Food Fights for Freedom

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We found a delicious looking bean dish in the New York Times and decided to try it out today. It called for white beans and when JB brought up the glass container the beans are in, he said, “Hey, remember this jar?”

When we first moved into our house almost 25 years ago, the only remnants from previous owners was in the larder in the basement, some old glass jars which we have used to store our grains, legumes, and dried fruit. On the top of one of the jars was the label “Food Fights for Freedom.” We knew it had to do with rationing during World War II. The writing on the label is too difficult to decipher. JB thinks it used to hold coffee.

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Food rationing began in 1942 to conserve supplies for the troops abroad and to support the war effort. Everything was rationed– meat, coffee, sugar, butter and fats, even fuel and silk. People grew Victory Gardens (for which people could even rent small plots on undeveloped fields) and donated metal in junk drives. Ration books were distributed which strictly controlled what people could buy. The rationale was to make sure that the top 1-10% would not over consume and use an unfair advantage to purchase more than their fair share. Yes, even Republicans supported rationing to make sure that everyone had enough to eat and that all, even the wealthiest, had to sacrifice a little so that all could thrive (and no one thought this was a socialist thing to do). It was unpatriotic to do anything less.

The advertisement and propaganda generated was nested in this patriotism. The government and corporations bombarded the public with a flurry of information, cookbooks, encouragement, and jingoism. My mother remembers plays that were put on in her high school where she and her twin were the main characters and once recited a poem they wrote called “Victory Gardens.” “Victory Gardens/ There’s our cry/ You can make one/ If you try.” She couldn’t recall the rest of the poem but knew it went through lots of different vegetables and it was silly and fun, very nationalistic  and very well-received.

My mother also remembered working as a cashier in Bellman’s grocery store at the corner of Franklin and Adams in Toledo, Ohio, where she had to deal with the complicated system of ration stamps every day. She said that even if you ran out of stamps, people always found ways to get food, that there were lots of ways to trade for stamps with neighbors, family, and friends. She said there seemed to be a real communal effort around working together as community to support the troops abroad, that forfeiting a bit made everyone feel a part of the war effort.

My mother thought that actually the “war diet” was pretty healthy. The amount of meat that people could buy was much reduced and normal meat dishes were stretched with grains like oats. Lots of local vegetables were consumed, grown in neighbors’ or friends’ yards and these same vegetables were canned for consumption in the winter. Wasting food was frowned upon and leftovers were never thrown away. At the very least they became compost for the garden when they started to go bad.  Jamie Oliver–chef, media personality, and restaurant owner— is encouraging people to go on this “war diet.”

As we sit down to savor this marvelous white bean stew, I’m thinking that “Food Fights for Freedom” has a very contemporary ring to it, that goes way beyond its original intention. Maintaining our present insatiable level of consumption has enormous political and environmental implications globally. We could all benefit from more personal sacrifice and trimming our appetites, a little more sharing and playing fair. Reducing our footprint on this earth has become the real war for this 21st century.

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