Monday, April 11, 2016

The Gift of Frugality

The 1940s isn't my favourite, historically speaking, or fashion-wise. My friend Sarah loves and appreciates it much more than I do. What's more, she is quite an expert on the history from that era. When I visited her this past October, we looked through a lot of her 1940s magazines. I had to admit that I was really impressed. Not necessarily by the clothes (though there was a white & green seersucker dress with a green linen jacket that was lovely!), but by the attitude in the magazines. There were articles, tips, and even advertisements urging the average American to conserve, well, practically everything. Not only in food rationing, but in every aspect of life. I think we could learn quite a few lessons from that attitude. 

Instead of my ramblings, I asked Sarah if she would do a guest post for me on this subject. Have a look at her blog, HISTORY: Preserved, which is fascinating and informative. If you're inspired by the idea of rationing, I'd especially recommend her blog, as last year she made a ration recipe every week of the year! She has also recently published a novel - The War Between Us set during WWII which is not only well written, but painstakingly researched. 

Without further ado, here is Sarah's post: 

Some good rules for your veg!

In the summer of 2006, my husband and I lived in Provo, UT while I finished my associates degree at UVSC. I took the bus to classes, and as happens on repetitive bus trips back and forth, I stared out the window the entire time.

One thing I came to notice was this small, spectacularly well-kept lawn gracing the front of a little cottage of a house. It seemed that not one blade of grass was out of place, not one weed dared show its ragged face. Manicured was the perfect word for it. I admired it so much, that I started looking out for it on every bus trip. Then one morning I caught sight of its care-taker: an old, white-haired woman in a house dress. I got to see her several times, and every time she was out there with a tiny pair of scissors, bending over and clipping stray blades of grass. It seemed a morning ritual for her, and I rejoiced every time I was lucky enough to spy her on my trip to school. I admired this woman and her comforting dedication. It was obvious that it brought her great joy and satisfaction in her care of her yard, though I wonder if she knew how much joy it brought other people, passerby like me.

When I think of that great generation that came out of the 1930s and 40s, I think of this woman as a great symbol of that time. She represents hard work, dedication, frugality, and persistence. A good case study of these traits, especially frugality, can be found in American and British food rationing during WWII.

In 2014, I embarked on a year-long project of cooking my way through 1940s wartime rationing recipes. I made one a week, mostly American, but some British. It was an eye-opening experience, but the biggest thing I took away from my year of ration cooking was the incredibly clever way they approached their shortages while maintaining high levels of nutrition.

I suppose we really shouldn’t be surprised by how good they were at “making do” without. Most homemakers were seasoned veterans of the Great Depression, and while I’m sure no one looked forward to rationing, the previous decade of recipe revision and recipe creation for hard times came in handy!

Here are a few ways frugality was put to use during wartime:

  1. Use every scrap  
Wasting food was considered unpatriotic, so there were many interesting ways devised to make leftovers stretch, to use every last bit of food. Wartime and the Depression are where eating everything on your plate was established firmly in our culture. You, yourself, may have memories of not being able to leave the table until everything on your plate was gone.
One example of using every scrap was reusing leftovers and disguising them as something else by simply adding breadcrumbs or mixing it with one or two other ingredients to remake it into something “new” for dinner. Another example was to reuse stale cake, by turning it into crumbs and remaking it into another dessert. I think this is quite clever! We usually only think of reusing stale bread for crumbs or croutons. Another frugal/nutritional tip was to use the syrups from canned fruits as a sweetener and the cooking water for vegetables in other things like soups and stews.
One important part of using every scrap in wartime was rendering your own fats, to clean and reuse them until they were no longer fit for use in cooking. Then they sent it off to be used for munitions where they would make use of the glycerin in the fat.

  1. Doing without, yet still making it great  
One thing I loved to look for in these recipes was how they got around making things without common staples like fat, eggs, and fresh milk. These recipes are still useful today for people who are allergic to eggs or dairy, who are sensitive to sugar, or just want a lower fat diet. I made one recipe for Eggless Lemon Curd and found it quite tasty! The richness from the egg was missing, but it still made a very delicious spread that made it a nice replacement for the real thing.  

  1. Nutrition despite economizing
Due to the lack of meat available during the war, organ meat was emphasized for its nutrition - and because it wasn’t rationed. Nutrition in general was very strongly emphasized during the war because a healthy nation meant healthy workers and less time off for sick days. There are hundreds of pamphlets and articles dedicated to educating the public about how to maintain nutrition during wartime. Among these was how to properly care for foods and how to prepare vegetables. Cutting of vegetables was reserved to right before serving, as they believed that cutting and exposure to oxygen destroyed the valuable vitamins. So, no “cutting a week’s worth of veggies to simplify for later” like today’s mentality.

  1. How America Lives
Some of the best lessons I learned about frugality and hard work came from reading this book, How American Lives. Published in 1940 by Ladies Home Journal,, it chronicles the lives of American families from across the country of different socioeconomic backgrounds to get as true a picture of American lives as possible. They talk about their daily lives, what they do for fun, the jobs where they work, and how they make do. There’s even the family’s budget at the end of each chapter. None of the families did for compensation, though they were given “a makeover” from each department from Ladies Home Journal - household, fashion, etc. They participated to show the way they lived and it is a truly revealing snapshot of that time.  

In the end, the frugal kind of mentality isn’t something that is born in us, it’s something achieved through effort. I think many people admire the frugal and hard work of former generations and long for something like it in our culture today. There is no secret in how to achieve it, though. No “magic pill” or “get it quick” solution. The answer has always been there. I think back to that old woman, so careful in her ritual. Her yard spoke for her in its immaculate beauty achieved one morning at a time. Good things come to those who wait - and those who work.


  1. Thanks for inviting me to post, Mairi! :-)

  2. Neat!! I put your book on my wishlist, and am inspired by the weekly rations recipes!!

    1. Thank you! Those ration recipes are fun. I hope you'll try a few! I've been posting some new ones too as I try them under "Ration Recipes Directory". :-)

  3. Hello Mairi! I hope you don't mind but my cousin Heather Mills who you are friends with sent me your blog and I just wanted to say how really good they are. They are really interesting. I find history really interesting myself and love to visit country houses, castles and museums. I wondered as I have done some websites whether you might kindly take a look at them and tell me what you think?

    Kind Regards,

    Rachel Kennedy