food · food history · nonfiction

Better Than Homemade- Carolyn Wyman

Food history! The history of food has always fascinated me. Books on cooking trends, food usage and availability, food justice, wartime rationing, and other food-related topics are absolutely my jam (hehehe. Jam. Get it?). And while I’m not exactly a foodie, I’m far from a ‘Break out the processed foods, guys!’ kind of gal. I cook probably about 90% of what we eat from scratch (right down to bread, yogurt, jam/preserves, veggie burgers, etc). I haven’t yet mastered tortillas and my granola bars have been crumbly in the past, but I’m comfortable in the kitchen and love trying new things. That said, Better Than Homemade: Amazing Foods That Changed the Way We Eat by Carolyn Wyman (Quirk Books, 2014) absolutely belonged on my TBR list, because, well, FOOD.

The second World War changed so much all over the world, and American food culture wasn’t exempt from these shifts. Food preservation technology had advanced, thanks to the need to store and ship food to the troops overseas, and the food industry poured a lot of effort into making the American public more comfortable with processed foods in an attempt to unload their leftover stock (and increase profits, of course). Processed foods were celebrated as time savers, as healthier alternatives to fresh (yes, really! Why have the vitamins that are actually in a certain food when you can strip them all out, then spray on a synthetic version? Looking at you, white bread…), and as technological breakthroughs for the modern home. Better Than Homemade brings this era to life in an examination of beloved (mostly) American products that revolutionized- and not necessarily a good way!- the way we eat.

Warning: you may see large portions of your childhood displayed in these colorful pages. Cheez-Whiz, spray cheese, Velveeta, Kool-Aid, snack cakes, the history of all these products and evolution of American food culture are laid out in this easy and fun-to-read book. It’s nostalgia between two covers, although you might be squinting at some of the products in a queasy haze, thankful that your tastes have grown and expanded.

I really enjoyed reading the brief histories of the companies who made some of my favorite childhood foods and viewing the different product packaging (it was kind of neat to recognize the labels and packages from my childhood on the pages that featured a lineup of product packaging). I don’t use many of these products any more- I do keep potato flakes around for a certain bread recipe; I keep a tube of refrigerated biscuits in the fridge for breakfast sandwiches; I do use cooking spray, occasionally I’ll spring for some Aldi-brand Tater Tots, and I still have some seriously ancient boxes of Jell-o in the pantry- but I ate Hamburger Helper, canned pasta in various forms, boxed macaroni and cheese, and crescent rolls as a kid, and my mother still uses Minute Rice, so reading through this book was a food-related stroll back through my younger days, days with far less concern for my own nutrition.

The funniest part of this book was turning the page, seeing a product I hadn’t thought about in years, and then having the television jingle from a commercial the company put out in 1987 run through my head. Like, SERIOUSLY, brain? There isn’t any better use for the brain cells storing that song??? This is why I did so badly in high school chemistry, you guys; my brain is too busy keeping a death grip on the Carnation Instant Breakfast jingle from when I was nine years old, and the rest of me is over here wondering what it was I came into the kitchen for…

If you’re interested in the intersection of food history and pop culture, or you’re my age (39 today!) or older and feel like revisiting the foods you ate growing up, a serving of Better Than Homemade just might hit the spot. 😉

Visit Carolyn Wyman’s website here.

food history · nonfiction

Ration Book Cookery- Gill Corbishley

I’d first learned of wartime rationing when I was young from books like Back Home by Michelle Magorian and Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn, so the concept wasn’t new to me, but Ration Book Cookery by Gill Corbishley gave me a new perspective on it and opened up a door to some serious questions.

This is a small book (see the pen I included in the photo for comparison). It appears to be part of a set of books on food history. It came to me via interlibrary loan and I’m bummed that my home library doesn’t have the complete set, as I would absolutely read the entire thing- the sociopolitical history of food is something that fascinates me. Even though I took two pages of notes, I blew through this tiny book in less than an hour and it left me wanting more- not due to any shortcomings, but simply because the book itself was so short and the subject matter is so interesting.

