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How World War II Changed The Way Americans Ate

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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.

The food around which American civilians’ dissatisfaction with rationing centred was red meat. Red meat, preferably beef, was highly valued as a prime source of energy, especially for the working man, and its presence on a plate helped to define the food as a proper meal. But during the war most red meat, and especially steak, disappeared into the army bases. Butchers continued to stock lower-quality cuts of red meat, pork, poultry and fish, and during the war Americans ate at least 2.5 pounds of meat per person per week. This was a generous quantity and it represented a per capita increase of at least 10 pounds a year. In comparison, Soviet workers were lucky to find a scrap of sausage in their canteen’s cabbage soup and the British had to get by on less than half the American ration. Moreover, a proportion of the pound of meat per week which British civilians ate was often made up of corned beef or offal. American women did not take kindly to offal and few took the advice of a recipe book designed to assist the ‘gallant
soldier on the home front . . . in making the most of her meat purchases during the present emergency’ by beginning resolutely to jelly tongues, Creole kidneys, fry liver like the French, and apply the cooking of Maryland to tripe. Instead, they preferred to use ‘stretchers’ to make their meat go further and reduced waste by religiously using up leftovers.

There was plenty of meat available but it was not the kind American civilians craved. It is therefore unsurprising that the black market in food was most active in the meat trade. During the war a large number of small slaughterhouses sprang up which traded locally and were able to evade the inspectors from the Office of Price Administration. They would buy livestock for slaughter above the ceiling price and then sell it on to black market distributors. Butchers would sell favored customers high quality steaks in the guise of ‘pre-ground’ hamburger which used up fewer ration points. In an attempt to persuade Americans to abide by the rules, Eleanor Roosevelt took the Home Front Pledge to always pay ration points in full. The food at the White House, which under the Roosevelts had never been good, was now used to set an example, and although the ‘New York Times sympathised with the President for having to lunch on salt fish four days in a row’ Eleanor insisted that this was only fitting in a time of war. In sympathy with the American publics dismay over coffee rationing Eleanor also cut the demitasse of coffee from the White House after-dinner ritual.

The American black market never got so out of hand that it was a threat to the economy, but the illegal meat trade was sufficiently active for it to threaten the Department of Agriculture’s ability to meet its supply commitments to Britain. It grew in size throughout 1943 as enthusiasm for the war waned once the public realized that a speedy victory was beyond the reach of the Allies. The attitude of Americans towards the black market signalled that both a consensus and social cohesion were weaker in wartime America. In contrast to Britain, where petty pilfering was justified with guilty defensiveness, many Americans viewed it with the triumphant sense that they had beaten the system. Others simply did not question it at all, taking small under-the-counter transactions for granted. When Helen Studer was working as a riveter at the Douglas aircraft factory in California, she recalled, without any apparent guilt, how the friendly woman at the grocery store would slip extra goods into her bag. ‘When I’d get home, Id have three or four things on my bill that wasnt said out loud. Id have a carton of cigarettes . . . There might have been a couple of pounds of oleo [margarine] or there may have been five pounds of sugar. I never knew what I was going to have.’

The advertising images generated during the war created an image of the meaning of victory as the freedom to indulge in all those luxuries which Americans had been denied during the war. In 1943 Norman Rockwell in the Saturday Evening Post illustrated the four freedoms which Roosevelt stated that he hoped the war would achieve for the world in his State of the Union address to Congress on 6 January 1941. Rockwell depicted the freedom from fear, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from want, with images of ordinary Americans going about their everyday lives: parents checking on their sleeping children, a man speaking at a town meeting, a congregation at prayer in a church and a family seated around a table laden with food. The private, homely nature of the paintings reinforced the widespread notion that the grand ideals of freedom and democracy which Americans were fighting to defend were embodied in the details of the American way of life. Most particularly they appeared to be symbolized by an American family sitting down to eat a huge Thanksgiving turkey. Rockwell noted in his autobiography that this picture of abundance caused a certain amount of resentment among Europeans living in conditions of austerity, who were able to read the message of American superiority encoded in the image of plentiful food.

That these ideas and images were internalized by ordinary Americans is illustrated by a letter Phil Aquila wrote to his sister in October 1944. Posted to Kentucky during the war, Phil kept in touch with his family in Buffalo. His family, of Italian descent, was poor, and every summer his mother used to take all nine children out to the farms around New York to work in the seasonal harvesting of the vegetable crop. ‘I hope by now Mas finished canning,’ he wrote, ‘although she still can buy a lot of stuff at the market of Bailey & Clinton Streets to can if she feels she needs more food for this winter. Yep, people in this country are sure lucky, to be able to stock up as much food as they want. That’s what us guys are fighting for, so tell Ma to stock up.’

During the Depression years the idea emerged of the consumer as the saviour of the American economy. The working man who bought himself goods such as radios and refrigerators by means of hire purchase was the key to generating industrial production. Not only was he improving his standard of living but the demand for consumables would increase productivity and keep working men in jobs. At the end of the war, the government returned to this argument and encouraged purchasing without restraint as a way of preventing the expected post-war economic slump. The ‘former head of the Office of Price Administration, Chester Bowles, told his former colleagues in advertising, the resulting mass markets, where “the janitors appetite for a sirloin steak is as profitable as the bankers,” would democratize the benefits of prosperity’. Consumerism was the American answer to Britain’s Beveridge Report which symbolized the hope for a better world to be achieved through the creation of a welfare state. Americans believed that if the masses were able to gain access to the fruits of economic abundance, political and economic equality would follow.

Excerpted from THE TASTE OF WAR by Lizzie Collingham. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Lizzie Collingham, 2012.


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