Woman holding canned goods
Food Preservation,  World War II

Cherries and War Time Nutrition

We’re wrapping up cherry season here in the Northwest, and my neighbors kindly shared the bounty of their tree. Here’s my haul.

Most of the cherries went into the freezer, but since I had so many, I decided to make preserves. As usual, looking for a recipe led me down a research rabbit hole. I searched my collection and found a recipe for Black Cherry and Orange Marmalade from 1943’s Kerr Home Canning Book. The marmalade is delicious. I canned six half-pint jars which I will enjoy over the winter.

Now, you may be asking, how does war time nutrition come into this? You may have already noticed the date of the cook book, right in the middle of World War II. World War II era cookbooks are rarely just collections of recipes. They were often used as wartime propaganda to promote food conservation, rationing, and proper nutrition. The Kerr Home Canning Book is no exception.

Woman in an apron holding a jar of peaches
Kerr Home Canning Book, 1943. The “National Nutrition Edition” banner at the top right lets people know that the book conforms to the USDA’s nutritional guidelines

This book belonged to my husband’s grandmother. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet her and ask questions about her experiences or her favorite recipes. She obviously used the pickle and relish recipes. I can tell because she marked some of the recipes with alternate measurements and the pages are splattered with something. Cooking is a messy business, and those types of marks are a dead giveaway that recipes on those pages were used. I always look for unusual wear, stains, and handwritten additions as clues for how the cookbook owner used the book.

page of recipes
From the “Pickle” page. Note the stains on the pages, the mark by the Chop Suey Pickles, and the revisions to the Cucumber Pickles. I suspect she used these recipes more than once.

During World War II, women were encouraged to grow victory gardens and can their own produce. This version of the Kerr Home Canning Book does its part to promote home canning for the war effort. As the front page of the book states, “In view of the nation-wide program to increase and conserve the country’s agricultural products, HOME CANNING takes on a new importance. Planned food conservation for year around nutritious meals is a patriotic duty.” Home gardening and canning allowed the government to divert more commercially produced food to the military. A dedication on the inside cover reminds women of their importance to the war effort, stating “you are the wives and mothers of the men in Freedom’s fight. . . . For men today go into battle with your name on their lips . . . and men, tomorrow and forever, will find in your courage and devotion the strength . . . and dignity . . . and honor to serve in the peace that is to come.” In other words, women’s work was both essential and subordinate, important because of the supporting role it provided men. This type of rhetoric is fairly common in World War II era advertising and propaganda. Ads and other propaganda often encouraged women to be brave and independent, while not forgetting their domestic roles.

An explanation of Victory Gardens in the Kerr Home Canning Book.

In this case, the patriotic, domestic duty is two-fold: to save commercially canned food for the troops and to keep folks on the home front healthy and well-fed despite food rationing. On a side note – sugar was rationed, but the book does not really highlight sugar substitutes. Notes on the jelly and preserves pages provide instructions for making recipes with sugar substitutes such as corn syrup or honey, but no mention of sugar substitutes is made in the conserve or the marmalade sections. Given wartime sugar restrictions, I was a bit surprised that sugar substitutes did not make a larger appearance.

What the book does emphasize is nutrition. A nutritional chart takes up the full centerfold. I’ve seen similar charts before in other World War II era advertisements with food guides similar to the one in the Kerr cookbook. Companies used the charts to emphasize how their products complied with government nutritional guidelines. While I’d seen them before, this time, I started wondering what the story was behind the government’s nutritional guidelines.

Kerr Home Canning Book, 1943

The USDA issued the “Basic Seven” in a 1943 brochure, the National Wartime Nutrition Guide. This was not the first time the USDA developed food guidelines. W. O. Atwater, a chemist who studied nutrition, published the first USDA study of the nutritive value of foods in an 1894 Farmer’s Bulletin. Nutritional research was still in its infancy in the 1890s, and Atwater’s research focused on carbs, fats, and protein. The USDA published its first food guide, Caroline Hunt’s Food for Young Children, in 1916. It issued subsequent guidelines during World War I and the Depression.1 Guidelines issued in 1943 in response to World War II include seven groups:

  • Group 1 – Green and yellow vegetables. This group includes most leafy greens and green vegetables (except for cucumber, celery, leeks, and green summer squash). Pumpkin, yellow squashes (summer and winter), sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, rutabagas, and wax beans all count as “yellow” vegetables.
  • Group 2 – Oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit, and raw salad greens. Any citrus fruit counts in this group. Raw salad greens also count for group one.
  • Group 3 – Potatoes and other vegetables and fruits.
  • Group 4 – Milk and milk products
  • Group 5 – Meat, poultry, fish, or eggs. Dried beans and nut butters fall in this category too.
  • Group 6 – Bread, flour, and cereals. Whole grain or enriched only.
  • butter and other spreads
  • Group 7 – Butter or margarine fortified with vitamin A. If this group is in short supply, eat more from group 1 and 4.

