For Remembrance Day, I thought it would be interesting to wind back the clock and look at how food rationing affected what Canadians cooked and ate during the Second World War.
One great place to find information on that topic is the Wartime Canada website, wartimecanada.ca. Its creators say Wartime Canada was envisioned as a way to make the visual heritage of the nation at war available in digital form.
In a part of that website called Eating, you’ll find digitally archived, food-related publications and documents from and about the war years, such as books, articles, pamphlets and menus, which you can open and read.
In an essay titled Food on the Home Front during the Second World War, author and historian Ian Mosby notes that during the war, many of our government’s food policies revolved around the need to feed Canada’s overseas allies and soldiers. That particularly came into focus after the fall of France in June 1940, when Canadian food exports provided an essential lifeline to Britain.
Nutritious, sustaining food for the military and those supporting them was deemed an essential “weapon of war.” In Canada, to ensure enough was available, folks at home were asked to do more with less.
Among a range of initiatives, food rationing was introduced and adults were given coupon books that allowed them to obtain limited amounts of certain foods that were scarce, such as sugar and meat. Those coupons were a way to ensure everyone got a fair share of what was available.
Although some women, of course, were directly engaged in the war, it was the ones back in Canada taking care of their families that were the focus of the let’s-do-more-with-less initiatives.
You get a sense of how seriously they took up that challenge in a book called How to Eat Well Though Rationed: Wartime Canning and Cooking Book, published in 1943 and edited by Josephine Gibson.
In its introduction, it points out that while Canadian men were on the march, so were Canadian women, as homemakers adapted to changes in the kitchen.
While governments worked to ensure soldiers had nutritious food, homemakers were also strongly encouraged to prepare nutritious foods for their families. That’s reflected in a section of the book called Keeping Your Family Fit in Wartime.
Arguing that a true patriot is a healthy one, the book calls on Canadians to keep themselves and their families fit and well in wartime as a civic duty. It says only healthy people can work hard, do their jobs better and help win the war sooner.
That book and a wide range of others sources, such as government handouts, provided useful information on what foods available were nutritious and why.
A book published by the Canadian Medical Association in 1940 called Food for Health in Peace and War calls on Canadians to eat certain amounts of “protective” foods every day, including milk and milk products, potatoes and other vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, raw fruits and canned tomatoes, and protein sources such as eggs, meat and fish.
The book advised that it was possible protect your health at low cost by eating the less expensive foods in those groups. Cookbooks published during the war offered recipes using budget-friendly foods such as organ meats and ground beef, although in limited amounts.
For example, I found a wartime recipe for beef upside down pie that served four. To make it, 1/2 pound of ground beef, a two-ounce serving per person, is cooked with onion and canned tomato soup, topped with a simple pastry and baked. To serve, portions of the pie are inverted on a plate, hence the name “upside down” pie.
As noted, sugar was also rationed during the war and cookbooks at that time offered ways to reduce its use.
One publication called Wartime Sugar Savers, issued by the Canadian Department of Agriculture, offered numerous ways to do that. Those included serving fresh and canned fruits for dessert, sweetening puddings with leftover canned fruit syrup, making cakes without frostings and reducing sugar by two tablespoons when making baked desserts.
During the war, Canadian food companies offered recipes for economical meals. An example is this version of a salmon soufflé recipe that appeared in the Halifax Herald in 1944.
I found that recipe reprinted in a book published in 2005 by Rosemary Neering, called The Canadian Housewife: An Affectionate History. That book has an interesting chapter on how women coped during the war years.
Above the recipe it says that during the war, canned salmon was in short supply and this dish provided a way to stretch one’s ration. It certainly did that, as it yielded five servings and only used one can of salmon.
I updated the recipe to include such things as the current size of canned salmon available, and what size of pan to use. If you try it, remember this is a very humble wartime recipe. It’s definitely not a fancy soufflé made with rich béchamel and tons of eggs that soars majestically above the pan when baked.
But when times are lean, I could see that it would taste pretty darn good, perhaps served with some garden-grown vegetables or a simple salad.
This recipe is an updated version of one published in the Halifax Herald in 1944. It was designed to help stretch one’s ration of canned salmon during the Second World War.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 40 to 50 minutes
Makes: five servings
1 (213 gram) can salmon (see Note 1)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 Tbsp chopped parsley
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
2 stalks celery, finely chopped (see Note 2)
2 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup milk
Preheat oven to 325 F. Thoroughly grease a 10-by-8-inch or similar-sized pan (or casserole) and set aside (see Note 3).
Place salmon in a bowl and flake into small pieces. Mix in salt, parsley, pepper and celery.
Place the eggs yolks in a second bowl and beat until as light and thick as you can get them. Whisk in the milk.
In a third bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Very gently fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture until just combined. Carefully fold in the salmon mixture until just combined, doing so gently so you don’t deflate the egg whites.
Turn the mixture into the pan (or casserole), then cover with foil. Set the pan in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish that has an inch or so of hot water in it. (This water bath will help the soufflé cook evenly.) Bake soufflé in the middle of the oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until eggs are set.
Note 1: I used pink salmon. To ensure the soufflé was as light as possible, I drained the salmon well and squeezed the excess moisture out of it before flaking it.
Note 2: Be sure you finely chop the celery or it will sink in the souffle. To finely chop each stalk, cut them lengthwise into several thin strips. Thinly cut those strips, three or four at a time, widthwise, into small pieces.
Note 3: The original recipe did not say what to grease the pan with. I used a bit of soft butter.
Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.