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Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

Food Will Win the War: A World War I Culinary Experiment

By the time the United States joined World War I in 1917, many were thinking ahead to the possibility of food shortages. In order to avoid mandating food rationing, the United States created a massive patriotic advertisement campaign urging individuals to substitute wheat, sugar, meat, and dairy so that these items could be sent to the troops on the front lines. Catchy headlines like “Save the Wheat, and Help the Fleet” were employed to persuade Americans to win the war by conserving much-needed food resources. It was considered to be part of your patriotic duty.

Thus, Americans buckled down and rationed food. Some of the more common substitutions included corn, rye, oats, and barley in lieu of wheat. For protein, they ate chicken, eggs, cottage cheese, fish, nuts, peas, and beans instead of bacon, beef, mutton, and pork. Table sugar, fats, and eggs were also restricted.

But, what did these modified dishes taste like? What were people on the home-front eating during a time of war?

To find out, Spencer Research Library staff organized a potluck to try some innovative recipes from World War I. Using the Kansas City Food Conservation Cookbook (RH C1550), published in 1918 with recipes pertaining to suggested food conservation and substitutions, we chose dishes to prepare for a party commemorating the centennial anniversary of World War I.

Lynn and Fisher researching in the reading room of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library

Above: Lynn (left) and Fisher (right) found a great resource for recipes
used on the home front during World War I. If you’re interested in exploring this book,
create an account or log into Aeon and request the item RH C1550.
The reference staff will retrieve it when you arrive at the reference room.)

What did we bring to the potluck?

We each picked recipes that: 1) we thought we could cook/bake, 2) the ingredients were readily available, and 3) we thought we would enjoy eating. On August 10, 2018, we gathered together in the Spencer Research Library breakroom to unveil our dishes.

Dishes made at potluck cooking with Kansas City Food Conservation Cookbook (RH C1550)

From bottom left corner in the image above, clockwise: Bran cookies by Stacey Wiens, Reference Specialist; fresh garden salsa salad by Meredith Huff, Operations Manager; carrot salad by Lynn Ward, Processing Archivist; aat crackers and goat cheese by Karen Cook, Special Collections Librarian; Spanish rice by Becky Schulte, University Archivist; cheese and rice croquettes by Letha Johnson, Assistant Archivist; popcorn balls by Elspeth Healey, Special Collections Librarian; oatmeal muffins by Marcella Huggard, Manuscripts Processing Coordinator; lentil casserole and cold turkey salad by Lynn Ward, Processing Archivist; lemonade by Fisher Adwell, Library Assistant.

Meredith Huff with her garden-made salsa

Meredith Huff made good use of fresh vegetables from her garden in a
delicious salsa that complemented several of the dishes.

WWI-style Bran Cookies with sign that reads "not very sweet"

Stacey Wiens had a warning sign with her bran cookies that read “not very sweet.”

bran cookies recipe from Kansas City Food Conservation Cookbook (RH C1550)

Marcella Huggard with her oatmeal muffins

Marcella Huggard added raisins to her muffins to make them just a little bit sweeter.
The recipe only calls for two tablespoons of sugar.

Oatmeal muffins recipe from Kansas City Food Conservation Cookbook (1918)

Letha Johnson (left) with her rice and cheese croquettes

Letha Johnson, left, discloses an unexpected ingredient in her
rice and cheese croquettes: peanut butter. Who could have guessed peanut butter
and cheese would be a winning combination?

Rice and cheese croquettes recipe from Kansas City Food Conservation Cookbook (1918)

Elspeth Healey with popcorn balls

Elspeth Healey’s popcorn balls were a sticky success.

Pop corn balls recipe from Kansas City Food Conservation Cookbook (1918)

Becky Schulte with Spanish rice

 Becky Schulte’s Spanish rice was filling, tasty, and nutritious.
She used half of the beef that the recipe called for, all in the spirit of rationing.

Spanish rice recipe from Kansas City Food Conservation Cookbook (1918)

Karen Severud Cook with her oat crackers with goat cheese

Karen Cook’s oat crackers paired nicely with goat cheese.
Her recipe was similar to the one in the book.

Oat crackers recipe from Kansas City Food Conservation Cookbook

Lynn Ward with WWI recipe book.

Lynn Ward made turkey salad, carrot salad, and lentil casserole out of a
book she had at home (Official Recipe Book… 1918).

How did it go?

The recipes all turned out with a high degree of success. Of course, we were particular about which recipes to try. Everyone strayed away from some of the more adventurous dishes, including ones that called for fresh pigeon or canned whale. Nor did anyone bring “chicken pudding,” a recipe that calls for putting the inferior parts of a bird through a meat chopper, adding an egg or gravy to bind it together, packing it into a greased pudding bowl, and then steaming it for one and a half hours.

 Chris Bañuelos examines WWI dishes

But still, we all enjoyed sampling the dishes. Chris Bañuelos, Audiovisual Preservation Specialist and pictured above, came to the potluck to try out the food. He remarked, “I was happily surprised at how tasty the dishes actually were. Even the bland ones helped me understand how folks did the best they could during war time.” All of our student workers were invited, and they gravitated toward the popcorn balls – which were a huge hit.

If you’re interested in doing a potluck of your own, here’s some recommendations to follow.

  1. Try finding a cookbook from 1918. Many cookbooks during this time were published to encourage individuals to conserve and substitute food for the war effort.
  2. Look for recipes published in newspapers from 1918. Newspapers were an important resource and recipes would often be cut out and pasted in scrapbooks or on cards for later use.
  3. Utilize some of your favorite modern recipes but modify them based on outlined food restrictions. For instance, cook with flours other than wheat, restrict meats like beef or pork, replace eggs with faux substitutes, and stick to alternative fats. The recipes may not have been used during the time period, but you’ll get an idea of how foods tasted during World War I.
  4. If you don’t feel like cooking or baking, you can always bring local fruits or vegetables from your own garden or purchased at the farmer’s market.

At the end of the day, experimenting with what people ate during World War I provided us with a greater understanding of the gastronomical difficulties of the time. Eating these restrictive foods and sharing stories also gave us a greater appreciation for the diversity of food available today. Although these may not be recipes we throw into our regular culinary rotation, it’s always fun to experiment and take risks in the kitchen.

Lynn Ward
Processing Archivist


Fisher Adwell
Library Assistant

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One Response to “Food Will Win the War: A World War I Culinary Experiment”

What a great idea. Exploring recipes from the past and trying them as a group is a great way to pay tribute to our forefathers.

Vicki Schoonover