At the dawn of the 1940s, much of the world was already at war. Less than two years later, the United States would be drawn into the conflict.
But by the end of the decade, the U.S. was again at peace — for a few more months, at least — and was well on its way to prosperity.
For cooks at home, the change was dramatic. With the Second World War came rationing; no longer could people buy unlimited amounts of meat, sugar or coffee (or, for that matter, gasoline, rubber, shoes or even typewriters). It was all needed by our boys and gals overseas.
Cooking oils and other fats, too, were rationed. They were used to make glycerin, which was used to make bombs.
Cookbooks of the era often included a wartime supplement, which explained how to make do with limited amounts or the lessened quality of rationed items.
America’s Cook Book, published in 1943 by the New York Herald Tribune Home Institute, suggested replacing sugar with liquid sweeteners such as maple syrup or honey. It also recommended skimming the fat from soup and refrigerating it in small jars for up to a week.
But even with common-sense suggestions — get protein from eggs, milk and cheese instead of meat — the recipes in the wartime supplement could get kind of scary. The supplement in America’s Cook Book includes recipes for Dutch turkey (made from tripe, sausage, poultry seasoning and potatoes), sour veal hearts, stuffed bologna and lima bean casserole with salami.
It has a recipe for venison roast that looks good, but for the purposes of this article I am going to look at recipes from the regular part of the cookbooks, not the wartime supplements.
Even so, the food of the 1940s looks less familiar than you might expect. Curry powder was an exotic item that was added to many dishes that it probably should not be added to. All sorts of animal innards were popular, from brains to kidneys, and we had not yet shaken off our obsession with dishes that were jellied or molded. Ketchup was used as a prime flavouring ingredient, and so were pimientos. And cookbook authors liked making combinations that strike the modern palate as kind of gross.
How gross? One dish, called “delicious combination” without apparent irony, slopped together apples, canned peas, carrots, celery, pineapple and diced bananas along with some mayonnaise and whipping cream, served it on a platter slathered with more mayonnaise and garnished it with a ring of maraschino cherries.
Think about that: Canned peas. Maraschino cherries. Mayonnaise. In the same dish.
Fortunately, there were also plenty of other combinations in the decade that truly were delicious. I began with an entrée, Chicken With Almonds, that is reminiscent of Chicken à la King.
Leftover chicken is simmered in a rich white sauce studded with raisins and slivered almonds. The original recipe calls for the almonds to be minced, which would spread their flavour more evenly throughout the sauce, but I liked the idea of a flavorfully nutty crunch every bite or two.
Almost inevitably, it is served on toast, which soaks up the creamy sauce. You could also use rice, but toast somehow seems more fitting for the 1940s.
My next dish was a classic dessert, Chocolate Cream Pie. Here is a terrific midcentury treat, and it was endorsed by the best source — my wife’s mother. For this story, I searched through her old cookbooks from the ’40s, and the chocolate cream pie recipe is one of many that had her handwritten notes on how to make it.
Here is a pie that ought to come back into vogue. The chocolate cream filling is silken on your tongue, and the meringue topping proves to be its decadent match. The sumptuous, luxuriant taste and textures are so stunning that you may be surprised at how relatively unterrible it is for you. It uses milk instead of cream, and only two ounces of chocolate.
It’s not the healthiest thing you can eat, but it could be worse.
For a dish that would make a lovely brunch, I made Luncheon Cheese and Eggs — which is much better than its name. Most of the 1940s cookbooks that I looked at have a recipe for eggs poached in cream. It must have been a popular dish of the time, and now that I have made it I can see why.
It’s hard to beat the sheer elegance of the concept. Gently cooking your eggs in cream — I used half-and-half — allows them to become more, well, creamy. And this version adds shredded cheese to the sauce, making it a fabulous accompaniment to the eggs.
Finally, I made a 1940s vegetable dish, Panned Curried Cabbage. They were trying curry powder on everything those days, and cabbage has long been a particularly good pairing for it.
