It started with the Great War Food Symposium at the Fort York National Historic Site in 2014. A day of lectures, displays, demonstrations and tastings. The symposium evolved into Recipes for Victory: Great War Food from the Front and Kitchens Back Home in Canada – a delectable combination of essays, recipes, photos and illustrations that let you experience the war through your eyes and your tastebuds.
The essays explore the politics of food supply during the war, in Canada and on the front. Canadians were entreated to use less of some foods – meat, flour, butter and eggs, for example – so they could be exported for the troops and allied civilians in Britain. There was a tension between the need for farm workers and the need for cannon fodder. Farm and food production fell during the war, as many men who normally worked in agriculture and food processing enlisted. Government programs promoted home gardening and preserving, enabled cultivation of vacant land, and recruited women as farmerettes in the Farm Service Corps.
Gunner William J Johnston’s notebooks – a chance find – offer rare insights into the life of an army cook and military cooking at the front. Johnson, a bank clerk, enlisted in 1916. He was assigned to brief training as a cook, ultimately serving in France. The military cookbooks listed the ingredients needed for a day. In the notebooks, Johnston handwrote the recipes and annotated the lessons with sketches of tools and techniques. Canadian Stew is more like a layered casserole of bacon, beans, onions, syrup (!), mustard, herbs and pepper.
The recipes are organized in three categories: food to feed the troops in the trenches, gifts sent from home to those serving overseas, and Canadian meals adapted for war rationing. Original recipes are accompanied by their modern equivalent, tested by the volunteer historic cooks at Fort York. A good companion, so you don’t have to figure out:
- how much is a gill, a small teacupful, or butter the size of an egg
- whether ounces refer to weight or volume
- what is the temperature of a quick oven or a slow one
- how to divide a recipe to feed 100 men so you don’t eat a month of leftovers.
It was a time when some Canadian standards were being developed: butter tarts, anyone? Yum! Other recipes seem odd by today’s standards: why would you bake rice pudding in a puff pastry? Devilled eggs are made with butter instead of mayo, to save eggs.
Some original recipes assume sophisticated kitchen knowledge on the part of the cook: Pumpkin Pie – Make a crust, put in filling, and cook in the oven until done.
Of course, I tried a couple of the recipes.
Canadian War Cake – also known as Boiled Raisin Cake or Trench Cake – is a firm, fruity loaf cake that would travel well. The war adaptation: no eggs and only two tablespoons of fat. Tasty!
Spice Gems – so called for the muffin-like gem pans in which they were baked – are like a moist gingerbread cake. They were very popular in my household. I suspect that was due to the amount of butter in the recipe, more than the usual heart-healthy treats from my kitchen.
The recipe for Canadian War Cake is in this 2014 Postmedia story about the symposium.* Note: the recipe in the book increases the raisins to three cups.
*A taste of the familiar in First World War-era foods, by Laura Brehaut, Postmedia News, published 12 June 2014. Recipes for Victory is edited by Elizabeth Baird and Bridget Wranich, with essays by Wayne Reeves, Kevin Hebib and David Webb.