So, back during World War II, the troops had to be fed and fed well in order to keep up their strength to fight against the Axis powers. This meant sacrifice for the homefront, and those people played their own part in the war effort, changing their diets, growing victory gardens, and making do with what little their ration coupon books offered. Now, while Americans rationed as well, the rationing was much stricter in Britain. ‘What exactly was rationed?’ you’re wondering. Here’s a list:

  • bacon
  • ham
  • sugar
  • butter
  • meat
  • tea
  • margarine
  • cooking fats
  • cheese
  • jam
  • marmalade
  • treacle
  • syrup
  • eggs
  • milk
  • sweets
  • bread
Even fuel was rationed; people were asked to cook in homemade hayboxes (they could be made out of the box your gas mask came in!). Why cook stewed dried fruit for two or three minutes on the stovetop when you could have the same results cooking it in a haybox for…three and a half hours??? Never mind that. It’s for the war effort, ladies! 
The book does contain recipes as examples of what women (because it was mostly women) cooked; I copied down the recipe for Mock Goose, made out of red lentils, onion, and breadcrumbs, as well as a recipe for Eggless Mayonnaise, made out of a baked potato, mustard, salt, vinegar, and salad oil. There are some other interesting recipes, such as a mock marzipan made from white beans and ground rice, and some more questionable-looking recipes, such as Eggless Pancakes made from flour, a pinch of sugar and salt, and an unspecified amount of milk and water; a cake made with mashed potatoes; and mashed parsnips with banana flavoring as a substitute for actual banana, which was in scarce supply. Hard pass for me on that last one.
I learned a lot from this small book. Rationing started in Britain in January of 1940; it didn’t actually end until June of 1954. That’s a long time to modify one’s diet. It did help improve Britain’s health overall, though; before the war, half of Britain suffered from some sort of malnutrition, but with the aid of all that victory garden produce, the cod liver oil (and later orange juice) distributed with the rations, and the cooking suggestions offered by the government in their ‘Rations aid the war effort!’ campaign, malnutrition became less pronounced in the population. The book also contains many examples of government-created posters designed to buoy enthusiasm and support for rationing; they’re actually kind of cute and add a little flavor of history to the pages.
Ration Book Cookery got me thinking this morning. How would we respond to rationing today? I’m coming at this from an American perspective, and I don’t think that it would go over very well here, to be honest. Having worked retail (and having seen far too many arguments go down on social media), consumers here are deeply entitled to what they think they’re owed merely by stepping into a store. If the stores were suddenly empty of Oreos, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and pork rinds (not to mention most other daily staples), and those same customers were instead told to plant a garden, were only allowed a certain amount of meat per month, and were told to make mayonnaise out of potatoes…These are the same people who will gladly trample their fellow human beings to death the day after Thanksgiving over some sort of gadget that the receiver will most likely lose interest in within several weeks, if not sooner. Asking them to give up their normal way of eating for an indeterminable amount of time for something that doesn’t directly affect them? Heck, we can’t even get people to protect their children from deadly diseases for the greater good, as a friend of mine pointed out. I think there’d be at least a few riots, possibly a lot, depending on which political party made the decision to ration. And it saddens me that this is the conclusion I’ve reached.

(Me? I’d be mostly okay. I’m vegetarian; a large amount of what I eat is vegan, so I’d be cool with the lack of animal products. I’m a pretty creative cook and am well-versed in making do with what I have on hand. I’ve made desserts out of multiple kinds of beans; I know many ways to substitute for eggs in baking; I’m happy to garden, although I’d need some help, because summer is typically a nasty time for my back to flare up. And I’m happy to sacrifice for a cause greater than myself. But the people who insist that it’s not a meal without meat? There’d be a huge learning curve for them, and probably not a small amount of complaining. Bread and sugar would be a tougher one for me, but when duty calls…)

What are your thoughts? Could Americans (or people from your country, if you’re from elsewhere) handle WWII-style rationing today? Could you? And do you think it would be implemented the same way? Obviously there would be medical exemptions for people with dietary health concerns (nothing high carb for diabetics, no rations of peanut-based products for those allergic, etc), but could we trust that the rations would be handed out fairly and not in a biased manner? I feel as though some factions would call for something like a zip code-based rationing system, with more resources going to those in wealthier areas (look at the inequality of the school system in the US), but I hope I’d be proven wrong about that. What do you think?