For five long years during World War Two, meat, sugar and other products were rationed in Canada. But there were few complaints. Not only were we feeding the desperate British population, we were shipping enormous quantities of food to our own armed forces, and our prisoners of war.
Why was food rationed?
For Canadians, it was the ultimate exercise in sharing. Since Great Britain was virtually cut off, our food exports provided an essential lifeline to the mother country. By the end of the war Canadian exports accounted for 57 per cent of all wheat and flour, 39 per cent of bacon, 24 per cent of cheese, and 15 per cent of eggs consumed in Britain.
Not only were we feeding Britain, but also our own fighting forces overseas, prisoners of war, and starving refugees from many war-torn countries.
Fully committed to the war effort, we Canadians stretched our war rations by planting Victory Gardens, canning and preserving fruit and vegetables, fishing, hunting, and recycling every last scrap of food.
Eleven million ration cards were issued in this country, and here’s what they looked like.
Inside there were coupons issued for such things as sugar, butter and meat.
Canadian participation was voluntary, but in 1942 rationing was introduced to ensure equal treatment for everyone. The government guaranteed that (for the most part) there would be no hoarding and no profiteering. At the end of the war, 90 percent of Canadians said the program had been administered fairly. Selling food on the black market was a criminal offence.
Misery loves company, and Australia, New Zealand, and the United States also rationed their food. No Allied country, however, had stricter rationing than Great Britain. Rationing there lasted from 1940 until 1954. If you were a child born when the war started, you wouldn’t have eaten “normally” until you were a teenager, and wouldn’t even have known the difference.
There was massive sympathy for the beleaguered British people, who were far worse off than us. Britain was fighting for its life, and everyone knew it. This poster tells the tale.
Just how bad was it?
Today we eat such an assortment of imported foods that we no longer think of them as exotic. Sushi. Pizza. Strawberries and oranges in the dead of winter. But during the war, importing food into Canada was difficult as many merchant ships were taken over by the war effort, and many others were sunk by German submarines.
And even the most basic foods that we produced here were restricted: bacon, steak, pork chops. Butter and cheese and ice cream. You ate what you could prepare and cook at home, and often grow yourself.
Rationed quantities varied as the war progressed. But basically, this is what Canadians were allowed:
Weekly Rations Per One Adult:
Sugar: one cup (the average Canadian today eats twice that much)
Tea: two ounces, OR Coffee: eight ounces. (because these came from other countries)
Butter: four ounces (one-quarter pound)
Meat: 24-32 ounces (less than five ounces per day)
Beer, spirits and wine were also rationed, but the amount varied between provinces.
Children’s rations were smaller. Needless to say, there were very few leftovers! Besides, wasting food was considered absolutely unpatriotic.
Canadian culinary historian Mary F. Williamson of York University wrote an article about wartime rationing in which she quotes from one of her mother’s letters, dated September 1942:
“We are asked not to use any pork or bacon for seven weeks while our commitments to Britain are being filled, there is no beef at all for sale (I think a lot is being sent to Russia), the sheep raisers are asked not to slaughter in order to raise more badly-needed wool, so a great many butchers have shut up shop.”
Because meat was scarce, a product was invented that was found on almost every table during the war and beyond. Short for “Seasoned Ham,” Spam was a processed meat product that people ate in great quantities.
Rural dwellers were better off
According to Canadian culinary historian Ian Mosby, a professor at the University of Guelph, lower-income families were already used to “making do.” It was the middle-income and upper-income families who felt the greatest change. For a complete essay by Professor Mosby on the subject, click: Food on the Home Front.
And city dwellers were worse off than people who lived on or near farms.
My own mother June Light Florence recalls that her family ate quite well in the small town of Battleford, Saskatchewan. Her father was an avid hunter and brought home lots of fresh game and fish, which were not rationed.
The entire family (two adults, five children) picked berries as if their lives depended on it. An extra ten pounds of sugar was available to the housewife who preserved berries and fruit, and these were used for precious desserts.
My mother’s uncle owned a farm that supplied them with fresh eggs and cream. It’s a good thing, too, since they hosted boys from the nearby air training base every single weekend for years.
She recalls a funny story about entertaining one of the newly-arrived airmen from England.
“We sat down in the dining room to have supper, and my mother brought in a platter of steaks. They were cut small, each one about four ounces, so there would be enough to go around. Realizing she had forgotten her hot dish mat, Mother set the meat platter down on the nearest plate and went back into the kitchen to find it.
“I guess the English guy must have thought Canadians had oodles of meat, and this was his portion! He piled mashed potatoes on the side of the platter, and then tucked into the platter.
“Mother came back into the dining room without noticing, and she just picked up the platter and started passing it around. Everyone else took a steak. The poor airman was very embarrassed, but nobody said anything.”
What she remembers missing the most was sweets. Oh, how they longed to mix up a big batch of fudge, or slather icing all over a cake!
