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Dissolve a pkt lemon Jello in one can or one cube’s worth of beef bouillon. Add lemon juice and allow to cool. Add 3 hard-boiled eggs, diced, 1 c. diced celery, 1/2 onion, grated, 1 c. Miracle Whip, and 1 can of corn beef, chopped. Chill until set, slice and serve. Congratulations, you’ve just made corned beef luncheon salad. My name’s…
‘Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, Or Do Without’ my grandma would say. I thought it was a saying from her side of the family, but it was actually a slogan from WWII, encouraging the public to use fewer resources, so more could be diverted to the war effort. We’re all getting a taste of that as we’re hunkered down, unable to shop on the spur of the moment and much more limited in our choices when we do. Thankfully, we have precedent to fall back on. After all, people are still alive who made it through the Great Depression as children.
The roaring 20’s came to an abrupt stop with the Stock Market crash of 1929, which saw billions of dollars evaporate into thin air. The crash wasn’t the sole cause of the Great Depression– there were things like the Dust Bowl, wherein incorrect farming methods turned the fertile American plains into a desert– but it did act to accelerate the global economic collapse. By 1933, nearly half of America’s banks had failed, and nearly 30% of the workforce was unemployed. You had to make the most of what you had and you had to get good at that fast.
Two women helped struggling homemakers be able to feed their families, one real and one who never really existed at all: Elanor Roosevelt and Aunt Sammy. Beginning in 1926, Aunt Sammy had a popular weekday radio show called Housekeeper’s Chat, about cooking and other domestic concerns, as well as chit-chatting about whatever else was going on at the time. Aunt Sammy was very popular, especially in rural areas. Thousands of people wrote in for her recipes. By 1932, 194 stations broadcast Aunt Sammy’s show and she published Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes (The Great Depression Cookbook) was published. It would be the first cookbook published in braille, though I struggle to think about how difficult it would be to cook on a wood or old-timey gas stove without good eyesight. Aunt Sammy’s recipes were meant to be simple, healthy, and easy to cook. She’s even credited with helping broccoli find widespread use; prior to that, it was only found in insular Italian neighborhoods. Aunt Sammy helped many wives and mothers through the Great Depression, but once that was over and the country was back on its feet, people lost interest. The show was cancelled sometime in the 1940’s, though sources don’t agree when exactly.
There was one other fact about Aunt Sammy that’s worth mentioning: She didn’t exist. In the latter half of the 20s, the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Home Economics created a wife for Uncle Sam–the uncreatively named Aunt Sammy. The character was voiced by different women at each individual radio station, that way the listener would hear an accent similar to their own and feel more connected to Aunt Sammy. Three women worked behind the scenes at the USDA to prepare the script each week that all the regional Aunt Sammy’s would use–Fanny Walker Yeatman tested recipes, Josephine Hemphill wrote the chatty portions, and Ruth Van Deman coordinated the menus and recipes.
The other woman who guided homemakers through was very real, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
When Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933, a record number of people were hungry. But being president is not without its perks and the first family ate well, even extravagantly, while people stood in bread lines. Eleanor Roosevelt, who didn’t know how to cook, realized that the way she and the president ate in the White House had the potential to influence and even help the nation through the Depression. She hired an acquaintance, Henrietta Nesbitt, whose husband was out of work to be the new White House housekeeper. (Housekeeper in that generation was more like how we use the term homemaker today and not a cleaning lady.) Nesbitt and Eleanor retooled the entire kitchen, installing modern appliances and coaxing the skeptical White House staff to use them. “This was the ‘first kitchen’ in America, and it wasn’t even sanitary,” recalled Nesbitt in her memoir. Meanwhile, Eleanor turned to home economists for menus that could balance nutrition and economy. The healthiest recipes in the world wouldn’t help people if they couldn’t afford the ingredients. What’s more, Eleanor resolved to serve these humble dishes in the White House. Her efforts were covered in national newspapers and followed closely by housewives.
There was a catch, however–these nutritious, economic meals were awful. The first kitchen was turning out some of the most unpalatable meals in modern memory. The president himself was usually the test subject for new dishes and he obligingly choked down things like deviled eggs with tomato sauce and prune pudding. In place of lavish dishes, the White House table was the stage for things like spaghetti with boiled carrots, cold jellied bouillon, and bred and butter sandwiches. They served so much mutton, that being grown sheep, which is cheaper than lamb because it’s much tougher, that it became a joke throughout Washington. The First Lady experimented with foods like Milkorno, a mix of dried milk powder and cornmeal developed by Cornell University. Milkorno could be eaten as a gruel-like dish or worked into recipes. I was not brave enough to research what those recipes might be. The bland meals became so notorious that visitors to the White House would eat before they went.
