This World War I Recipe Exhibit Lets You Cook Up a History Lesson in Your Own Kitchen
You can only bake so much bread in isolation before you find yourself searching for new ideas in the kitchen. But here’s an unexpected idea from an unexpected place: The National WWI Museum and Memorial says why not try whipping up some World War I-era recipes? Not only can they serve as an edible and educational history lesson—but these over 100-year-old dishes also offer an uplifting reminder that Americans have gotten through similarly hard times in the past (and without Netflix!).
Like the rest of the country, the Kansas City-based memorial is currently closed due to COVID-19. However, America’s official World War I museum has an online exhibit called “War Fare: From the Homefront to the Frontlines”—a slideshow that “reevaluates the effects of food on WWI"—plus an entire section dedicated to recipes. (Find it here.)
And just as the coronavirus pandemic has made scoring your ideal ingredients trickier, World War I had a number of parallels.
As the exhibit explains, on May 5, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Herbert Hoover as the head of the U.S. Food Administration. “Hoover called on Americans to voluntarily help the war effort and save food without imposing rations or regulations. He stated, ‘The whole foundation of democracy lies in the individual initiative of its people and their willingness to serve the interests of the nation with complete self-effacement in the time of emergency,’” the museum writes. “As such, the nation moved to ‘Meatless Mondays,’ ‘Wheatless Wednesdays’ and more creativity in the kitchen using less dairy, fats and sugars.”
“While the COVID-19 and World War I/1918 flu pandemic are fundamentally different situations, they have both resulted in shortages of essential supplies, including food. The underlying message applicable to both situations is that rationing can absolutely make a difference—even on a small scale,” Lora Vogt, the museum’s curator of education, told me via email. “During World War I, provisions across the world were scarce, which makes sense considering that 65 million people served in global militaries during the course of the war… As part of a proactive measure, the U.S. government issued the ‘Win the War in the Kitchen’ cookbook in January 1918 as a way to help preserve precious food items such as meat and sugar by encouraging less usage or using substitute items."
“The concept was that a person or family’s choice to skip a tablespoon of sugar at the kitchen table meant that sugar—and its calories—could be used to help a soldier go the extra mile during World War I,” Vogt continued. “Presently, we again have the collective opportunity to reduce usage of scarce items—both for the community at large and particularly for those on the frontline of this crisis. These recipes are a tool that can be used for that purpose. And, they provide some creative, pantry stable substitutes the modern cook may not consider.”
The museum highlights nine recipes from the Win the War in the Kitchen cookbook: Potato Bread, Apricot and Prune Marmalade, Scalloped Cabbage, Corn Bread, Bean and Tomato Stew, Savory Rice, Poultry with Peas, Buckwheat Chocolate Cake, and Chocolate Fudge Frosting. Beyond those, reproduced images of the entire cookbook are also available on the museum website, but Joey Armstrong, a photographer who worked on the list, explains that “the recipes in the cookbook are brief, sometimes a little outdated (where would you readily find possum in the 21st Century?) and included instructions that assumed a lot of culinary knowledge from the reader,” so the museum’s highlighted recipes are slightly different than the originals—and easier to follow.
“To be certain, cooking terminology and some commonly used food items have changed in the past 100 years, so the modern-era recipes take those items into account,” Vogt told me. “For example, the updated recipe for Chocolate Fudge Frosting—which is delicious—is quite similar to the World War I-era recipe. The only changes are substituting butter for ‘fat’ and adjusting the cooking temperature to Fahrenheit as the cookbook temperatures were in Celsius. These were commonly made recipes during the World War I-era and they absolutely stand the test of time 100 years later.”
Check out the entire "War Fare" exhibit at exhibitions.theworldwar.org/war-fare.