October 13, 2015.
The following is the first installment in a series written by Sandra Stock, as part of QAHN's project, Housewife Heroines: Anglophone Women at Home in Montreal during World War II, which has been funded through the Department of Canadian Heritage's World War Commemorations Community Fund.
The rationing of food products is perhaps the most frequently mentioned memory that older Montrealers have of the Second World War. Everyone has to eat, so changes to the availability of food affect everyone. This was also a time before pre-packaged, ready to serve, foods were seen in grocery stores. Everything had to be chopped, sliced, mashed, and whatever else it took to make food edible.
Country people were slightly better off as they already had gardens, grain fields, and, in wilder areas, could fish and hunt. Montreal was still an agricultural island, at least in part, and districts such as Cote St. Luc, Montreal North and the West Island had many functioning farms. Canada, however, was shipping tons of foodstuffs to Britain, especially after the fall of France in 1940 when the continent became closed to exports. Canada was also feeding the growing military forces, an influx of munitions workers and others working in military support capacities, many of whom had been agricultural workers before the war. The military now lived in barracks (Longue Pointe, east of Montreal harbour, for example) and civilians crowded into rental housing. Many people were forced to lived with relatives, especially the wives and mothers of men in the forces.
In Patricia Burns' Life on the Home Front: Montreal 1939-1945, we learn that "the Wartime Prices and Trade Board was set up to ensure that scarce commodities were not wasted and inflation controlled. Frequent government advertisements reminded citizens that compliance was a patriotic duty...”
The weekly ration for one adult was one cup of sugar, two ounces of tea or eight ounces of coffee, a quarter-pound of butter, and less than five ounces of meat per day. Beer, spirits and wine were also rationed, with the amounts differing depending upon the province. Recipe books and pamphlets were issued in great numbers. The government feared that Canadians might suffer from malnutrition with all the restrictions, so in 1942, the Canada Food Guide (still with us) tackled this problem. Looking at the recipes and reading about food preparation at this time, we see a diet that was low on proteins but high on vegetable content. Vegetables are excellent for vitamins and minerals, and high in fibre, but in bulk, make for a rather starchy and dull cuisine. Imagination was required for a cook to present appetizing fare.
In spite of restrictions, it was found that the health of the country actually improved during the war. According to Ian Moseby, “The language of sacrifice, austerity and thrift...contradicted the reality of many Canadians' wartime diets: that they were typically eating more, and better, than they had for over a decade. This was particularly true for the more than one million Canadians who saw military service...While the food was not always as good as many soldiers had hoped, there was plenty of it.” Obesity and type-two diabetes were nearly unknown in those days before sugar-infused fast-foods.
Of course, many Montrealers tackled the food shortage quite literally at the root by growing their own vegetables in what were called "victory gardens." In addition, surpluses could be sold, or more likely bartered, for other goods and services. At first, the government did not take to urban Canadians growing their own turnips and so on, and tried to discourage this practice by what they called "unskilled city-folk." Canadians ignored this, and by 1943, agricultural officials had reversed this policy. Moseby records that in 1944, "it was estimated that over 209,200 victory gardens were in operation nationwide producing a total of 57,000 tons of vegetables." In some residential districts, there were also fruit trees – Montreal was long noted for its apples – beehives, and even urban hens and the odd cow.
Front lawns, vacant lots and even parks were turned into gardens. Since Montreal is situated in the midst of a highly fertile agricultural zone, city residents produced a wide variety of foods, with the emphasis on potatoes, turnips, cabbages, cauliflowers, Brussels sprouts, carrots, onions, pumpkins and melons. By 1950, few amateurs still gardened, other than for ornamental (flowers) purposes. By the late 1960s, however, many people went back to the land for health and recreation, and gardens appeared once again. Today, Montreal has many community gardens, with plots available for interested citizens. The Slow Food movement, along with concerns for healthy eating, have led to a revival of “old timey” cooking skills like canning and food from scratch, as opposed to pre-processed fare.
A Recipe: The Woolton Pie
A vegetable pie with a potato pastry that uses very little fat. The potato makes the pastry moist and crumbly, however, work with it quickly or the pastry turns grey. The pie contains seasonal vegetables. This British-origin pie was a recipe encouraged by the government in their “Dig for Victory” campaign.
One pound of turnips, one pound of carrots, one pound of cauliflower, one pound of spring onions (or leeks), one pound of potatoes, one teaspoon of vegetable extract – a kind of concentrated vegetable stock, like the cubes we use for soups. Oatmeal – 3 or 4 tablespoons – used to thicken. Boil up all together to soften in a large pot, having covered the vegetables with water.
Six ounces of flour, one and a half ounces of butter, one and half ounces of lard, two ounces of raw potatoes, grated. This makes a top crust – no bottom crust is needed. Brush the surface with milk. Bake in a moderate oven (about 350 degrees F.) for half an hour.
(In Part III – We'll consider preserving, recycling and collecting, and another recipe)
Patricia Burns, Life on the Home Front: Montreal 1939-1945, Véhicule Press, Montreal, 2012.
Ian Mosby, Food on the Home Front during the Second World War