The World War I-Era Cooking of Food Will Win the War

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The recipes don’t initially look like much, that’s for sure.

Food Will Win the War (written by Rae Katherine Eighmey and published this year by the Minnesota Historical Society Press) is a tightly focused volume focused on World War I-era food conservation in Minnesota from 1917-1918. As such, its recipes are neither modern nor luxurious. They use household and garden staples such as onions and stale bread, spurn luxuries such as refined sugar and beef and emphasize the consumption of greens, dairy products, and alternative grains. Whatever “sexy” means in the context of household recipes, these are the opposite.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

And yet: with their combination of the familiar and the antique, they’re also intriguing. With titles like Scalloped Cheese, Apple Catsup, and Macaroni and Peanuts, they’re both exotic and familiar.

I’ll be doing a proper review of Food Will Win the War for an upcoming edition of Gastronomica, but in the meantime, the Heavy Table test kitchen took a crack at some of the book’s more intriguing vintage edibles. The goal: to taste nearly 100-year old recipes concocted for an era of wartime scarcity, and to see whether they might still hold up. One thing’s for sure — the ethic that drives these recipes has much in common with the newfangled locavore / home garden / anti-fat and anti-refined sugar ethos of many modern eaters.

Sour Milk Maple Syrup Pie

Sour Milk Maple Syrup Pie is a triumph of bad marketing over good food. Here is what we’ll be calling this pie when it’s introduced at picnics and dinner functions down the road: Maple Meringue Pie.

There, that’s better.

The theory of this pie is to replace white sugar with maple syrup and make a tasty, luxe-looking dessert using extremely common and inexpensive household staples.

In the process of making this with some last minute home-soured milk, we managed to produce a broken, slightly chunky looking, extremely liquid filling that seemed destined to not set up, and taste awful. Lo and behold, it turned out well, the filling light but solid, and the meringue beautifully browned.

The flavor is a tug of war between the tang of buttermilk, the assertive zip of lemon, and the mellow sweetness of maple syrup. While clearly dessert, it’s not an overly sweet dish, and very much resembles a good lemon meringue pie with the overall volume turned down and a distinct maple finish to the flavor. It’s a serious pie for grown-ups.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The meringue, when cooled, has a tendency to weep maple syrup (top) — it’s beautiful and exotic, two adjectives that would’ve seemed like unlikely matches for this homely-looking dish.

Sour Milk Maple Syrup Pie

2 egg whites
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup cold water
1 cup buttermilk, sour milk, or sour cream
3/4 cup maple syrup
2 beaten egg yolks
1 lemon, juice and grated rind
1 tablespoon melted butter

Baked 9-inch pie crust

Preheat oven to 325° F. Mix cornstarch with water and combine with milk in top of a double boiler. Cook over simmering water, stirring frequently, until mixture is thickened. Stir in other ingredients and pour into baked pie crust. In clean bowl, make meringue by beating egg whites until stiff. Gradually add syrup, then vanilla. Continue beating until meringue holds stiff peaks. Spread meringue over pie. Bake pie until lightly browned, about 25 minutes. Refrigerate leftovers.

(The Farmer, August 10, 1918; reprinted from Food Will Win the War, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010)

Baked Stuffed Cucumbers

James Norton / Heavy Table

These homespun WWI-era appetizers seemed like a simple but intriguing way to kickstart a meal — by filling cucucumbers with a mince of ham, bread, onions, and ketchup and then baking them, you create a hearty, flavorful dish using ingredients that are essentially free.

Unfortunately, the final product tastes disconcertingly like hot dogs — stack the flavor of pork with bread, ketchup, and onions, and you’re definitely well within the realm of hot doggery. The serving suggestion (dress the baked stuffed cucumbers with tomato sauce) did little to dispel the frankfurter allusions, and didn’t particularly improve the overall flavor.

There may be a way to do delicious baked stuffed cucumbers, but if you’re going to make the attempt, you may want to sub out the ham and ketchup for starters.

Baked Stuffed Cucumbers

3 short, stubby cucumbers
1 cup stale bread crumbs
1/2 cup minced ham
a little soup stock
2 minced onions
tomato sauce or milk gravy
2 tablespoons tomato catsup

Preheat oven to 325° F. Cut cucumbers in half lengthwise; scoop out seeds. Boil the halves in salted water for 10 minutes. Allow one cucumber for each two people. Mix minced ham with onions, catsup, and bread crumbs; moisten with a little soup stock. Place in baking dish with a little hot water and bake until cucumbers are tender and stuffing is browned on top, 20-30 minutes. Serve with tomato sauce or milk gravy containing a little diced ham.

(Ida C. Bailey, Delicious Ham and Bacon Recipes [Sioux Falls, S.D., 1918]; reprinted from Food Will Win the War, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010)

Hot Pot of Mutton and Barley

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

This recipe for a hearty mutton stew is simplicity itself. Its list of ingredients is alarmingly brief — most modern stew recipes exceed 10 ingredients, and many approach 20. This one gets the job done in six.

Pearled barley provides a creamy, nutty substance to what might otherwise be a thin soup. We used lamb instead of the more difficult to find mutton, and were delighted by a fork-tender, extremely flavorful end product. We also took the potatoes down to smaller pieces than quarters and appreciated their bite-sized nature in the final stew.

Lacking celery tops, we used ground Herbes de Provence, a natural fit for a more soulful red meat stew such as this one. The dish, in fact, is enough of a blank canvas that many types of seasoning or doctoring would work well. Kale, for example, would bring a bit of vegetal soulfulness and snap that would be most welcome in this very rustic dish.

In short: This is the kind of simple, easily adaptable, unpretentiously delicious recipe that could easily turn into a cold-weather staple. And it’s from the files of the Minnesota Food Commissioner — can’t beat that for local.

Hot Pot of Mutton and Barley

1 pound mutton
1 teaspoon salt
3 onions, chopped
4 potatoes
1/2 cup pearled barley
celery tops or other seasoning herbs

Cut the mutton in small pieces and brown with the onion in fat cut from the meat. This will help make the meat tender and improve the flavor. Pour this into a large pot with lid. Add 2 quarts of water and the barley. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Add the potatoes cut in quarters, salt and seasoning herbs and cook for one half hour longer.

(News release, Minnesota Food Commissioner [1918], Food Files, Minnesota Historical Society; reprinted from Food Will Win the War, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010)

Author’s Note: If you’re intrigued by this topic in general, Project Gutenberg has the full text and recipes of 1918’s Foods That Will Win the War and How to Cook Them by C. Houston and Alberta M. Goudiss.


  1. jforbess

    I just picked up _The Food of a Younger Land_ by Mark Kurlansky, a series of essays pulled from the files of the WPA. Really interesting descriptions of regional food from around the country compiled in the 1930s. Less focus on recipes, though. _Foods that Will Win The War_ seems like the more practical (and localized) exploration of the same history. I’ll have to check it out.

  2. sd

    It would be interesting to try to cook these foods in as authentic a manner as possible — wood stove, maybe, heirloom cucumbers — just to learn the differences (if any).

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