Some time ago I started reading my father’s love letters to my mother. My father died over 40 years ago. Fifteen years ago, when my mother passed away, the letters were handed down to me. They were written to my mother after my parents met on a bus during World War II. He was on leave from Camp Lejeune and she was vacationing. As their primary communication, they exchanged letters. I have only my father’s letters, as he was not allowed to keep my mother’s. A sad commentary on the price of war.
My father’s letters are filled with history, not only of my mother’s and father’s burgeoning love affair, but reporting on what was going on in America during and following WWII. In high school, I studied World War I and II and I can tell you, I did not learn then, what I have learned from these letters. I was lead to believe from formal education, everything was beautiful and perfect in this country after WWII. This is so untrue it can make a heart hurt. One such subject of which my father wrote is of food shortage during and after the war.
My mother told me of rationing food to support the war effort, but I never thought to ask why food rationing was necessary. I understood the concept, but somehow, war and sacrifice went together, so it was no surprise that food, as well as other resources would be in shortage. There was a sad tone to her voice when speaking of rationing, which even now causes me to pause and feel her emotion, but I think the emotion was more connected to the topic of war than it was rationing. At the time, this tone kept me from digging further. I remember thinking, however, if there were farms and gardens, how could there possibly be food shortages? One reason is food was being sent to soldiers and women and children overseas. Another reason is that with most available men being sent into war, there were not enough left to man America’s farms. Women took on running the farms, as well as other jobs formerly filled by men. Although, controversial, German soldier POW’s were used in the Midwest to fill the need for farmhands. This was still not enough to alleviate the shortage of farmhands. Perhaps, I will write a future post centered on that issue alone. In the meantime, we know the message of the “waste nothing” campaign was clear — wasting food was unpatriotic.
Was there a true shortage of food or merely propaganda to promote war allegiance? As it did during WWI, this propaganda served well to promote patriotism and unity. However, a May 1943 poll indicated that most women reported rationing had little effect on how much food they had available. Remember, WWII was on the heels of the Great Depression and citizens were used to having far less food than what we experience today. I find it intriguing that the change that was thought to be the most significant was downsizing from three cups of coffee a day to only one!
My father wrote of combing NYC streets for a bag of vegetables to last his mother and siblings for two weeks at a time. Some people would drive out to the country for vegetables. It was nearly impossible to get red meat. Black markets controlled meat availability. They set fire to butcher shops. Small slaughter houses traded locally to evade inspectors and then sold to black market distributors. There was some meat available through “under-the-table” trading and butchers would grind up steak to sell as lesser grade hamburger and avoid the high steak tax. Still, it was better to do without or eat salted fish four days in a row than risk your life for steak.
Whether or not there were true food shortages that warranted the “waste nothing” campaign, what came from it was a sense of pride in using every food scrap. As continued from WWI, leftovers were reinvented. Sour milk was made into cheese or Maple Sour Milk Pie. Cookbooks were written to help homemakers design delectable meals from very little sugar, flour, butter or meat. As in WWI, preserved and homegrown food in urban and rural communities not only filled stomachs, they brought unity.
In my next post, I’ll explore the implications of food waste today and possible lines of defense.