While rustic sourdoughs and fancy homemade bagels have filled Canadian kitchens during the pandemic, another way to pass the time (and give even the dodgiest sourdough boule a respectable look and taste by comparison) is to recreate the thrifty bread of wartime. Many of these feature in a 1917 Canadian collection of First World War recipes, Ethel Chapman’s War Breads: How the Housekeeper May Help to Save the Country’s Wheat Supply. This 16-page recipe pamphlet, jointly produced by the Ontario Department of Agriculture and the Women’s Institutes, instructed housewives to save wheat for soldiers and cook with alternate grains–corn, barley, oats, and rye–some of which carried the unfortunate stigma of being livestock feed.[i]
The War Breads publication flowed from the Canadian government’s decision to support Allied efforts overseas via a domestic food conservation policy in June 1917 that included domestic rationing and ensuring the continuous export of food to Britain. Subsequent propaganda campaigns targeting women were tinged with emotion, premised on patriotism and moral duty. Housewives were asked to symbolize their commitment to King and country by signing and displaying “Food Service Pledges” in their front windows. A September 1917 food pledge advertisement headlined “Vision Your Sons, Mothers of Canada!” urged women to think what would happen if one morning, there was no breakfast for the “valiant boys” and “word went down the line that Canada had failed them.” The solution, the ad reads, was for women to forgo white flour and vary their baking by using one-third oatmeal, corn, barley or rye flour.[ii] Meanwhile, an Ontario farmer took the unusual step of mailing his wife’s war bread by parcel post to the editor of The Toronto Daily Star to prove that less expensive oatmeal grain was not just delicious, but economical for the household and a service to the nation.[iii]
The pamphlet’s physical appearance matches the bread’s frugality, with few images, save three rather pathetic photographs of unappealing dark and deflated brown loaves on the title page. I opted to recreate a recipe for a steamed Boston Brown Bread, mainly because the cooking technique was unfamiliar to me. The recipe looked easy – a handful of ingredients like flour grains, cornmeal, baking soda, milk, molasses – and brief instructions; however, like many historical recipes, it contained tacit knowledge from the era, with puzzling terminology requiring substitutions and improvisations – some more successful than others.
One challenge was finding a mould for the bread. The recipe suggests using a one-pound baking powder can, a testament to the ubiquity of the beautifully decorated baking powder cans produced by American manufacturers like DeLand & Co. and the frugality of the housekeepers who saved the containers for alternate purposes.[iv] I opted for a modern-day metal coffee can. Graham flour proved difficult to find, and soured milk? I keep my milk in the fridge, so the addition of lemon juice turned my fresh milk into a lumpy substitute. Adding molasses to the flour/soda/milk mixture produced a gorgeous soft-brown coloured dough.
The recipe instructs placing the mould in a “kettle” of boiling water, allowing the water to rise halfway up, trapping the steam with a tight-fitting lid. How big is a kettle? The only kettle I have boils my morning tea, so I substituted a large steel pot; the coffee can sat just below the rim inside. As the water began to boil, the coffee can bobbed up and down like a sailboat in the Atlantic, knocking the lid off the pot. Precious steam exited like a genie out of a bottle. Eyeing the nearby closet, I grabbed a metal coat hanger to quickly secure the lid in place, bending the wire through both pot handles and across the top of the lid, which was (mostly) successful. After the suggested three-and-one-half-hours of steaming, I removed the can from the water, wrestling to free the bread from its mould, resorting to an inauthentic can opener to remove the can bottom. The bread itself was a rich rusty brown colour, exceedingly dense and moist. My husband, whose parents lived through the Depression and the Second World War, adored it. It reminded him of his mother’s cooking, proving the sensory power of food and its connection to memory. For me, the texture was coarse, and it lacked flavour. The experience of making the bread was more satisfying than the actual eating of it.[v]
This historical recipe highlights elements of wartime cooking: uncomplicated, practical, frugal. The bread preserved well on the counter for five days, a tribute to the power of the working-class staple, molasses. The four-hour time commitment illustrates domestic structures which bound women to their home. And while there was friction between urban and rural women about who was making the greater sacrifice, government-mandated food substitution was generally embraced by Canadian housewives. Interestingly, Chapman later wrote that a promise made by the government Food Controller to remove “the thing that troubled most women” was the key to securing their cooperation. The quid-pro-quo? A government Order-in-Council banning the use of grain of any kind for the distillation of potable liquors.[vi] Temperance and patriotism, it seems, went hand-in-hand. Alas, little chance of washing that coarse brown bread down with a shot of whiskey.
[i] Ethel M. Chapman, War Breads: How the Housekeeper May Help to Save the Country’s Wheat Supply (Ontario Department of Agriculture: Women’s Institute Branch, 1917).
[ii] “Vision Your Sons, Mothers of Canada!”, The Grimsby Independent (19 September 1917): 7.
[iii] “Maist Economical Is Oatmeal Bread: Another Experiment in Wheat Substitutes Which May Be Tried on Hubby,” Toronto Daily Star (30 July 1917): 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
[iv] Advertisement for DeLand & Co’s Chemical Baking Powder, Wikimedia Commons.
[v] Diane Tye, “‘A Poor Man’s Meal,’” Food, Culture & Society 11, no. 3 (1 September 2008): 344.
[vi] Ethel M. Chapman, “Voluntary Rationing at Home,” Maclean’s Magazine (1 January 1918): 42-43, 62-63.
Sarah Cavanagh is a senior History/Canadian Studies student at Brock University.