Saturday, November 14, 2009

Rationing: The Not-So-Sweet Life?

Okay, there’s a little over a month to go until rationing begins and I’m still trying to figure out what, exactly, some of our food rations will be. You see, there were different kinds of rationing - certificate rationing, coupon rationing, point rationing, etc. , and availability of rationed goods varied depending upon seasonality/supply and point values (which fluctuated throughout the three-plus years of food rationing).

To simplify things for our rationing year there will be standardized, base point values for those items, such as meats, fats, and canned and frozen produce, that were regulated via point rationing. I’ll get more in to that and how we’ll be recreating periods of shortages and surpluses when I blog out the details of that type of rationing (yes, I’m totally stalling on that until I can get a chance to head over to KSHS and do a bit more research first).

This much I know: sugar was the first food to be rationed in the United States. In fact, there were shortages of sugar even before the U.S. entered the war due to difficulties in importing the sweet stuff through hostile oceans. The official U.S. sugar ration began in May of 1942 and allowed ½ pound of sugar per person per week, regardless of age. This is an example of uniform coupon rationing - everyone was assigned the same ration per period.

While a ½ pound per week may sound like an abundant share to us modernites (my family’s ration is 8 lbs per month! doesn‘t sound too bad, does it?) it’s important to remember that our easy outsourcing of prepackaged sweets (brownie and cake mixes, Little Debbie Snack Cakes, cookies in sterile plastic containers and mocha-latte-cappuccinos with whipped cream on top) were virtually non-existent for WWII households. Most sweets were home-baked and the typical 40’s housewife (or working mother) was judged not only on the quality of her sweet confections but on their quantity as well,. The cookie jar was a treasured staple of every middle-class kitchen.

Remember that ½ pound of sugar per week per person? That was a BIG deal on the home front. First, there wasn’t always a sufficient amount of sugar to meet rationed allowances. Second, the ration was half of what U.S. citizens were consuming pre-war. Half. Fifty percent. Civilian cooks scrambled to adapt recipes to use some of the non-rationed sweeteners including molasses, honey and maple syrup. Creative cooks developed recipes that used sweetened condensed milk, pudding mixes and sodas instead of large amounts of sugar- like this cola cake recipe here.

Sweet treats were still available from bakeries, which experienced only a seventy percent drop in sugar allowances as compared with their pre-war levels. In fact, the number of bakeries actually increased in 1943 and 1944. I’m sure generalized sugar scarcity, combined with a working woman’s busy schedule, helped support some of those upstarts.

So what does all of this mean to our family? Well, all this typing about brownies and cakes has made me hungry. But beside that, it means that during the rationing year we will not purchase any prepackaged convenience sweets. No cake or brownie mixes or cookies in colorful bags or boxes. No grocery store cupcakes for birthday parties or frozen pies for the holidays. No snack cakes (good-bye, Little Debbie, you've been a good friend). What baked sweets we have will be made from scratch and use our allotted sugar rations. I make a superb carrot cake and have been meaning to perfect my pie crust, so this won’t be all martyrdom. Also, candy production remained strong during the war so we won’t be robbed of all quick sweets - a rare candy bar or lollipop will be allowed (and hopefully prevent any cries of abuse from our girls).

One thing I would like to do is purchase most of our sugar rations using sustainably-grown sugar. For more information on the sustainable sugar initiative and the environmental impact of traditionally-grown (i.e. slash-and-burn with unfair labor practices) sugar, click here.

Honestly, I have to say that the sugar rationing aspect of the next year doesn’t seem that daunting to me. Of course, I’m not in the middle of a full-blown brownie craving, either. It will be interesting to see just how our family adapts to these new boundaries. We might just realize that our sweet tooth is bigger than we realized, or maybe we will loose our palate for highly-processed sweets. What I do know is that after typing this post I really need to go make brownies. Now.

--Rational Mama

P.S. Two great books that include handy information on sugar rationing during WWII are Grandma’s Wartime Kitchen: World War II and the Way We Cooked, by Joanne Lamb Hayes, and Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity by Amy Bentley


  1. We are not a rationing family, we are a voluntary simplicity family. This means we do not allow much of anything processed in our home, from cereal to sweets to bread to even laundry soap. I make it all. We have found that applesauce and honey sweeten almost better than sugar and usually provide a better texture as well.

    We are interested to read about your rationing year as my husband has considered rationing, but we have chosen a different approach. At some point (when our son is older) we might just combine them. Good luck with the adjustments and culture shock.

    Granola Girl

  2. as i read your words, i was thinking that it sounds easy since we don't buy hardly any processed prepackaged goodies (although our pantry has some items due to grandma)but i'm wondering if it really would be. of course, i fall quite short on keeping a cookie jar stocked or making desert for every meal-- that being said, maybe my first step (should i choose to accept this mission) would be this sugar rationing. it sounds like a neat challange. altough, i may just realize how NOT EASY this would actually be. we also like agave nectar, applesauce, honey and molasses as sweetners. you might just find some new recipes (and want to share them with me- tee-hee) and love them!!! wondering is it for brown sugar as well? and i know one thing i'd have a hard time living without is my to-go mochas/lattes, etc. thanks for the book recs-- i'm interested in this grandma's kitchen book. i've often said that i'd love for my kitchen to resemble my grandmothers from before the years she had children. of course the appliances would be cute and retro and all, but i'm speaking of her pantry, mainly! HA!
    can't wait to

  3. Granola Girl - Thanks for the comment. You've hit upon the total point of this experiment - folks can live a life of voluntary simplicity and still have a full, rewarding life. We already do similar activies to what you mention(we line dry our clothes even in winter, we make our own lotion, we can and freeze our garden harvest, etc.), but we still purchase (in my opinion) too many processed foods and really shouldn't be buying those bananas. ;) I decided to use the WWII rationing platform as a starting point - it was a period when Americans intensely shifted their purchasing habits because the cause was deemed worthy enough. There is so much talk today of our society needing real change, yet few are willing to actually make the change needed. Our experiment isn't perfect, but I hope it will inspire us (and maybe a few others) to reconsider how their daily choices can make big changes.

  4. Lara - We won't be able to use agave nectar during our rationing year, but I love it anyway! Yes, brown sugar was included in the sugar rationing allotment and was typically more available than the white sugar. As a result, many recipes were converted to use brown sugar instead. I have to say that, looking ahead at the next year, I am very thankful to not be a major sweet-coffee drinker. We drink very little caffeinated beverages at all so that will be one less shock to deal with! The book you mentioned is available for checkout at the public library here in town, the other I was able to get through interlibrary loan. Let me know if you start restricting your sugar usage - I'd be interested to hear how a household with more (and younger) children than mine handles that. And I will definitely pass along any worthy recipes!