This version is straightforward. You sauté shredded cabbage in fat (I used butter) with curry powder, garlic and salt. I added an optional cup of canned, diced tomatoes a couple of minutes before the cabbage was fully cooked, and that was it.
Chicken with Almonds
Makes: Eight servings
5 Tbsp butter, divided
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup milk or light cream
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
1 Tbsp minced onion
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1 whole clove
1/4 bay leaf
3 cups diced, cooked chicken
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup slivered almonds, minced
1/4 cup sherry
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/2 cup heavy cream
8 pieces toast, buttered
Melt 2 Tbsp of the butter over medium-high heat and stir in flour. Gradually stir in milk and stir until mixture boils and thickens; then cook about three minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Add salt and pepper. Place over hot water to keep hot, and cover tightly to prevent crust from forming on top.
In a large pan over medium heat, melt the remaining 3 Tbsp butter and sauté onions until lightly browned. Add wine, chicken stock, clove, bay leaf and the reserved white sauce. Cook five minutes, stirring until smooth. Add chicken, raisins and almonds, and heat thoroughly. Mix together the sherry, egg yolks and cream, and add to the pan. Cook one minute, stirring constantly. Serve at once on toast.
Per serving: 447 calories; 24 g fat; 11 g saturated fat; 157 mg cholesterol; 25 g protein; 27 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 2 g fibre; 489 mg sodium; 89 mg calcium.
— From America’s Cook Book, 1943
Luncheon cheese and eggs
Yield: 3 servings
1 cup cream
2 tablespoons any grated cheese
Salt and black pepper
In a medium skillet, heat the cream to boiling point. Carefully break in the eggs and lower the heat to a simmer. Cook until they are set, as in poaching, spooning the cream over the top of the eggs while they are cooking. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon. Add the cheese, salt and pepper to the cream and stir until the cheese is melted; pour this sauce over the eggs.
Per serving: 437 calories; 41 g fat; 23 g saturated fat; 486 mg cholesterol; 15 g protein; 3 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; no fiber; 202 mg sodium; 141 mg calcium.
Recipe from “The American Woman’s Cook Book,” edited by Ruth Berolzheimer, 1940
Chocolate cream pie
Yield: 8 servings
3 eggs, separated
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour or 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk, scalded
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 baked (9-inch) pie crust
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla, divided
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slightly beat the egg yolks; set aside.
2. In a medium pot over medium heat, mix together 2/3 cup of the sugar, flour and salt; gradually stir in milk and chocolate and cook until chocolate melts and mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Stir a very small amount into the egg yolks; stir another very small amount into the yolks, and keep adding and stirring until the eggs are hot (you will have added about 1/4 of the milk mixture). Gradually pour the yolks back into the thickened milk and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add butter and 1 teaspoon of the vanilla and cool slightly; pour through a fine-mesh strainer into baked pie crust.
3. Combine egg whites, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and cream of tartar in a large bowl and beat to stiff peaks. Gradually beat in the remaining 1/3 cup sugar. Spread this meringue on top of the pie and bake until delicately brown, about 15 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and then chill in refrigerator.
Per serving: 342 calories; 15 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 83 mg cholesterol; 7 g protein; 46 g carbohydrate; 32 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 288 mg sodium; 86 mg calcium.
Adapted by Florence Pikrone from “America’s Cook Book” by the New York Herald Tribune Home Institute, 1943.
Panned curried cabbage
Yield: 4 servings
1 tablespoon butter or oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon curry powder
6 cups shredded green cabbage
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup canned diced tomatoes, optional
Heat a large skillet or pot over medium high heat and add the butter or oil. Sauté the garlic for 2 minutes. Stir in the curry powder, cabbage and salt. Cover and cook until tender — about 10 minutes — stirring occasionally. If desired, add tomatoes about 2 minutes before it is done.
Per serving: 58 calories; 3 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 8 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 7 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 605 mg sodium; 35 mg calcium.
Recipe from “The Good Housekeeping Cook Book,” edited by Dorothy B. Marsh, 1942