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Fat Guy

TDG: Cake Wars and War Cakes

23 posts in this topic

Kara Newman's tale of two cakes, and two wars.

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Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Fascinating piece, alacarte, and beautifully written. Food rationing in North America doesn't seem to have left its mark on many people, the way it did in the UK. In fact, I can't recall my parents or any people of that generation even mentioning rationing.

The one thing that does stick out in my mind was a very old magazine piece about German POWs in Canada in the Second World War, who were so well fed that they used bacon to stoke their fires.


Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"

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Wartime (The BIG one) was not too bad in Germany, but post-war in the Russian occupied Zone was.

Grandma used to bake? a cake made of grated Sugar Beets and used (previously brewed) Coffee Grounds (ersatz Kaffeemehl / made of Barley) and a stolen Egg.

Also "Swedish Knaeckebrot" made of dried peelings of cooked Potatoes.


Peter

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Wartime (The BIG one) was not too bad in Germany, but post-war in the Russian occupied Zone was.

Grandma used to bake? a cake made of grated Sugar Beets and used (previously brewed) Coffee Grounds (ersatz Kaffeemehl / made of Barley) and a stolen Egg.

Also "Swedish Knaeckebrot" made of dried peelings of cooked Potatoes.

Everyone got sick from that one, because of the usage of human manure from sesspools on the potato fields as fertilizer.


Peter

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Food rationing in North America doesn't seem to have left its mark on many people, the way it did in the UK. In fact, I can't recall my parents or any people of that generation even mentioning rationing.

There's rationing and there's rationing! The UK and Europe had it a lot worse than the US, for a lot longer, and their civilian populations were in the line of fire. But my father, who came of age in the WWII era in New Haven and served post-war in Keflavik, has talked about rationing my whole life and it has rubbed off on the family and our attitudes about food.


Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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Ellen,

As you say, there is rationing and there is rationing. People also had a variety of experiences during the war, some horrific, and some much less so.

My parents were both raised on farms on the Canadian prairies, an area particularly hard hit by the depression. For many of their generation, if they managed to escape death or injury, the war actually opened up unheard-of possibilities, including the chance to escape the various forms of poverty and servitude that are often life on a farm. It opened the doors of universities to tens of thousands of people, and propelled them into lives and careers far more engaging and rewarding than they might otherwise have enjoyed.

So it is entirely possible that rationing, for people exposed so unexpectedly to such opportunities, became a trifling inconvenience that was quickly forgotten.


Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"

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Food rationing in North America doesn't seem to have left its mark on many people, the way it did in the UK. In fact, I can't recall my parents or any people of that generation even mentioning rationing.

There's rationing and there's rationing! The UK and Europe had it a lot worse than the US, for a lot longer, and their civilian populations were in the line of fire.

Too true about how much harder hit UK civilians were, in terms of rationing & overall war hardship. For Americans, rationing pretty much ended when WWII did. For British citizens, rationing continued for years afterwards -- meat, chocolate, sugar -- and bans were pretty much lifted one precious item at a time.

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Its interesting to note how these old war recipes can become relevant again under different circumstances. I've got friends who are strict Jains, a sect for which not just meat is forbidden, but anything that can remotely be said to be 'alive' or the consumption of which could result in killing animals.

So no root vegetables since digging them can kill worms and other creatures in the soil. No eating food kept overnight, since by then bacteria could make it too alive. Even yoghurt can only be eaten on the same day that its made. And obviously eggs are way too full of potential life to be eaten.

This naturally rules out most cake recipes, but I remember reading how an American lady married to a Jain man in Bombay wanted to make cakes that would be acceptable to her new family so she unearthed some of these old war recipes from her own family and started producing eggless cakes that were a huge hit. Making eggless cakes is now a profitable business for many bakeries here in Bombay.

Vikram

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Food rationing didn't end until July 3rd 1954 in Britain. Although rationing had been slowly eased in the years leading up to this date, Britain suffered rationing for over 13 years. Off the top of my head (and not checking my notes) ration books were already printed by 1936, four years before their implementation. Most health professionals maintain that the British people were at their healthiest during the 'rationing years'; before rationing there was no concept of 'food for all' and many British children were malnourished.

