Canadian Women, War, and Wheat Bread

By Sarah Cavanagh

Image courtesy of Archival & Special Collections, University of Guelph Library.

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]  

 

“Vision Your Sons, Mothers of Canada!”, The Grimsby Independent (19 September 1917): 7.

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. 

Image courtesy of Sarah Cavanagh

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] 

Image courtesy of Sarah Cavanagh

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. 

 

About 

Sarah Cavanagh is a senior History/Canadian Studies student at Brock University.

Burnt Toast, Medicine and Identity in (Early Modern?) England

by Giovanni Pozzetti

Last Monday the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK launched the ‘go for gold’ campaign to promote awareness in the kitchen when cooking foods at high temperatures. Results of a study conducted on mice showed how foods with a high content of acrylamide can be related to cancer. Acrylamide is a chemical that is generated in foods exposed for long time at high temperatures. However, acrylamide is also responsible for turning foods from their original colour to different shades of gold, brown, dark-brown and black. Hence the title of the FSA campaign – ‘go for gold’. The more overcooked a food is, the highest its acrylamide content. Two of the major ingredients at risk are bread and potatoes, mostly because they are particularly tasty when very well roasted, and because acrylamide is heavily present in starchy foods. Given the love that Brits have for these ingredients, the news was not well welcomed by the British public (see the comment section of this article).

800px-margarine-on-toast
Toast and margarine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Medical anxieties of overcooking bread, or food in general, were very common in the pre-modern period as well. Today’s ‘go for gold’ campaign attempts to establish a rule for cooking that is based on shadowy visual indications rather than on specific and replicable instructions, and this is not something new. In fact, what ‘gold’ means is quite blurry and remains very much open to interpretation. Surprisingly, the FSA did not provide any visual guide to follow in order to reach the healthiest cooking point. Acrylamide develops in foods heated to temperatures above 120 C°; however, these kinds of temperatures are not as easy to monitor at home as in professional kitchens. This week’s furor over burnt toast and the FSA’s attitude in offering medical advice to laymen has particularly interested me. As an early modern historian working on how medical knowledge and food consumption crossed paths in the household (England and Italy, 1500-1650), I engage a lot with health regimens and cookery books.

Health regimens were supposed to be manuals of good health for non-specialists and were written in vernacular. The authors wrote instructions that noticeably recall FSA’s ‘go for gold’. For example, in the Castel of Helth (1534), a best seller published at least 14 times between 1534 and 1610, Sir Thomas Elyot (1490? – 1546), diplomat and scholar, offered instructions to make the most ‘wholesome bread’. The dough had to rise sufficiently and it had to be ‘moderately baked’.[1] Clearly, Elyot knew nothing about acrylamide. He was much more worried about the humoral imbalance that either overcooked or undercooked bread brought to the body. Overcooked bread brought hotness, and would have dried up the body. Conversely, eating undercooked bread made the complexion of the person lean towards a cold and moist humoral (im)balance.

Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Sir Thomas Elyot by Holbein the Younger. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Galenic and Hippocratic corpus of medical knowledge, based on the humoral theory, was the pillar on which early modern medicine was based upon. The body was in good health when the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy) were balanced, defining so the four complexions of the body (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic respectively). The humors were constantly altered by food, where each ingredient was either cold or hot, and dry or moist. A different science from today altogether, but science nonetheless. Elyot and other early modern authors wrote different things for different reasons but their attitude towards cooking times and procedures is the same adopted by the FSA to engage with a public that knows more of bread and potatoes than medicine.

The ‘go for gold’ campaign made the news – it was even discussed  on Good Morning Britain and the NHS has endorsed the advice. The campaign has also triggered a powerful and intense public reaction. Many didn’t like it. On the website of The Telegraph newspaper, the comment section quickly filled up with bitter reactions and sceptical criticisms. Some questioned the scientific findings while others protested against conducting experiments on animals to reach a human-related conclusion. However, one of the most common arguments was that this scientific recommendation, along with this kind of scientific research, should not be taken too seriously because nothing bad ever came out of well roasted potatoes and dark-brown toasts. People felt offended – for lack of a better word – because someone told them to avoid a food and a specific cooking procedure that for Brits are vital and deeply embedded in their modern food traditions. However, both health regimens from the sixteenth century, which carried a tradition much older than them, and today’s medical advice on food share this dependence on the cook’s interpretation and, more important, personal will. Perhaps, the vagueness embedded in the need to simplify the scientific notion is the reason behind its rejection in the first place. It’s much easier to go for a dark brown, tasty and deliciously over-toasted slice of bread, and accepting the damage that this choice brings, rather than having to work out the perfectly healthy cooking point and leaving so taste and traditions behind.

[1] Thomas Elyot Sir, The Castel of Helth (London: Thomas Berthelet, 1539), fol. D5r.

***************************

Giovanni Pozzetti is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds (UK). His research looks at the reception and assimilation of Galenic medicine in the early modern household between Italy and England.