by Alice B. Winn-Smith, Copyright 1942
The Macmillan Company
Are we at war right now? We’ve been ‘at war’ for most of my adolescence and adult life, so the actual answer to that statement is probably still yes regardless of the actual pressures we all feel during the age of COVID-19 to be more conscious of our food consumption. The internet is rife with the resurgence of WWII food practices such as victory gardens, and while I’ve had this book on my shelf for quite some time, it seemed most apt to pull it down this week and regard it a little closer.
The last two long visits I’ve made to my in law’s home have ended with me taking home a box of vintage cookbooks that my father-in-law, Paul, graciously offered to me from his auction visits since the last time we saw each other. This book was part of my first haul of old cookbooks, as I was fascinated by the historical context of the book. I really never thought that I’d pull it from my shelf thinking that was inside might be useful for the modern era, but here we are.
Thrifty Cooking For Wartime first hit shelves in 1942, at the center of the second World War. The pressure was on on the home front to conserve so that all resources could be given to the boys across the ocean. Even her dedication shows the spirit of the age.
To my family, whose splendid cooperation has made the writing of this book possible
And to all other families, who are gladly and willingly cooperating to conserve everything that will help to win this war and thus preserve our homes and the freedoms we enjoy
Let’s keep ‘em marching
Let’s keep ‘em sailing
Let’s keep ‘em rolling
And above all
Let’s keep ‘em flying
Those of us with tighter belts aren’t turning to ‘thrifty’ cooking to keep any soldiers doing their jobs. We’re doing this for our own survival, and as the world continues to change outside of our doorsteps, it’s one of the few things we may feel we can do. I like to imagine that the housewives of this period felt similar pressures, knowing they could do little else to help their husbands, sons, and fathers that were sent to the front.
Winn-Smith makes the point in her preface to point out that many of the suggestions she puts to paper are old ones, coming from the previous wars that Americans have had to face. It seems apt, then, that this book is laid out on my desk when we are all engaged in a different type of war. Will these suggestions for wars such as the First World War, the Civil War, and the Revolutionary War make any impact on those of us fighting the impacts of COVID-19 in our homes?
It was time to find out.
The early pages of her cookbook contain tips that are eerily similar to everything I’ve seen on the internet since lockdowns began. How to prepare breadcrumbs from your home made bread, saving fat drippings from bacon. It’s odd to me that saving the bones from meats to create stock is not included in those earlier pages, but perhaps that was something that all cooks of the time did prior to the war.
Throughout the book, there is a large emphasis on simple recipes that are engineered to be manipulated in order to put to use the leftovers of the reader. Given that we’re all cooking at home so much more, these recipes are definitely relevant. Of interest to me was a recipe within the first few pages for a baked egg hash. The actual arrangement of the hash reminded me more of a rosti when I read the recipe, but in practice, it came out different. I played with it a lot and created my own rendition which you can find in our recipes section.
She even suggests frying whole sandwiches in an egg and milk mixture to get a second life out of any leftover sandwich you may have from the day before, which is in my mind a perfect use. We all love fried things in this country. It was only after some thought that I realized this was a 1942 riff on a croque monsieur.
Among the things I didn’t know about the food conservation efforts of the era was the high price of eggs in American markets at the time and the amount of them that were kept aside for the troops. This book has a small section devoted solely to the egg and how to get the most from the small amount that any reader might have been able to get their hands on during wartime. I take eggs for granted now. A carton of 18 from the grocery store costs me less than two dollars. To get farm fresh eggs at the farmer’s market is about the same cost.
The strangest thing about working out of these old cookbooks is that you never really know what the food is supposed to look like. Modern cookbooks are jam packed with gorgeous photos of almost every single recipe, but this wasn’t always the case. For many years, home cooks were hit with books of solid text for recipes. On one hand, it’s nice to feel like I can’t really screw it up. I’m certain both of the breakfast recipes I tried are NOT right, but they were tasty. And isn’t that what matters?
My experience with Thrifty Cooking for Wartime has inspired me to continue to work on some of the retro cookbooks that are on display in my kitchen with a higher level of seriousness. Two years in a row, I’ve brought a bunch of them home with me, and I haven’t actively cooked from them. Now is the time.