Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Winning the War on the Kitchen Front

Why are all my favorite history lectures about women?

I mean, technically, "Food for Victory During W II" at the Library of Virginia was about how Americans dealt with food shortages and rationing during the war, but really, it was about how women handled those things, still got dinner on the table, tended their victory garden and, in many cases, worked or volunteered, too.

VCU professor Emilie Raymond's talk brought home just how much women had to do while the boys were off fighting the good fight. From the Women's Land Army - created so women could do the farm chores while men protected democracy - to the North Platte Canteen in Nebraska that served pheasant and egg salad sandwiches to traveling soldiers, my people were on the front lines making sure no one went to bed hungry.

My mother had the same rule, but it usually involved a slice of white bread with apple butter on it before bed.

And let's not forget the U.S. role of producing and supplying food to the Allies.

Raymond talked about how central food was to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan's motivation because they wanted to be self-sufficient food-wise. It was incredibly disturbing to hear that it was  food shortages that caused Hitler to speed up the Holocaust (why feed people you wanted to exterminate anyway?).

She laid out the food hierarchy for us: American soldiers, American citizens, Allied soldiers, Allied citizens. Meanwhile, the white men in charge decided that since the U.S. was the largest food producing country, we'd be willing to trade our surplus for military bases in other countries. Kinda makes you wonder who didn't get to eat so we could have another military base.

Of course, the war was a godsend to U.S. farmers, whose income increased 150% during the war years, not to mention accelerating the mechanization of agriculture. Meanwhile, Richmond did its part by starting 12,000 victory gardens by 1943.

We heard about how the government stepped up its propaganda efforts to ensure good Americans accepted rationing with a smile - patriotism and guilt were especially effective - even as they gave up sugar, coffee, meat and dairy products for the cause. Hoarding food and buying on the black market were seen as the epitome of bad citizenship.

Even Hollywood helped with films like Disney's "Food Will Win the War."

And let's not forget that it was then that they started pushing oleomargarine on butter lovers. Naturally, it fell to the women of this country to still come up with tasty meals with far fewer tasty ingredients.

I'd heard stories from my Mom about rationing, so Raymond's anecdotes were familiar. My Mom remembered putting ration coupons on a high counter as a child and some wily adult swiped them before she could place her order. She also recalled the disagreeable task of adding the coloring to the oozing package of oleomargarine to make it look more like butter, even if the taste was more like plastic.

Seems that's when the government started pushing the concept of victory gardens and canning to supplement the meager family rations, along with raising chicken and rabbits for dinner. Raymond mentioned a Life magazine article about how easy horses were to raise, love as pets and then slaughter.

Because horsemeat, it's what's for dinner.

One facet of all this that particularly fascinated me was learning how malnourished most Americans were at the time. Two out of every five men called up for duty were rejected for malnutrition. Most Americans knew little about how to eat right, so it was at that point that the government started teaching us how to eat for good health. It's also when foods began to be fortified with vitamins to help those who weren't paying attention to all the new nutritional info being foisted on them.

Most importantly, we can't forget that this was the Greatest Generation who didn't see any of this as a hardship. No, siree, this was their contribution to the war effort, along with silk and nylon rationing.

Today's lecture was a reminder that I love me a good her-story lecture. Leave it to women to make the sacrifices and somehow make it all work on the homefront. I'd like to think that I could have done the same.

Just don't ask me to eat oleomargarine.

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