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The war at the dinner table

The Second World War transformed the Canadian diet

canned sardines

Some can remember the war years. The rest of us can only imagine, from stories we’ve heard, what life was like during them.

Some of those stories are found in places we might not think to look, like cookbooks.

Canadian women shared thousands of wartime ration-stretching recipes during the Second World War. Magazines and newspapers, including this one, were filled with them during the 1940s. Over 200 wartime recipe cookbooks were published in that era too. The federal government, rolling out new policies to change Canadians’ diets and divert food for the war effort, published many cookbooks. So did food companies and popular home economists of the era. Community cookbooks outnumbered them all.

Ian Mosby, a Canadian food, health and nutrition historian at McMaster University has written extensively about how the war changed how Canadians shopped, cooked and ate.

In his essay Food On The Home Front During The Second World War, he talks about all the various government interventions in the kitchen from campaigns to promote ‘patriotic’ foods, to the launch of the precursor of the Canada Food Guide to all the different controls on the price, production, and distribution of food.

The two most significant factors that actually changed how we consumed food were price freezes and the ration books, says Mosby. A universal price and rent control began in December 1941 to help Canadians continue to afford necessities, like food, fuel and shelter. Coupon rationing began in July 1941, first for sugar, then tea and coffee, followed by butter and by March 1942 for meat as well. Rationing, he notes, was popular. Polls showed more than 90 per cent of Canadians agreed it had worked to achieve equitable distribution of food.

Another major intervention was the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, designed to regulate the war economy. Among its many controls, the WPTB regulated production of “non-essential foods” like chocolate bars and soft drinks, set limits on what kinds of food could be sold in tin cans, and instituted meatless Tuesdays in restaurants.

He describes the campaigns to promote ‘patriotic’ foods — those we couldn’t sell after markets collapsed in Europe, the launch of Canada’s Official Food Rules to help combat the diet-related poor health, the growing of victory gardens and enthusiastic home preservation efforts, the “fats and bones” collections urging housewives to stream these ingredients into munitions making, the food relief programs women’s organizations like the Women’s Institutes undertook and women’s efforts to stretch their ration ingredients.

His essay begins with a quote from a December 12, 1942 edition of Saturday Night that reads: “Canada has determined to change the eating habits of a nation, because she has learned that efficient production of food is only half the victory. It takes efficient consumption, too, to give full meaning to the slogan, ‘Food will win the war.’”

He concludes suggesting that, although wartime eating is remembered as all about thrift and sacrifice, the reality was many Canadians typically ate more, and better, than they had for more than a decade.

“It is perhaps not surprising then, that many Canadians looked back on their wartime eating experience on the home front with fondness and nostalgia,” he writes. “Although most Canadians put away their recipes for ‘Canada War Cake’ for good after the end of the war, rationing and the wartime mobilization of food provided them with something approaching a truly national eating experience that, for many, would remain one of their most positive memories of a period generally characterized by much more profound sacrifices in the lives of their family, friends, and neighbours.”

Ian Mosby is author of Food will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front (UBC Press, 2014).

Canada War Cake

This typically eggless, milkless, butterless, sugar-stretching dessert was a popular and widely shared recipe among Canadian women.

  • 2 c. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp cloves (ground)
  • 2 tbsp. shortening
  • 3/4 c. raisins
  • 2-1/2 c. hot water
  • 3 c. flour
  • 1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 c. chopped walnuts

Combine the shortening and hot water and boil for three minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Combine brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, cloves, and raisins and add to large saucepan. Then stir together flour, baking soda and walnuts and stir into liquid mixture. Mix well by hand, stirring with fork. Pour into loaf pan that has been greased and dusted with flour.

Bake for one hour and 15 minutes at 325 F.

Apple Loaf

During the 1940s this newspaper published many wartime recipes. Mustard pickles recipes were accompanied by articles that read, “there’s no reason why the meals next winter need to be lacking because there are several pickle (recipes) that require no sugar at all.” We also published many apple recipes, including this loaf recipe. Apples were one of the earliest of foods to be rebranded as a patriotic Canadian food, alongside lobster, after export markets for both collapsed. As early as 1939 the Department of Agriculture was running ads that read, “Serve apples daily and you serve your country too.”

  • 2 c. sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/3 c. butter
  • 1/3 c. sugar
  • 1 c. ground or finely grated unpeeled apple
  • 1/2 c. wheat germ
  • 1/4 c. sour milk

Sift flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Cream butter and sugar well together. Add apple and wheat germ. Add dry ingredients alternately with sour milk. Bake in a greased 4-1/2×10-inch loaf pan at 350 F for about 45 minutes.

About the author


Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.



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