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21 February, 2010

RATIONING STORY BEHIND MY FAVORITE PEANUT, RAISIN COOKIES OF THE 1940s

I have a craving today for some good old "peanut, raisin cookies".  I've had the same craving on and off for 70 years.

The recipe for my all-time favorite cookie came originally from my Grandmother Louise Wright but it was my mother Grace who introduced me to it, probably for the first time in 1938 or '39.  The chewy little delight was always part of our annual Christmas dessert fare and rarely made any other time of year.  I, however, make them whenever the craving strikes me -- like today.  The recipe, in my mother's handwriting, is shown above but I will repeat it for clarity at the conclusion of this post.  First, a little background.

Peanut, raisin cookies and my number two childhood favorite, Apple Brown Betty, were popular in the 1940s because the ingredients were readily available during the World War II rationing period.  The cookies called for sweetened condensed milk, peanut butter, raisins, shredded coconut and puffed wheat while Apple Brown Betty consisted primarily of apples and bread crumbs.  There was no sugar in these recipes, the condensed milk providing all the sweetener necessary.  Sadly, even condensed milk was eventually rationed.

It will be difficult for the current generation to grasp the severity of shortages of food and fuel leading to rationing of some very basic needs in our country at the outbreak of World War II.  Priority was given to the importance of essential nutrition and other supplies of battle for our troops overseas.  Compounding the problem for Canada was the fact that many merchant ships that would normally bring food (sugar, coffee, tea, meat) to our shores, were being torpedoed and destroyed by enemy submarines.  It is said that more than 500,000 tons of food were lost in the Atlantic alone.

Canada instituted the food rationing program in January of 1942.  Applications were filled out and war ration  books were mailed to householders with stamps and coupons for specific allotments. Trading, sharing or selling the stamps was illegal.

Rationing was also a method of assuring that no one person would have more on their plate than their neighbor or the soldier at the front.  Sugar was the first item on the ration list introduced in 1942, each person allowed 12 ounces per week and later eight ounces.  Sugar of course, was used in the manufacture of shells and bombs, making it vital to the war effort.  

Butter was soon added to the list of rationed foods with a limit of a mere 1/2 pound per person.  Molasses, apple and honey butters, maple syrup and canned fruit and vegetables followed.  In 1944 goodies such as cheese and pie fillings were also rationed.  Beer coupons were added to the rations roster and alcohol in general was scarce and highly-priced.

Gasoline was the first non-food item to be rationed.  A limit of five gallons a week was imposed on Canadian motorists.  My father's business was located in Chatham at that time and we lived in Dresden, 18 miles away, meaning that he could come home only once a week on Saturdays after work.  He slept on a couch in his shop during the week, as did a number of other business people and factory workers.  Tires could not be purchased unless there was proof that driving was an essential activity.

Seamed silk stockings for women of fashion were very popular in the 20s and 30s.  Parachutes were also made of silk and when supplies ran out, resourceful women created the illusion of seamed stockings by lining the back of their bare legs with eyebrow pencil.

There was also a great requirement for tin in war production.  Canning factories were the first to feel the pinch as their supply of cans was severely rationed.  As a result, canned fruit and vegetables were in short supply.

Canadians were urged to grow Victory Gardens as a source of food for families.  We were fortunate to have a variety of fruit trees on our Sydenham Street property in Dresden (apple, peach, quince, plum, mulberry) and a large garden plot where we grew enough corn, potatoes, beans, carrots and tomatoes to last through the winter.  We even had rhubarb, raspberries and walnut and butternut trees.  Fruits and vegetables were preserved or "canned" in mason jars and shelves in our cold cellar lined the walls top to bottom.  Potatoes and carrots were stored in large bins. Many families were not so lucky.

The government urged consumers to "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" and Canadians did all four.  Housewives were very resourceful and creative in providing for their families and in managing ration coupons with their weekly limits. Rationing rules were strict and prices were fixed, making it extremely difficult for small merchants to remain in business.

It should be stressed that Canada was a small nation at the time with a population of only 11.5 million in 1942, more like a very large family.  Eleven million copies of the coupons books were printed in three phases and rationing continued for a period after the war in order to provide for the emergency needs of war-torn countries overseas.  

So there  is a lot of history, emotion and memories associated with the little peanut, raisin cookies of my youth, all of which come flooding back with each bite that I take today -- memories of family Christmases and friends dropping in for tea, of air raid drills and sending loved ones off to war, perhaps never to see them again.  Memories too, of Canadians doing their best to contribute to their country's war effort, learning to make do with less. 

Now that you know my story, why not whip up a batch of my favorite cookies in honor of a period in history that is fast-fading from public memory.  You'll be pleasantly surprised at how wonderful they really are, maybe even just a little bit unusual by today's standards.

Here's the recipe:

1 1/3 cups of sweetened condensed milk (I use Eagle Brand)
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cups seedless raisins
1/2 cup shredded coconut
2 1/2 cups puffed wheat.
(Makes 24 medium-sized cookies)

Blend condensed milk and peanut butter well.  Add raisins and coconut, then puffed wheat. (Don't be alarmed at the stiffness, or stickiness of the mix).  Drop from a wet spoon and bake on a cookie tray in a moderate 350-degree oven for approximately 12 minutes.  Keep a close eye on the cookies and remove from oven as soon as they begin to turn brown.  Do not overcook.  Store in a cookie tin for a few days before eating.  They get better with age.

Bet you won't be able to eat just one!
Page of coupon stamps from Canadian war time ration book, 1942, and user responsibilities agreement guidelines attached.  The stamps were redeemed for food and other rationed supplies.

1 comment:

Martin said...

Interesting post there Dick. It's strange to imagine food being rationed like that but my Grandparents said that everyone accepted it and didn't moan about it and just got on doing the best they can. Here in the UK it was also believed that rationing was introduced to improve dietary habits, and therefore improve health amongst the population.

How did your Dad feel about staying at work during the week then ?

And that picture of the cookies has made me peckish but we have no Peanut Butter in the cupboard. Maybe I'll rustle some up this weekend. I could pick up all those ingredients within 10 minutes of leaving the house, with no rationing ! We don't know how lucky we are at times.