A Wolf At the Door
The end of 1942 should be remembered as the most uncertain and perhaps darkest time of the war, when the balance did not seem to be tipping clearly in either direction. It was in this environment--of shortages, scrap drives, and ration cards--that the food writer M.F.K. Fisher published How to Cook a Wolf. In 21 short essays with recipes, Fisher reminds us that life--bread, wine, friends at a table--need not disappear during war. Keeping the wolf from the door, she wrote, is a way to prevail in times when "men take up arms."
Put the words patriotism and food together these days, and you'll probably arrive at "freedom fries." But during World War II, you did your part with how and what you ate. After Pearl Harbor, the Office of War Information published posters explicitly linking home-front cuisine to the war effort. "Do with less, so they'll have enough!" one poster exhorts, picturing a soldier raising a big tin cup to his lips with a smile; "Rationing Safeguards Your Share" another proclaims as a woman appraises her market's shelves. By 1943, food rationing was in full swing: Meat, butter, oil, some cheeses, white sugar, and coffee were rationed, as were canned goods, frozen fruits, and vegetables. Doing with less meant not only rethinking what was in your pantry but rethinking what constituted a meal itself.
The big challenge was to satisfy the hefty American hunger for meat. Before the war, the average American ate 126 pounds of meat a year; even during rationing, Americans were allotted an average of 6 ounces each per day, compared with the Brits' 16 ounces a week. (These numbers pale in comparison with what an American meat-eater consumes now: 195 pounds a year.)
Hamburger helpers. Ground beef became popular during the '40s, as a patriotic salvo to fire across the battlements of steakless houses. Hamburger was only seven rationing points as compared with 12 (one person's allotment for a whole week) for a T-bone steak and could be made into such meat-stretching dishes as tamale pie, meatloaf (bulked with bread crumbs), and stuffed peppers. The custom of serving the meat course in a ring--of buttered noodles, rice, or hominy grits--began during the '40s as a way to distract the American stomach from the diminished amount of meat at the ring's center.
The war generated creative answers to entertaining with less as well. It was during the '40s that potluck suppers and progressive dinners appeared, with neighbors pooling their rationing points and either contributing a dish or moving from house to house for each course. Gardens were grown for victory; vitamins were pushed to keep the home front in fighting shape. Over and over, the preparation of food was yoked to the war: Eating had a purpose, and how one ate was a sign of one's support.
Nicer things. So Fisher urged cooks to eke out simple pleasures. Suggesting a tiny dollop of herbed butter on a piece of meat or fish, she says, "They are not necessary, but they are nice, in the right sense of the word, so that eating meat becomes not a physical function, like breathing or defecating, but an agreeable and almost intellectual satisfaction of the senses." In between practical asides--choosing a roast with the bone in is more economical because it will cook six minutes faster per pound and therefore cut down on the gas bill--come moments like these: "The wolf was at the door and no mistake: until I filled the room with the smell of hot butter and red wine," says Fisher. "And with a glass of wine and some honest-to-God bread, [a frittata] is a meal. At the end of it you know that Fate cannot harm you, for you have dined."