For yesterday's dinner, I made one of my favorite recipes from the New Recipes from Moosewood cookbook, Creamy Fish Chowder, served with Squash Rolls. All of the ingredients for the chowder came from Just Food Coop, including the fish (inexpensive tilapia). A perfect meal for a winter evening with a big snowstorm on the way and a new load of firewood stacked in the garage. After dinner, filled with good chowder, I read M.F.K. Fisher's tips for making an good and economical soup.
My bedside reading lately has been Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf (1942), a book of recipes and reflections on how to cook and live well during wartime rationing. "Now, of all times in our history," she writes, "we should be using our minds as well as our hearts in order to survive...to live gracefully if we live at all." The book, written in her characteristically tart and opinionated style, is full of practical tips (for example, how to save bacon grease and use it in place of rationed butter in spice cake) and recipes. Each chapter has a title that, on its own, reads like a little poem: "How to Greet the Spring," "How to Rise Up Like New Bread," "How to Pray for Peace," etc.
In the chapter "How to Boil Water," which I read last night, Fisher insists that tea must be made with fresh, "lively" water that has just reached a boil: "The quaint old fiction of the kettle simmering all day on the hearth, waiting to be turned into a delicious cup of tea, is actively disturbing to anyone who cares very much whether his tea will be made from lively water instead of a liquid that in spite of its apparent resemblance to Webster's definition is flat, exhausted, tasteless—in other words, with the hell cooked out of it."
The New York Times review of How to Cook a Wolf in 1942 concludes: "[Fisher] emphasizes that a mirror on the kitchen shelf is a great inspiration to the cook, who can draw reassurance from it or in sudden emergencies use it for hasty hair pokings that make all the difference to feminine self-confidence. But judging from her picture, Mrs. Fisher is one cook who has grounds to be very confident indeed without a kitchen mirror."
The ingredients I bought for my chowder cost me a total of $15 at Just Food Co-op. I bought two loose stalks of celery, less than a pound of fish, 32 fluid ounces of vegetable broth on special for $2.89. I had a bag of potatoes and onions at home.
$15.00 worth of supplies in 1942 would have cost about $1.20. But there would have also have been ration coupons to deal with, and red and blue tokens, and shortages of important staples like butter. (Click here for a good web exhibit on wartime rationing from the Ames Historical Society in Iowa.) In 1942, M.F.K. Fisher would have made the vegetable broth at home, boiling down leftover vegetables and saving the broth in a bottle in the icebox, adding more vegetable water from day to day. Many of the vegetables for the chowder may have come from a Victory Garden. Marjoram for seasoning may have been difficult to find. "Marjoram if possible," says her recipe for Green Garden Soup in How to Cook a Wolf. But fish was one item never rationed during World War II.
According to a 2007 article in Britain's The Daily Mail, "Britons were never healthier than when [they] lived on wartime rations." Consumption of fat and sugar was greatly reduced; diets included more vegetables; portions were smaller. Shortages of white flour meant that bread contained healthier whole wheat flour and other healthy whole grains like oats. Less red meat was consumed, cutting the risk of heart disease.
"As a result of the balanced diet provided by rationing," The Daily Mail reports, "children's health improved and on average they were taller and heavier than before the war. The incidence of anaemia and tooth decay dropped—while the average age at which people died from natural causes increased, despite the stresses and strains of war." A wartime diet in Britain allowed men 3,000 daily calories. Today the recommended daily allowance is 2,500 calories, but most diets contain 3,100 daily calories or more.
On the subject of tea, about which Fisher has strong opinions ("It is safe to say that when the water boils...it is ready. Then, at that moment and no other, pour it into the teapot..."), the The Daily Mail reports: "During the war they even drank their tea more healthily. Research has shown that three cups of tea a day can cut the risk of heart attack by 11 per cent and stave off some forms of cancer. But you get greater benefit from its healthgiving properties if you let leaves steep for five minutes in a pot rather than giving a tea bag a quick dunk in a mug."
Below is a graphic from The Daily Mail laying out the nutritional basics of a wartime diet in Britain.
Could you survive on wartime rations? In later posts, I'll try out some of M.F.K. Fisher's wartime recipes. First up: recipes for tinned fish.
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