Nutrition, not taste, was paramount in a time of bread lines and soup kitchens, and Eleanor was trying to use her table as a way of encouraging and inspiring other Americans to get through a uniquely challenging historical moment. It was just as well they got used to eating a limited range of foods, because FDR’s presidency also included WWII and the Roosevelts ate rationed food just like everyone else. Roosevelt’s White House ate modestly in “an act of culinary solidarity with the people who were suffering,” Jane Ziegelman, the co-author of A Square Meal, told The New York Times.
Here’s a sampling of menu items the first family and the public in general might have “enjoyed”, in massive bunny-ears. Spaghetti with Carrots in White Sauce; the sauce was basically just milk. Meatless Loaf, made with peas, oatmeal, peanuts, rice, and/or cottage cheese, whatever you could lay your hands on. Mulligan stew–any animal you could kill or find dead, with whatever veggies you could manage. Or anything that would keep hunger at bay for a few hours without killing you, like sawdust. It was reportedly created by the massive homeless population during the Depression, where people in homeless or migrant camps would pool their resources so that everyone could eat. None of my sources mention where the name Mulligan might have come from. We do know the name origin of another stew, Hoover stew. Herbert Hoover had been elected just in time for the crash, but unlike the Roosevelts, he continued to live the good life in the white House. Shantytowns became Hoovervilles and the soup from soup kitchens became Hoover stew. The weirdest one of all, in this reporter’s opinion, was Peanut Butter in Baked Onions. It was a whole onion, hollowed out, stuffed with peanut butter, and baked. Just because we have these two things on hand doesn’t mean we should eat them together. As Ziegelman succinctly put it, “Peanut butter has nothing to say to a baked onion.”
Some recipes sound like they shouldn’t work, but surprisingly do, like mock apple pie. Apples weren’t readily available, but Americans weren’t willing to give up their iconic apple pie. The apples in a mock apple pie were actually Ritz crackers. And it worked! If you’re not already familiar with Youtuber emmymadeinjapan, I’ll link her Hard Times series in the show notes and on the website. She tries all kinds of dishes from times of deprivation, including hot water pie, grapefruit peel “steak,” toast soup, and even Haitian dirt cookies, which you can hear more about in episode #94, My Name Is Mud.
While we can be grateful that recipes like ketchup soup and peanut butter and mayo sandwiches are behind us, some food created during the Depression are still with us. Meatloaf is a comfort food classic and shaping food into loaves was a go-to during the Great Depression. The same goes for casseroles, which were a good way to use up odds and ends, or to mask less palatable ingredients. The depression also gave us the mother of all comfort foods, Kraft mac & cheese. Or Kraft Dinner, for my friends up north. In 1937, Kraft heard about a salesman for the Tenderoni Macaroni company of St. Louis, a Scottish emigre named Grant Leslie, going rogue and selling his noodles with packets of Kraft grated cheese attached. They hired this now nameless genius to promote the concept and started selling it at a price of 19 cents for four servings. It was not only helpful during the Depression, but also during WWII, because it required only a small amount of rationed milk and you could get two boxes for one ration coupon (more on that later).
Somewhat less beloved and in my opinion unfairly maligned is the infamous canned meat produce, Spam. Created in the late 1930s, Spam was dubbed the “miracle meat.” It was affordable, versatile, and didn’t require refrigeration. Spam was a way to use a cut of meat—pork shoulder—that had previously been thrown out. By 1940, it was in about 70% of American households, was a regular part of soldiers’ rations (sometimes for all three meals a day) and was sent by the ton to Britain and the Soviet Union. Millions of pounds were ultimately sent overseas, and some soldiers ate it for three meals a day. The recipe has remained unchanged, with the exception of the addition of potato starch to soak up the gelatin goop layer. What has changed is the origin story of its name. Hormel has officially said it stands for “shoulder of pork and ham” and later that it’s a portmanteau of “spiced ham.” Ask past or present soldiers who have to eat it on the regular and they’ll tell you it stands for “something posing as meat.”