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I grew up in post-war Britain and to this day feel incredibly guilty and wasteful if I put both butter and jam on toast - we had one or the other but never both. I can also recall the devastation of losing the ration tickets I had been given to buy some bacon for home and finding myself at the store with money but no tickets and hence no bacon! Sweets (candy) ration tickets were torn out of the book and given to us kids and I remember only too well how I stuffed mine into my knee socks and somehow they got laundered! Long time no candy! I still shudder when I see a recipe that calls for more than two eggs. I also gag when I remember the cod liver oil that us kids had to swallow every damn morning! I remember too, the horrified look on one Aunt's face if I spilled even a grain of sugar and how each sugar bag was taken apart to get any grains that may have lodged in the nooks and crannies. I have to seal my mouth when I watch my daughter choose apples that are absolutely free of blemishes as we took whatever we could get and carefully removed the badly bruised bits, the mold and whatever else looked inedible and ate the rest with gratitude. Oh my, how my age is showing! Anna N


Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

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"Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason.” William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style

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As a kind of comparison, here's two recipes, both are for Christmas Cake. The first published in 1923 in the British edition of Good Housekeeping calls for;

225g Butter.

225g Margarine.

450g castor sugar.

450g flour.

6 eggs.

2 tablespoons Treacle.

1 glass of sherry.

Rind of 1 lemon (fresh).

225g of the following, currents, sultanas, dried orange peel.

110g of the following, citron peel and almonds.

½ a nutmeg grated.

½ a teaspoon of ground cinnamon.

I've taken the liberty of converting the measurements into metric, obviously the original recipes used the Imperial measuring system.

What's of note in this recipe is that although the ingredients were available for purchase, a large percentage of the British population wouldn't have been able to afford them. In 1923 even basic sustenance wasn't guaranteed. In times of shortage then the poor were very hard hit.

With the implementation of rationing in 1940 the British government hoped to learn from past mistakes and ensure that every citizen, regardless of their financial circumstance, could eat. It was remarkably effective, but look how mean the Christmas Cake had become. The Ministry of Food gave this recommended recipe;

110g of margarine.

85g sugar.

1 level tablespoon of syrup.

225g of flour.

2 teaspoons of baking powder.

Pinch of salt.

1 level teaspoon of mixed spice.

1 level teaspoon of ground cinnamon.

2-4 reconstituted dried eggs.

450g of dried fruit.

½ teaspoon of lemon substitute.

Milk to mix.

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A wartime condiment in UK (note ominous phrase "and other fish"):

http://www.j-sainsbury.co.uk/museum/sand.htm

This probably illustrates an honesty on the part of the manufacturers and government authorities. Today the product could be labelled without the mention of 'other fish', although they would have to be mentioned in the small print on the back of the product.

As to the Snoek, the 'other fish' suggested, here's a quote from the book "Snoek Piquante, Age of Austerity".

" By the summer of 1949, more than a third of *Snoek* imported since 1947 was still unsold: 3,270,000 half pound tins out of 11,110,400- with another 1,209,000 still to come under existing contracts".

In response the Ministry of Food published further leaflets suggesting interesting recipes for the unwanted Snoek, probably motivated by the knowledge that another two thousand tons of the stuff were due to arrive in August of that year.

It may be an urban myth, but I've be told more than once that it eventually ended up being labelled as 'Food for Dogs and Cats', and disposed of very cheaply.

* Edited because my spell checker changed Snoek to Snooker. :hmmm:


Edited by JasonCampbell (log)

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Anna, that is such an amazing & colorful reminisce. Thanks for that. I feel so lucky to have the abundance that we do today! :wub:

Jason, thanks for all those great details, especially the info about Snoek. I'll have to file that away for future reference.

Peter, I have to say that those recipes for a cake made of grated Sugar Beets and used (previously brewed) Coffee Grounds (ersatz Kaffeemehl / made of Barley) and a stolen Egg, and ""Swedish Knaeckebrot" made of dried peelings of cooked Potatoes.

---well, those just sound like they test the limits of one's digestion. :blink:

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And thank you alacarte for opening up the subject with your brief article. The whole subject of rationing is a difficult one to discuss, connected as it is with so many contentious issues. I feel it is however an imperative subject to discuss if anyone wishes to investigate, 'why we eat what we eat'.. .

I especially liked the more personal and primary recollections made by Anna and *Paul, my own contributions are just regurgitated facts, although I'm glad you found them thought provoking.

PS Is your post intended to draw this thread to a close?

*EDIT Sorry Peter!


Edited by JasonCampbell (log)

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PS Is your post intended to draw this thread to a close?

oh gosh no! I just couldn't help putting my two cents in.

please, keep the comments going....not limited to commenting about the article either!

