By Magpie Group
What were people in Canada eating 50 or even 70 years ago and why? This article is part of a series on Canadian society and food from the 1940s to the 1980s.
The 1940s: The Impact of WWII and Post-War Recovery
From 1939 to 1945, Canada, like many other Commonwealth countries, joined Britain to fight in the Second World War, the largest and deadliest conflict in human history. The war involved more than 50 nations and was fought on land, on the sea and in the air.
It was a very trying time for Canadians who lost loved ones, the vast majority of which were young men and women with their entire lives in front of them. More than 42,000 men and women of Canada’s armed forces died in the war.1 Many more were wounded or taken prisoner.
However, amidst the adversity, a remarkable evolution was underway.
During this time, the role of women in Canadian society changed dramatically. With men being sent overseas to fight, women were hired for jobs that had once been filled by men – in factories, on airfields and on farms. Out of a total Canadian population of 11 million people, only about 600,000 Canadian women held permanent jobs when the war started. During the war, their numbers doubled to 1,200,000.2
Women’s role in Canadian society had changed significantly. They had new independence and a sense of purpose.
Food as a symbol of freedom
Canadians on the home front rallied for the war effort. “Back them up to bring them back” was the goal, and food was often seen as the means.
In “Food for Freedom” campaigns, Canadians packed thousands of overseas parcels for soldiers and collected tons of food for Britain, which suffered extensive bombing during the war. During the first two years of war alone, Canada shipped millions of bushels of wheat and flour to the UK, along with more than one and a half billion pounds of food: pork, apples, cheese, evaporated milk, eggs, canned tomatoes, honey and beans.3
At home, however, the pickings were pretty slim. All that food going overseas meant there wasn’t much available in the Canadian pantry. Food rationing, introduced in 1942, had home cooks adapting recipes to stretch their allotments of sugar, butter, coffee, tea and meat, as well as many other ingredients in short supply. Fats were diverted into making bombs instead of cakes, and metals into tanks instead of cookstoves. Improvisation was essential, with women baking “eggless, butter-less, sugar-less” treats. It was a time of “making do without.”
Fats were diverted into making bombs instead of cakes, and metals into tanks instead of cookstoves. Improvisation was ingenious, with women baking “eggless, butter-less, sugar-less” treats. It was a time of “making do without.”
Moms who went to work in armament and munition plants began to simplify their cooking to make easier, faster meals. With men stationed nearby or on their way to new postings, or with evacuees from Britain, they often had extra mouths to feed. “Oven meals” (main course, side dish and dessert all in the oven at the same time) were encouraged to save time and fuel to support the war effort.
Production of homegrown food was enthusiastically promoted. “Victory gardens” appeared on vacant lots and on street corners. Everyone was encouraged to preserve and pickle as much as possible, and extra ration coupons were allowed for sugar for jam-making.
The 1940s kitchen and cuisine
A 1940s kitchen was primitive by today’s standards.
In 1941, only 25% of Canadians had a refrigerator. The majority of the population had an icebox, which was a small cupboard where foods were kept cold by a big block of ice, stored in a separate compartment. What’s more, less than half of Canadians had an electric or gas stove. Everyone else used wood, coal, or oil. And 40% of Canadians still didn’t have running water.4
With meat rationing and the choicest cuts being sent overseas to fuel soldiers, organ meat became a key part of Canadian diets. Tripe, kidneys, tongues and liver provided protein on the home front. Rationing also meant that a serving of meat that might feed two people today would be stretched among a family of five.
What we now know as Canada’s Food Guide” was introduced in the 1940s. Due to food shortages during the war, “Canada’s Official Food Rules” let people know about the minimum amounts of foods they needed to consume to prevent nutritional deficiencies.
Growing prosperity in the post-war economic boom
The ‘40s also brought new prosperity to the country. Following a decade of depression and unemployment, jobs were suddenly plentiful, and the economy got a kick-start from industries of war. Canada supplied the war effort with astonishing amounts of raw goods and materials, including millions of bushels of wheat and barrels of flour. By the end of the decade, we had been transformed from a depression-poor, largely rural country into an agricultural giant.
Once the war was over, with well-stocked supermarket shelves, grocery shopping became much easier. Eating out was a new pleasure, and diners even popped up in department stores such as Eaton’s and Simpson’s. Discount retailers like Woolworths and Kresge’s were built around a lunch counter that was the central hub of the store.
While cooking started to become more sophisticated with more availability of ingredients, kitchens changed too. New methods and equipment made food preparation easier and faster. Wartime had sped up the development of food technology, and the research that produced powdered milk and dried eggs for hungry soldiers now turned to new convenience foods like cake mixes and instant coffee.
Post-war, with well-stocked supermarket shelves, grocery shopping became much easier. Eating out was a new pleasure. While cooking started to become more sophisticated with more availability of ingredients, new methods and equipment made food preparation easier and faster.
By the end of the 1940s, life had returned to pre-war normalcy with the added benefit of a burgeoning economy and hope for a prosperous future. This included a return to traditional gender roles. Women were back in the kitchen and the Baby Boom had begun.
Other articles in the series:
- Carol Ferguson & Margaret Fraser (1992). A Century of Canadian Home Cooking. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
- CBC (2018). Back in Time for Dinner.
- http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/newspapers/canadawar/casualties_e.html#:~:text=42%2C042%20men%20and%20women%20of,wounded%20and%208%2C995%20taken%20prisoner ↩︎
- https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/classroom/fact-sheets/women ↩︎
- Carol Ferguson & Margaret Fraser (1992). A Century of Canadian Home Cooking. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. ↩︎
- https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2017/schl-cmhc/NH15-518-1987-eng.pdf ↩︎