World War II museum exhibit recalls food rationing

This gingerbread apple upside-down cake is made with World War II rationing-era ingredients. BY JACK CLEMONS
May 21, 2012

Next weekend, the Rehoboth Beach Museum will open a new exhibit highlighting the community’s experiences during World War II. Included among the photographs and artifacts are examples of ration books. For those of us who were born well after the end of that war, the idea of rationing food may be difficult to imagine.

Each member of the household was issued a set of booklets based on their age and any special needs. Booklets contained various stamps required to purchase specific foods, and merchants would post the number of stamps needed for each item. The first commodity to be rationed was sugar, followed by meat, cheese and fat.

While it seems logical to redirect the supplies of key foods to ensure soldiers were fed, the rationing of fats had a surprising role. Glycerin was processed from fats and used in the production of gunpowder, explosives and medical supplies. People were encouraged to return their used cooking fats to their local butcher in exchange for additional meat stamps.

Any foods that were supplied to the troops became unavailable on the home front - flour, sugar and coffee were rarely in stock. Word would spread quickly across town when bacon was on the grocer’s shelf. Poultry was in great demand for the soldiers, as chicken could be raised far more quickly than cattle. What remained were the most perishable items, such as fresh fish, locally grown produce and organ meats.

With necessities in short supply (not just food, but also gasoline, tires and shoes), local residents had to find creative ways to feed their families with limited ingredients. One resource that emerged was a wide range of wartime cookbooks offering recipes for meatless dishes, sugarless candies, and wheatless cakes and breads.

The focus of these recipes was substitution. Cookies, cakes and candies were sweetened with maple syrup, molasses or honey instead of sugar, as in the maple bonbons and strawberry water ice. Wheat flour was replaced by buckwheat, oat, barley or corn flour. Chicken and smoked meats were directed to the war effort, leaving dried beans and vegetables as the center of meatless meals.

One of the creative techniques to work around the shortage of fat and butter was to repurpose pan drippings. I was intrigued about using strained bacon fat to replace shortening in the spicy apple gingerbread cake shown in the photo. To the delight of my taste tester, the bold clove and ginger flavors masked any hint of smoky bacon. A combination of molasses, honey and a scant one-quarter cup of sugar provided a balanced sweetness. Sliced apples kept the texture moist.

Of course, any discussion of signature foods from World War II would not be complete without mention of Spam. Hormel’s famous canned meat product is named for the ingredients: spiced ham made from a mixture of pork shoulder, ham and seasonings. Originally developed in 1937, Spam became a staple for soldiers during World War II. The mixture is cooked in the can, which creates a layer of aspic as it cools. I’ve included a recipe for Spam hash, which is far more appetizing than some of the other recipes from the era.

As part of the Rehoboth Beach Museum’s upcoming exhibit, there will be a series of lectures on the World War II experience and a fundraising dinner showcasing recipes from the 1940s. For more information, go to

Maple Bonbons
1 qt maple syrup
1 C pecan halves

Bring the syrup to a boil in a saucepan over medium. Remove from heat when candy thermometer reaches 234 F. Stir continuously until creamy. Drop spoonfuls onto a sheet of waxed paper. Press a pecan half onto the top and allow to cool.

Strawberry Ice
2 C honey
1 1/2 qt water
1/2 t cream of tartar
1 lb strawberries, mashed
juice of one lemon

Combine honey, water and cream of tartar in a saucepan. Cook until mixture reaches 220 F on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Stir in strawberries and lemon juice. Spread mixture on a cookie sheet and place in freezer (or freeze and swirl in an ice cream maker).

3 apples
1 1/2 C flour
1/4 C sugar
2 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 t ground ginger
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t ground cloves
1/4 t nutmeg
1 egg
1/2 C milk
1/4 C honey
1/4 C molasses
1/4 C strained bacon drippings

Preheat oven to 325 F. Pare, core and slice the apples. Arrange the slices in a single layer on the bottom of an 8-inch baking pan (round or square); set aside. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the egg, milk, honey, molasses and bacon drippings. Stir in dry ingredients, just until combined. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 35 minutes. Cool and slice.

Spam Hash
12-oz can Spam
2 diced potatoes
1 diced onion
black pepper, to taste

Scrape the aspic off the top of the Spam into a nonstick skillet. Add the potatoes and cook over medium low until they begin to soften. Add the onions and continue cooking until the onions are light golden. Dice the Spam and add to the skillet; continue to cook until the meat starts to crisp. Season to taste.

Tomato & Pea Soup
1/2 lb dried yellow peas
1 lb tomatoes
1 chopped onion
2 chopped celery tops
2 C water
salt & pepper, to taste
Sherry (optional)

Soak the peas overnight in water; drain. Combine peas in a saucepan with tomatoes, celery and water. Simmer until peas are tender.

Puree mixture through a food mill. Season to taste with salt and pepper. To serve, ladle into bowls and drizzle with a teaspoon of sherry (if desired).