One popular food wasn’t invented during the Depression, but was permanently changed to the version we know today. Behold, the Twinkie. The original Twinkie, introduced in 1930, was golden sponge cake with a banana-cream filling. The filling was made with real bananas, which were hard to get during the Depression and almost impossible to get during WWII. They were so hard to source that a single banana was auctioned off in Russell Square in England in 1942 with a winning bid equivalent to $125 in today’s money. For one banana. Yeah, but bananas are imported from the tropics, of course they’d be hard to get, you say. Okay, how about onions. After the Channel Islands fell into enemy hands in 1940, onions became so rare and valuable that they were used as fundraiser raffle prizes, once fetching $162 in current figures. Anyway, back to Twinkies. Hostess changed the Twinkie filling to plain vanilla, which proved so popular that, even after bananas were back on the menu, they kept the filling vanilla.
So you’ve figured out how to keep the children fed. Now how are you going to keep them clothed? What if you could tackle both problems at once? Frugality met fashion in the form of flour sack dresses. Before the heavy paper bags used today, flour came in muslim or burlap sacks, which seamstresses had been using to make common household items since the 1890s.
By the 1920s, these sacks had gotten a little cuter, some with gingham checked or striped patterns. When the depression hit, the flour sacks were upgraded from curtain material to clothing. If you had no sewing skills, like girls just learning or widowers forced to keep house could turn a flour sack into a dress, you could get by with as little as cutting a neck hole and two arm holes. For most, though, the clothing they made was indistinguishable from those made from bolt fabric. Manufacturers took note and began selling their flour in sacks with bright colorful prints. This wasn’t generosity as much as trying to get housewives to buy their brand. Some sacks even had patterns on them for stuffed animals or doll clothes. Don’t worry about the neighbors knowing your children were wearing flour sacks; the manufacturers started stamping their brand on the bag with ink that would wash right out. Not just flour either. Animal feed makers took note and started using patterned fabric for their bags, too. Hopefully the lady of the house likes that pattern on the feed the cows prefer, and vice versa.
Bonus fact: In response to a female journalist saying Marilyn Monroe was only sexy because of the high-end, expertly tailored dresses she wore, Monroe did a photo shoot wearing a potato sack. Guess what, she was still sexy.
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How did you do with last week’s Mystery Monday? The clues were a four-legged chicken, kosher food symbols, and New Coke. The topic was food-related urban legends and conspiracy theories. Be sure you watch our feed closely each Monday because the first person to guess the theme correctly gets stickers and you can guess as many times as you like.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew America into World War II, it became apparent that asking those on the homefront to conserve resources wasn’t going to work. Restrictions on imported foods, shortages of gasoline and other fuels, limitations on the transporting goods to save rubber for tires, and needing to divert huge amounts of food to soldiers overseas led to the U.S. government’s decision to ration essential items. On January 30, 1942, the Emergency Price Control Act granted the Office of Price Administration (OPA) the authority to set price limits and ration food. By that spring, Americans couldn’t purchase sugar without government-issued vouchers. Coffee required a voucher as of that November, and by March of ‘43, meat, cheese, fats, canned fish, canned milk and other processed foods were all rationed. Every American was issued to a series of war ration books filled with stamps that could be used to buy rationed items. The stamps didn’t pay for the item, they just proved that you were allowed to buy it. The OPA based the points an item was assigned based on its availability. People were allotted 48 ‘blue points’ to buy canned, bottled or dried foods, and 64 ‘red points’ to buy meat, fish and dairy each month. If the item was in stock, of course. Due to changes in the supply and demand, as well as disruption of normal distribution, the OPA had to periodically adjust the point values, further complicating an already complex system that required home cooks to plan well in advance to prepare meals. But there were work-arounds if you looked for them. Say one of your kids has a birthday coming up and you really want to make them a proper cake. Manufacturers didn’t face the same restrictions as individuals for items like sugar, so you could make the cake with Coca-Cola. Or use red food coloring to hide the fact that there’s barely any cocoa powder in what was supposed to be a chocolate cake. Thus the red velvet cake was born.
Rationing was tough for Americans, but it was even harder for Brits. Around 1939, when World War II began, the United Kingdom imported two-thirds of its food. This meant a reliance on 20 million tonnes of shipping each year. If that shipping were disrupted, Britain would go hungry. It took the Germans no time at all to work that out and populate the Atlantic with U-boats to sink supply ships coming from the US and countries in Britains dwindling empire. Enemies are easier to beat when they’re starving.
