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How World War II Changed The Way Americans Ate

Posted: 04/ 3/2012 8:57 am Updated: 04/ 3/2012 3:19 pm

Ww2 Food

Madeleine Crum, The Huffington Post: The following is an excerpt from Lizzie Collingham's "The Taste of War," [Penguin, $36.00] which, as its name implies, details the impact food consumption, soldier nutrition and Nazi diets had on World War II:

The new-found prosperity of American workers allowed them to buy goods which had previously been out of their reach. Peggy Terry overheard ‘a woman saying on the bus that she hoped the war didn’t end until she got her refrigerator paid for. An old man hit her over the head with an umbrella.’

But the desires generated by wealth were thwarted by shortages of every imaginable consumable as industry focused its energies on armaments. Instead, consumers were urged to save and, to encourage them, a vision of a post-war world of plenty was disseminated through advertising campaigns which spread the government’s propaganda messages while maintaining a brand presence in the eyes of potential consumers. The relentless advertising created an absurd sense that the only thing Americans were fighting for was for the right to consume. A Royal typewriter advertisement captured the tone of the great majority of wartime American advertisements: ‘WHAT THIS WAR IS ALL ABOUT . . . [is the right to] once more walk into any store in the land and buy anything you want.’

Eileen Barth, a social worker whose husband was in the army, explained, ‘I remember an ad in which people were shown as pigs
because they seemed to want so much. To me, it was wanting to have things for the first time in their lives. They were able to enjoy life a little more, even get a house in the suburbs. These were people who lived through the Depression, as children, many of them. I guess you’d say a new middle class came into being. Perhaps they concentrated a little too much on the material life. The war did it.’ The privations Americans had put up with during the Depression and now during the war shaped their post-war desires.

What most Americans wanted was their own home. Given the overcrowding in the cities and the state of disrepair of both urban and rural housing stock, it was hardly surprising. Jean Muller Pearson married a pilot in the 120th Observation Squadron and followed him to his base in Boise, Idaho. The housing shortage meant that people would rent virtually any habitable space, and she and her husband squeezed into the top floor of a house with another couple, sharing a bathroom, kitchen and a sitting room on the landing. Then her husband was posted to Tonopah, Nevada, where they ended up living in what had been a miner’s shack. They had an old iron stove in the kitchen which was both oven and water heater, and the “refrigerator” was a wooden crate attached to the outside of the kitchen accessible through a window that opened inward. On very cold nights milk and produce froze.’ They were fortunate in that they had a bathroom in a lean-to built on the side of the shack. Theirs was one of only thirty bathtubs in the whole town and Jean would invite the other wives over for a bath.

After such living conditions, a detached suburban home with its own yard and, most importantly, a sense of privacy, seemed very appealing, as did numerous labour-saving appliances such as washing machines. A vital element in this new world was not only a new refrigerator standing proudly in the kitchen of the ideal suburban home but one that was filled to the brim with food. A public service advertisement for Macy’s in the New York Daily News in September 1943 listed ‘defending Democracy’ and ‘a better world’ as things Americans were fighting for, but it also included ‘a steak for every frying pan’.

In May 1943 an opinion poll found that rationing and wartime food shortages had barely made any impact on American meals. Two-thirds of the women surveyed asserted that their diet had changed very little since the introduction of rationing, and three-quarters of the women acknowledged that the size of their meals had stayed the same. The minimal impact that rationing had on American eating habits is revealed by the passing comment of a woman from New York, who noted that coffee rationing, which cut consumption from three cups to one a day, was ‘the wartime measure to have affected one the most’. The food privations inflicted on American civilians by the war were minimal compared to those suffered by civilians in all other combatant nations. As one US soldier acknowledged to his English hostess: ‘if American women had had to put up with half as much as we have they would have made a terrific fuss’. As it was they still complained a great deal.

The overriding problem was that Americans had no particular emotional investment in the war. Before Pearl Harbor American public
opinion had been adamantly opposed to involvement in another European conflict. After the Japanese attack there was outrage and anger and a sense that the United States had to win. But there was ambivalence about the sacrifices American civilians were willing to make. Many could see that agriculture was booming and food was plentiful and they did not believe that rationing was really necessary. The Americans’ natural suspicion of state intervention made them question the government’s motives for implementing the system. One soldier’s wife commented sourly that she thought it ‘was a patriotic ploy to keep our enthusiasm at fever pitch’.

Housewives resented the favourable distribution of sugar to commercial bakeries. This made them more reliant on bought cakes and denied them the homely activity of baking. Intermittent shortages of foodstuffs followed by sudden gluts of the same foods shook housewives’ faith in the rationing system. In the spring of 1943 potatoes disappeared from city shops. The army had used up the winter reserve stocks. A few weeks later there were so many potatoes no one knew what to do with them. Eggs followed a similar pattern in the autumn – disappearing, only to return in the spring of 1944 in excess. These food shortages were certainly not serious, as they were in Germany’s cities where staple foods became unavailable, leaving the inhabitants with insufficient food to sustain their energy and health. But they were unsettling and inconvenient. In addition, half the black women employed as maids and cooks deserted their employers for better paid war work, leaving their mistresses to cope with only the assistance of recipe books and filled with the resentful sense that the proper order of life had been thoroughly upset.

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Filed by Madeleine Crum  |