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For anyone interested in more on WWII in the US, there is a chapter in the Stern's Square Meals. Including 49 inedible (probably) recipes! Includes information on the black market, the point system, and a drive for increased nutrition (via tomato bread!) when too many draftees were being rejected due to poor health. A lot of hamburger concoctions and a section on meatless meals. Food scientists got very creative -- Butterless Butter Spread (including gelatin, milk and mayonnaise), Mock Whipped Cream (egg whites, confectioners sugar and grated apple) and Soya Cocoa. Some really frightening sandwich spreads for Rosie's lunch pail (peanut butter and compressed yeast, peanut butter and baked beans). Also a section on military-style food, which the govt encouraged wives and mothers to prepare for returning soldiers to aid in the postwar transition. Because the soldiers had developed a taste for the stuff. Well that's what the memos said. Spam recipes mostly, plus two versions of dried chipped beef on toast (nickname included).

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    Also a section on military-style food, which the govt encouraged wives and mothers to prepare for returning soldiers to aid in the postwar transition. Because the soldiers had developed a taste for the stuff.  Well that's what the memos said.  Spam recipes mostly, plus two versions of dried chipped beef on toast (nickname included).

I suppose this mirrors the UK experience of prolonged rationing, encouraging people to create 'exciting new dishes' to use up the tonnes of leftover corned beef (bully beef), SPAM, and snoek. A lot of the British food advertising in this period used the AD line, 'Just what the Troops need', usually accompanied by an image of a mother feeding her family.

And the children were potential troops, conscription was still in place even after the war was over, might as well get them used to army rations in plenty of time Of course another issue is that Britain was bankrupt at the end of the war, so those bananas and pineapples had to be rationed; we needed to export not import.

My own mother, born in 1949, didn't see a pineapple until her teens, and my grandparents ran a 'corner shop'. But one of the side effects of all this rationing and war was that the returning 'heroes' had a taste for foreign food, my grandfather for example developed a taste for all things German. My Great Uncle, due to his service in the Middle East, found that he enjoyed the flavours of the Levant. When my great uncle came to call my Grandmother would lay on a spread; sauerkraut and sausages, spicy rice dishes and salads, fish fingers and chips for me and my brother. Probably the only 'authentic' dish was my fish fingers and chips, but it was always a fine spread, and nothing was wasted. Both veterans share a love of America, and it's food. My Grandfather particularly has a fondness for Texan style food.

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Wars have a tremendous and often lasting effect on national tastes--either by exposing young men to food their mothers never cooked, or bringing newcomers (think Vietnam) and their new approaches to food.

On the other hand, lamb was a rare item in Canada for which few people had much enthusiasm well into the eighties. The explanation I heard most often was that men who had served in Europe were fed quantities of very bad mutton, which put them off anything from sheep for life.


Arthur Johnson, aka "fresco"

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Wars have a tremendous and often lasting effect on national tastes--either by exposing young men to food their mothers never cooked, or bringing newcomers (think Vietnam) and their new approaches to food.

What about the other way round? What have been the influences of the war on Vietnamese cooking? For example, isn't the use of condensed milk in Vietnamese coffee - which I totally love - a result of the war?

Vikram

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My mother recently told me a story that reminded me of this topic. For almost the entire duration of WWII, my mother's family relocated from Queens to Montgomery, Alabama, where they lived on an Army base -- my grandfather was a captain in the Army Air Corps. As a result, they ate at the officer's club pretty much every night. Now, while there was rationing in society at large, this was not the case for Army officers -- feeding them well was a holy mission. Steak was served every day at the O-club. One night, after something like 50 steak dinners in a row, my mother, then maybe 7 years old and not particularly aware of the war or what it meant, stated in a penetrating voice within earshot of hundreds of officers, "Not steak again!" Yikes.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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That's a good story!

A couple of weeks ago, I was up by the West Point military academy. I drove around a bit & saw a sign for the Army commissary, so of course I had to stop. Not sure what I expected to find -- chipped beef on toast? -- but I hoped at least to sample some genu-wine army vittles.

Once inside, it was an enormous supermarket. How disappointing! I wasn't allowed in b/c I have no military ID, so thus ends my report.

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      David Ross lives in Spokane, but works a one-hour plane ride away. When he's not tending to his day job -- or commuting -- he writes about food and reviews restaurants. He is on the eGullet Society hosting team.
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