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