Part of the reason the “Basic Seven” differs from today’s USDA MyPlate, or the Food Pyramid some of us may remember, is because our knowledge of nutrition has changed since the 1940s, but the 1943 guidelines are also different because of their intended purpose. Today’s dietary guidelines aim to optimize health and minimize the risk of disease. In 1943, the “Basic Seven” was meant to ensure that Americans received adequate nutrition at a time when food was rationed. The National Wartime Nutrition Guide advised Americans to eat something from each of the seven groups each day. “If certain foods are not available, or if you cannot afford them in cash or ration points,” it explains, “choose other foods from the SAME group which serve similar needs in food value and menu planning.” The important thing is to get something from each group every day. Citrus fruits and green leafy vegetables rank their own categories because of their vitamin contents.

The guide also mentions other groups of food not included in the “Basic Seven.” They are omitted because of their low nutritional values. They include:

  • Fats and oils – includes all fats and oils except butter and fortified margarine.
  • Milled cereals and products made from them – includes foods like white bread, white rice, white flour, and pasta.
  • Sugars and syrups – includes honey, preserves, candy, sugar, and sweetening syrups such as maple, sorghum, and corn.
  • Other sweets – includes cakes, cookies, donuts, sherbets, etc. Ice cream is not on the list because it counts as a milk product in group 5.

Though these groups have low nutritional value, they were not prohibited or limited in any way. They were fine, so long as the other seven groups were represented in one’s diet. Again, this guide served a different purpose than guides today. In 1943, the USDA was not worried about diabetes and heart disease. They were worried about Americans getting enough vitamins.

While it’s hard to know how many households followed (or attempted to follow) the guidelines, food writer M.F.K. Fisher shared her opinion in her 1942 book How to Cook a Wolf, a humorous cook book that guides housewives through the perils of wartime meal planning. Thought he National Wartime Nutrition Guide had not yet been published, home economists has long been pushing the ideals of a balanced diet, often with detailed menus that include multiple food groups in each meal. As Fisher says in the first chapter “One of the stupidest things in an earnest but stupid school of culinary thought is that each of the three daily meals should be ‘balanced.'” She goes on to explain that while we know vitamins and minerals are important for our families, following recommended menus for three balanced meals a day is “hard not only on the wills and wishers of the great American family, but is pure hell on the pocketbook.” Fisher offers more practical advice for World War II era women trying to manage rationing, household budgets, and nutrition:

Instead of combining a lot of dull and sometimes actively hostile foods into one routine meal after another . . . try this simple plan: Balance the day, not each meal in the day.

M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf, 1942

In other words, don’t try to cram four or five food categories in each meal; think about the overall day. For example, instead of serving cereal, milk, toast with margarine, fruit, juice, and eggs for breakfast (groups 2-7), just serve cereal and milk (groups 4 and 6). Worry about the other categories later in the say, such as having a big salad at lunch (groups 1 and 2) and some protein and a baked potato with margarine for dinner (groups 3, 5, and 7).

Women looking at a chart about vitamins
United States Office Of War Information, Rosener, Ann, photographer. Wartime food demonstration. With wartime food shortages creating many nutritional problems for housewives, Ida Lansden, home economist, explains the necessity of preserving the vitamin content of available foods to war workers’ wives in an Alexandria, Virginia housing settlement. United States Alexandria Virginia, 1943. Mar. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017696936/.

Fisher was not the only one offering advice. USDA and companies like Kerr provided women support to understand and meet nutritional guidelines. USDA home economists hosted demonstrations across the country to explain the guidelines to American housewives. A USDA Homemaker’s Chat radio broadcast from February 9, 1944 titled “Basic Seven in Winter” even reminded women to make use of the canned goods they’d put up the previous summer.2 The Kerr Home Canning Book includes additional information about the role and sources of vitamins, although it doesn’t provide menus or serving suggestions. The focus is on saving foods for future use, not figuring out how to implement the “Basic Seven” on a daily basis. To that end, Kerr staged its own demonstrations to teach women how to can nutritious food.3 As the Home Canning Book emphasizes, canning was about more than feeding one’s family, it was about doing one’s part to win the war.

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