To ensure that there would be enough to go around, to distribute resources *fairly, to prevent hyperinflation, and to combat hoarding, the government began food rationing. Every citizen was issued with a booklet, which he took to a registered shopkeeper to receive supplies. At first, only bacon, butter and sugar were rationed. But gradually, the list grew: meat was rationed in March 1940; cooking fats and tea in July 1940; while cheese and preserves joined in March and May 1941. Allowances fluctuated throughout the war, but on average one adult’s weekly ration was 4 oz margarine, 1 fresh egg and 1 powdered egg, 2 oz butter, 4 oz bacon and ham, the equivalent of two chops, 3 pints of milk, 4 oz cooking fat, 2 oz tea, 8 oz sugar, 2 oz cheese, 12 oz of sweets every month, and 1 lb of preserves every two months. Soldiers, children, and pregnant women were allotted more to give them more calories and nutrients. Other foods such as canned meat, fish, rice, condensed milk, breakfast cereals, biscuits and vegetables were available but in limited quantities on a points system.
Sugar is such a devilishly ubiquitous part of our diet, added to foods whether you expect it or not, that it’s hard to imagine it being rationed. In the UK particularly, sugar was in short supply, so the Ministry of Food tried to direct people to what is claimed was the next best thing, carrots. They even had a mascot that said so: Doctor Carrot. Carrots weren’t just a vehicle for dips or an additive for cake. One sweet shop in London started advertising their toffee-dipped carrots as being much, much better than the toffee apples they’d been selling before the war. There was carrot fudge, carrot marmalade, the so-called “carrotmel custard,” curried carrots, and even a recipe for mock apricot tarts, with carrots instead of apricots. People were even encouraged to replace milk with carrot water. I’ll just do without, thanks. It was at the same time that carrots were used as the explanation for why British pilots were so good at hitting their targets at night. They claimed that carrots improve vision, which covered up the fact that the Royal Air Force had actually been using the newly invented radar. That’s where we get the persistent, if exaggerated belief, that carrots give you good eyesight.
Using what you had to make up for what you lacked should be as much a part of our view on Britons as tea, the queen, and their stiff upper lip. They had mock recipes for seemingly everything. You could serve an entire meal of mock foods. Mock crab (made of powdered egg, vinegar and other things) with mock mayonnaise for the appetizer, mock duck (really sausage meat in the shape of a duck) for the main course, mock apricot tart (carrots, of course) with mock whipped cream and a mock coffee for afters. On the sausage meat, so much bread was used to stretch the meat that it’s said you didn’t know if you needed gravy or marmalade.
A new rule of etiquette was adopted: one did not ask or tell what the food really was until it had been eaten. One fascinating substitute was using liquid paraffin in place of fat in baking. You had to use a light hand, though, because it would act as a laxative.
The idea wasn’t to limit what people ate, but to ensure that they stayed healthy while also providing food for the troops. There were actually minimum requirements for consumption. It became a criminal offense not to clean your plate and people *did spend time in jail. One thing you were certainly required to eat was the National Loaf. Bread before the war was made with white flour, as you do, but suddenly soft white flour was hard to come by. Enter National Flour, or “wheatmeal,” not exactly whole wheat, but flour with all the bran in it. The flour was rough and gray in color. Bakeries were required to use National Flour to make the National Loaf. Nutritionists praised the bread for its added calcium and vitamins, probably before they had to eat it. It was hard, crumbly, the crust was terribly tough, and it would suck all the moisture out of your mouth, but it was filling and that’s what mattered.
You were also required to contribute to the available food by growing your own veggies and fruit. The Ministry Of Agriculture introduced the “Dig For Victory” campaign in October 1939, one month after the outbreak of the war. The campaign aimed to replace imported food with locally grown produce, which would free up shipping space for more valuable war materials, and, you know, keep people from starving. Those without flower gardens to rip out and replace with carrots and rhubarb could rent a bit of land on the cheap, called an allotment. Public parks, the lawns of the Tower of London, even the gardens of the royal family became allotments. The campaign proved to be a roaring success. By 1943, estimates suggested that home gardens were responsible for more than one million tonnes of produce. By 1945, Britain had almost 1.4 million allotments and there’s even more demand for them today than there was during the war, with a long waiting list.
