Sunday, January 11, 2009

Point Taken

In the 1943 screwball comedy Christmas in Connecticut, food writer Barbara Stanwyck is reviewing a list of dishes with the chef who is the real source of her nationally famous menus. “Breasts of grey dove sautéed with peaches Grenadine, no points, chicken soup with Moselle wine, no points...”

By points, as everyone in America knew, she meant ration points. In May 1942, the Office of Price Administration began rationing many food items to ensure an adequate distribution of resources. Families were issued ration books with a weekly allowance of “points” that were handed over at the grocery store along with payment in return for restricted items like sugar, fats, meat and dairy products. Recipes using unrationed ingredients were eagerly sought after; even if some of these were things the average American did not normally find on the table, as Gourmet magazine wryly remarked.

Although it isn’t
Our usual habit
This year we’re eating
The Easter rabbit.

Housewives were urged to observe Meatless Mondays, stretch the family beef allowance with fillers such as oatmeal, and get creative with legumes and vegetables. Kraft macaroni and cheese became popular.

Actually, when it came to rationed food, Americans were pretty darn lucky. With the exception of special crops like coffee and bananas, there wasn’t much in the way of agricultural goods that couldn’t be produced somewhere in the continental United States. This included citrus fruits, sugar from cane and from beets, beef, milk, grain, and vegetables. We also escaped the wholesale destruction of transportation and distribution infrastructure as well as farm buildings, equipment and livestock that caused rationing in Europe to be both more severe and longer in duration. After the war, shortages of consumer goods such as automobiles and refrigerators continued but rationing, particularly food rationing, ended in 1946.

While it lasted, though, poor Mom would race home from her job building bombers or running blood drives for the Red Cross to put a meal on the table that might consist of liver loaf (organ meats didn’t use any points), mashed potatoes and green beans (home-canned from the family’s own Victory Garden), rye bread (white flour was rationed), and margarine that had been eked out with a little Knox gelatin. For dessert, she could offer an eggless, butterless, milkless cake that dates back to World War One. This version comes from the 1944 edition of the Good Housekeeping Cook Book. I have made it and it is a bit heavy but not bad. Best eaten the same day it is made.

War Cake

1 c. brown sugar, firmly packed
1 ¼ c. water
1/3 c. vegetable shortening or lard
2/3 c. raisins
½ t. nutmeg
2 t. cinnamon
½ t. cloves
1 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
2 t. water
2 c. sifted all-purpose flour
1 t. baking powder

Boil the brown sugar, 1 ¼ cups water, shortening, raisins and spices together for 3 min. Cool. Add salt and baking soda which has been dissolved in 2 t. water. Gradually add the flour and baking powder which have been sifted together, beating smooth after each addition. Bake in a greased and floured 8"X8"X2" pan in a moderate oven of 325 degrees F. About 50 min., or until done. Needs no frosting.


Rebecca said...

This is in my oven right now. I added ginger and allspice and a LOT of cut up stewed prunes I needed to get out of the icebox. I think I didn't let it cool enough because the soda/salt foamed when I added it, but I'm impatient.

Thanks for posting this. I love your old recipes.

Anonymous said...

Reading that brought back memories of my mom telling me about how hard it was to cook at that time and of some of the dishes that became popular.

Amy said...

I'm glad you posted this vintage recipe. It's amazing how much people back there were frugal and what they made from the limited resources.

Rebecca said...

The cake came out GREAT.

Shay said...

Rebecca, I was going to ask! It's almost like gingerbread in texture, kind of heavy and moist. It's a great snack cake but as I said, it doesn't keep very well. Glad you like it!

Nora said...

Thanks for the interesting info about rationing. I was just recently thinking that it might be time to re-read "How to Cook a Wolf" - there are lots of recipes for things like "war cake".

Shay said...

Nora, I have a copy of TCAW. A lot of what Fisher talks about certainly is relevant today.