ratheon’s $3,000 Radarrange used an electronic tube called a magneton that cooks quickly, but the reults are unappetizing.

1948 V-8 Cocktail Vegetable Juice introduced by Campbell Soup Co. is a mixture of tomato, carrot, celery, beet, parsley, lettuce, watercress, and spinach juices.

1949 The average American steel worker has $3,000 per year to spend after taxes, the average social worker $3,500, a high-school teacher $4700, s car salesman $8,000, a dentist $10.000.  Typical food prices: pork 57 cents/lb,, lamb chops, $1.15/lb; Coca-Cola 5 cents/7 oz bottle; milk 21 cents/qt; bread 15 cents/lb.; eggs 80 cents/dozen.

1949 General Mills and Pillsbury introduce prepared cake mixes, initially in chocolate, gold and white varieties.

1949 Sara Lee Cheesecakes are introduced by Chicago baker, Charles Lubin whose refrigerated cream cheese product will make his Kitchens of Sara Lee (named after his 9-year old daughter) one of the world’s largest bakeries.

Source: 

Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, Second Edition, Linda Civitello.

The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Andrew F. Smith, Editor

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