Tag Archives: Minnesota Historical Society Press

Waging war with Wheatless Wednesdays

March 8, 2010


EighmeyCoverFINAL“Food Will Win the War: Minnesota Crops, Cooks and Conservation during World War I,”

by Rae Katherine Eighmey

Baby boomers, get ready to be amazed at what our ancestors did that I’ll bet you never heard about.

Food historian Rae Katherine Eighmey has pulled together bushels of facts that I’ll be surprised if the post-World War II crowd has read or been told about. Page after page of this Minnesota Historical Society Press paperback brought behavior changes and sacrifices that were news to me.

I’d heard generic references to rationing from relatives, but much of that was from their WWII experience. The first World War was a whole different, untold story. Believing “food will win the war,” U.S. leaders asked that food be conserved at every American table.

Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays were all part of a national program to conserve protein for the fighting men and to enable more food to be shipped to the starving people of Europe.

Eighmey called food conservation during World War I “the first large-scale, social-networking enterprise of the twentieth century,” and it was accomplished before radio, television and telephones in much of the country.

“This was ‘everyone’s war,'” Eighmey noted, “and accomplishing this task depended upon the good will of informed and enlightened American citizens. It succeeded, thanks to the organized and voluntary efforts of ordinary people meeting in kitchens and classrooms, libraries, theaters, and churches, on street corners and over backyard fences all across the country — sharing information, inspiring cooperation, and creating solutions.”

Peer-influenced results

The recipe for success included two main ingredients, Eighmey wrote: Persuasive information and the actions put into motion by social-networking and peer-influence efforts.  Harvesting letters home, newspapers from the era, little circulated newsletters and national archives, the author shows how during those war years of 1917-18 Minnesotans in cities, towns and rural areas demonstrated how to be unselfish, how to be responsible citizens, and how to willing people can be on behalf of the common good.

Men, women and children in every household reduced their intake of wheat, meat, fats and sugar. In February 1918, only three of the week’s 21 meals were without restriction: seven were meatless, seven were wheatless and five were both meatless and wheatless.

Slogans became part of the social influences. Every woman, for example, was allegedly “drafted” into the ranks of the “Army of American Housewives”  — kitchen warriors saving calories that would feed the troops instead. Farmers were referred to as “soldiers of the soil.”

Growing food in victory gardens and canning extra food became important for even city dwellers, and the University of Minnesota’s home economists  got to work inventing new recipes to use substitute ingredients for wheat flour and beef, putting corn meal, rice and barley flour into recipes for bread,   and encouraging consumption of more pork, chicken and fish. Among the recipes devised by one Minnesotan: a wheatless, sugar-saving potato chocolate cake.

Minnesotans were urged to eat more cottage cheese, grow more potatoes, and to “Can Vegetables, Fruit and the Kaiser, too.”

Needed instruction done

Milk as a protein substitute went over well in a dairy state like Minnesota, and the university’s extension serve, the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the Food Administration all took educational efforts wherever they could find a group willing to listen to instructions about cold-pack canning, making cottage cheese, even storing eggs for up to six months.

Thanks to Eighmey and the Minnesota Historical Society, those of us who’ve never been forced to ration anything have a better idea of how some remarkable numbers were achieved. America shipped 23 million metric tons of food to Europe during the years of the first World War.

As a poster at the time noted, Americans could “Save a loaf a week, help win the war.”

And they did. — bz

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