April 6 marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S.’s entry into World War I. Even though it was fought “over there” in Europe, the war had a profound effect on the daily lives of Americans, especially their diet. Our allies in France were starving, and our soldiers needed protein power. Instead of rationing on the home front, Herbert Hoover, then head of the Food Administration, tried a psychological approach, issuing posters and pamphlets that urged home chefs to use less meat. He was effectively guilt-tripping gluttonous Americans into lighter eating habits. As the Food and Victory (1918) cookbook put it, “The use of less meat in this country should not mean a hardship to our people. Indeed, most Americans have eaten too much of it.” Why not try mock oysters, i.e. boiled rice, turnip and nut balls, instead? Serve with catsup.
Hoover’s innovation—restored to public attention in 2003—was the notion of “Meatless Monday,” although, for whatever reason, they chose Tuesday to be America’s vegetarian day, alliteration be damned. The War Cook Book for American Women: Suggestions for Patriotic Service in the Home, issued in 1917 by the United States Food Administration, laid out the culinary commands: a minimum of two wheatless days (Monday and Wednesday); one meatless (Tuesday); and two porkless (Tuesday and Saturday). Further advice: “Give cottage cheese a fair trial.” For example, cottage cheese and peanut butter soup is tasty, according to Food and Victory.
To illustrate the importance of these conservation tactics, The War Cook Book even contained a pledge card for women to sign indicating that they would “carry out the directions and advice of the Food Administrator in my home.” (More than 13 million signed this pledge.) They were warned, “Disloyalty in little things gives aid to the enemy. Keep the Pledge.” And they were encouraged to spy on their neighbors, too. “Report to the nearest food administration officer the name and address of any person discouraging the production or saving of food.”
Enlisting women to serve their country (in the kitchen) prompted the publication of many wartime cookbooks with handy meat-alternative recipes. While cheese and vegetables were relatively easy swaps for American palates—though the cream of lima bean soup (from Liberty Cook Book, 1917) sounds less than appetizing—the cookbook authors had to get creative with beans, nuts, and fish. Which is how dishes like kidney bean roast, hot bean custard and scalloped beans got invited to the party. The bean roast (from Liberty) consists of parboiled beans that are grated and mixed with cheese and breadcrumbs and then formed into a non-meat loaf. The bean custard (from War-time Cookery, 1917) is an egg and bean pulp mixture that appears to be a meatball replacement, to be served with pasta and tomato sauce, if desired. A casserole of scalloped beans (from Food and Victory) is prepared with cooked, mashed beans topped with corn flakes and baked for 45 minutes, also (inexplicably) accompanied by tomato sauce.
Nuts, particularly peanuts, were a significant addition to the menu because of their low cost and high protein content. Many cookbooks from the time include at least one recipe for peanut loaf: War-time Cookery paired the peanut with the potato; add egg, milk and a tablespoon of seasoning, and voilà. Peanut butter, which had been introduced in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, also secured its place on American tables during World War I.
And while Americans have never favored fish over meat—we still eat less than recommended—Miss Edith Blackman of War-time Cookery advises, “By giving the matter earnest thought we may easily plan for… 14 meatless… meals each week and serve food which is attractive, palatable, and sufficient for the daily needs of the body.” Her best seafood suggestion: creamed fish, which is basically two cups of flaked fish and 1 cup of “white sauce,” combined with potatoes or rice and served on toast, ideally with two chopped hard-boiled eggs and parsley sprigs. Another entrée housewives might test: mackerel mousse (from Cook Book: Helpful Recipes for War Time, 1917), delightfully shaped via ring mold. And the Women’s City Club of Cincinnati offered a shellfish specialty called macaroni and oysters, which begs the question: Alexa, what’s a good substitute for oysters? (See paragraph 1 for the top-rated answer a century ago. Cheese might do in a pinch.)
Beyond Meatless Tuesday, Americans were also expected to cut back on wheat and sugar, triggering recipes for war bread using various combinations of cornmeal, oatmeal, barley and banana flour; Hoover cookies (Liberty) made of cereal and peanuts; and the dessert of nightmares, raisin pie (The War Cook Book).
Even though participation was compulsory, World War I-era Americans ate less meat, less wheat (gluten) and less sugar, dietary dictates that seem prescient today. The renovation of Meatless Monday into a global healthcare initiative evokes that history and reminds Americans that going vegetarian, if only for a day, isn’t all spinach loaf (Foods That Will Win the War, 1918) anymore.
Main photo by Photo by: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images. Lead photo by Swim Ink 2, LLC/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Rebecca Rego Barry is the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places. She has written about books and history for The Awl, Slate, and The Guardian.