My grandmother made a lot of jellied salads in those days, filling the jelly moulds with fruit so that she wouldn’t need to sweeten them with sugar. It appears that jellied salads were a big item back then.
The nuisance factor
Imagine going into a grocery store today and not buying a single pre-packaged, pre-prepared item. Everything had to be peeled and chopped and made from scratch. This must have been very demanding for women who were also working outside the home. It was so darned much work that Canadian homemakers were nicknamed “Housoldiers.”
Not only that, but having ration coupons didn’t guarantee the desired items would be available. According to Mary Williamson’s mother, by Christmas 1943 food was in short supply.
“Christmas dinner will be simple, but all the festive additives are either not to be had, or are only obtained by hours of journeying from shop to shop and standing in line, here there and everywhere.”
Meals also required an immense amount of planning. Larger families had the advantage, because the homemaker had more flexibility in deciding how to organize her meal plan.
Children were pressed into service to do some of the meal preparation, especially if their parents were working. Certainly the kids were persuaded to accept rations. Here’s a photograph of children eating carrots on sticks!
Was the ration diet healthy?
Opinion is divided. There wasn’t a lot of protein, and some available foods were quite starchy. In fact, the Canada Food Guide was first created in 1942, in response to concerns that people were becoming malnourished because they didn’t understand nutritional requirements.
On the other hand, people ate about half as much food overall, so obesity wasn’t a problem. And neither was getting your eight servings of vegetables every day! In fact, wartime rations can be boiled down to one word: vegetables. People may have suffered from a bland and boring diet, but it certainly didn’t lack fibre!
Carolyn Ekins in England lost 80 pounds in one year by sticking to a wartime rations diet. She also saved a small fortune in processed food items and takeout meals, including coffee. (Remember that coffee, cream and sugar were all rationed).
To read a newspaper article about her diet, click War on Weight. This photo shows her holding a plate of pinwheels; on the table are spam sandwiches and a vegetable dish called Lord Woolton’s Pie, named after the British Minister of Food.
Root vegetables became a staple part of everyone’s diet. In England alone, production of potatoes went from five million pounds to ten million.
Turnips were also commonly found on the wartime menu. (My German father-in-law, who spent two years after the war in a Russian prison camp, ate practically nothing but turnips. While he felt very fortunate to have survived, he never touched another turnip as long as he lived.)
When I was growing up on our family farm in Saskatchewan, we ate a lot of our own homegrown turnips and I always liked them. So I thought this would be a painless way to test a wartime recipe. Possibly some of you don’t even know what turnips look like, so here they are in their natural state.
I borrowed one of Carolyn’s turnip recipes, which she in turn borrowed from a Canadian reader who sent her a booklet called Wartime Recipes From the Maritimes.
To see the complete list of recipes, and read her blog, click: 1940sExperiment.
Here’s my version of the old wartime recipe. And yes, it was delicious, especially with the added tablespoon of precious sugar.
1 lb. young turnips
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup stock
Pre-heat oven to medium-hot.
Dice turnips into one-inch chunks and cook in salted water for 10 minutes.
Drain well, then saute in hot butter for a few minutes.
Sprinkle the sugar and flour over the turnip pieces and continue to fry until browning.
Place into ovenproof dish and add half cup of stock.
Bake in oven for 15 minutes until further browned.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper before serving.
I also asked my daughter Katie, who is a much better cook than I am, to test Carolyn’s wartime recipe for Bread Pudding, which begins with a pile of stale bread crusts.
10 ounces of stale bread (use your kitchen scales)
2 ounces of margarine or butter
1 ounce of sugar
2 ounces of dried raisins or sultanas
1 egg (fresh or dried – powdered eggs were common then)
Milk to mix
Extra sugar for topping
Put bread into a basin and add a little water. Leave for 10 minutes.
Squeeze bread out until fairly dry.
Return bread to empty basin and add all the other ingredients (except spice) adding a little milk to make a sticky consistency.
Add cinnamon a little at a time until your own taste.
Place mixture into a greased pan.
Cook at 160C for an hour until edges are browned and centre is hot.
Sprinkle sugar on top 10 minutes before end of cooking.
Allow to cool a little, slice and serve. Serves 8 to 10.
The bread pudding would have tasted even better with ice cream or slathered with whipped cream, but we refrained because of course that wasn’t allowed during wartime!
In conclusion, here’s a handy little device that I think could be marketed today. Called a V-for-Victory Sugar Spoon, it has a V-shaped opening that allows most of the sugar to fall back into the bowl!
Canadians on the home front did more than suffer through rations to help the war effort. Read about them here:
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
Sometimes I wonder how kids coped while the world was at war. Here’s an image showing a little boy playing toy soldiers with his father, or perhaps his grandfather, dated August 9, 1941.
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. To see my collection of covers, click: Star Weekly At War.