This will come as a surprise, but Britains actually ate out more during the war than before it. It wasn’t Chinese delivered or curry take-away, it was the British Restaurant. They were set up in commandeered buildings, like church halls and social clubs, and were staffed by volunteers, meaning they were cheap to run. British Restaurants were originally called communal feeding centers, but Churchill ordered it changed because it sounded too much like communism. You could get a good, inexpensive meal, but best of all, it didn’t count toward your rations. Privately-owned restaurants and hotels were ordered not to serve meals over three courses, only one of which could contain meat, and must not cost over 5 shillings. Normally I convert things like that to modern dollars, but I’ll be honest, I have no clue how the old British monetary system worked.
The strict policies paid off–Brits actually gained weight during the war. Thanks to things like a shift from wheat to potatoes, a movement helmed by mascot Potato Pete, the average daily caloric intake had risen. The end of the war didn’t mean the end of rationing. It takes a *while for the supply chain to normalize. Rations of pork and cooking fat were actually reduced three weeks after Victory in Europe Day. Tea wasn’t de-rationed until 1952, sweets in ‘53, cheese and fats in ‘54, and meat, bacon, and ham were rationed until July of 1954, 9 years and 2 months after VE Day.
Just because you’re being bombed doesn’t mean you can let your beauty regimen slide. Women were encouraged to maintain their appearance with the slogan. “Beauty is your duty.”
You had to stay beautiful to boost the noble Tommies’ morale and to thumb your nose at Hitler, who apparently despised makeup, dyed hair, or wearing fur. Plus it helped to reinforce “gender norms,” reminding women to look feminine even as they took jobs in munitions factories. Big cosmetic companies bought full-page ads, saying things like weren’t helping either, going as far as to pay for large ads in papers and magazines informing women that “No lipstick – ours or anyone else’s – will win the war. But it symbolises one of the reasons why we are fighting…” It was the same idea as pinup girls being seen as patriotic: A woman was giving troops something to fight for. To drive that point home, one soldier even wrote in a 1941 Vogue article, “To look unattractive these days is downright morale-breaking and should be considered treason.”
Make-up wasn’t rationed, but it was subject to a hefty luxury tax that made it impractically expensive. Like the mock food, they had to improvise. Beet juice became lipstick or rouge. Boot polish became mascara (do not try that at home). They fill their pockets with flowers and fragrant herbs to make up for the lack of perfume.
One beauty hack was discovered by accident. Women would dye their hair with TNT. When it was first made in the mid-19th century, TNT was used not as an explosive, but as a yellow dye. Women working in munitions factories would find themselves dusted with it, which turned their hair and even skin yellow. People began calling them “canary girls.” Blondes may have more fun, but these blondes also had skin rashes, breathing problems, and potentially damage to their liver, spleen, immune system and more.
Now that you’re all dolled up, you’ve got to dress smartly to match. This was easier said than done. First, cast your mind back to a time when the average person’s entire wardrobe would fit in a single armoire. You probably had a few workaday outfits and your Sunday best. If you needed to buy more clothes, they were rationed as well. Starting in the summer of ‘41, every citizen of the UK was given 66 coupons which they could exchange for clothing. Different items of clothing had a different coupon value, depending on the time and material that went into making them. A dress might cost eleven coupons for a dress, but you’d only need two for a pair of stockings, when material was available, that is. Before I go any further, I should mention that these coupons didn’t pay for the garments, you still needed your own money. What they bought was the *right to buy the clothing. New coupons were issued each year, though the amount decreased to only 24 by the end of the war. Children were allotted 10 extra coupons to account for growth spurts and new mothers were given 50 extra coupons to buy things like baby clothes and blankets. Again, these amounts changed throughout the war to reflect the ever growing scarcity of supplies.
This all led to the “Make Do and Mend” campaign. The British Ministry of Information demonstrated ways in which to make clothing and coupons last, like buying children clothing that was too big for them so they could grow into it, and set up classes to teach basic seamstress skills. Scarcity of material drove fashion trends. Hemlines got higher since shorter dresses required less fabric. Because more of a woman’s legs were visible, stockings became more important. But stockings were made of silk or the newly invented nylon, which were needed to make parachutes and other things for the war effort. Not about to leave the house with blatantly bare legs, women would draw a line up the back of their legs to look like a seam, or darken their legs with brown gravy powder. One unfortunate side effect of gravy stockings was attracting stray dogs as you walked down the street.