WWII Food: The Tasteless Palate

By Amy Dee Stephens


I’m an average cook. Pity my poor family, who suffered through those early trial-and-error meals. Despite my best intentions, I served a variety of overcooked, bland, or oddly-textured casseroles. No one asked for seconds. Fortunately for them, I’m past the experimental stage and have a solid repertoire of decent meals.   

Now that I’m a more skilled cook, my curiosity was piqued by the World War II cookbooks that we included in the WWII Edmond: Housewives on the Homefront exhibit. Each one focused on how to cook meals, while following the government’s strict food controls. Because of the scarcity of many food staples (like sugar, milk, eggs, cheese, meat), new “substitution recipes” helped cooks use similar, but more available, ingredients into everyday recipes.

I decided to pick out a few decent-sounding recipes and copied them for museum visitors to take. But then I started wondering…are these any good? Does crushed cereal really “beef up” meat? Can syrup possibly be a good substitution for sugar?

I decided it was time to revisit the world of experimental cooking—and share the results with you. 

Sweet-Less Potatoes

My first recipe selection was for Sweet Potato Chocolate Spread. It sounded potentially good, something like Nutella.

  • 2 TBS mashed potato
  • 1 TBS cocoa
  • 1 TBS maple syrup (or sugar)
  • Almond or vanilla flavoring

Mash the potato thoroughly, mix in the cocoa, sugar and flavoring. Use as a spread in place of jam. 

I mixed it up and slathered it on a biscuit for the kids to taste. It looked chocolatey, and it spread well, but you should have seen the looks on their faces!  It was not chocolate ecstasy. “This is disgusting!” is what they actually said. I had to agree. Sweet Potato Chocolate Spread mostly tasted like eating a mouthful of wet, bitter cocoa powder. 

My first response was, “Quick, go pull the recipe card from the museum before anyone else tries this!” After further thought, I changed my mind—not to torture our guests, but to give them a “real taste” of WWII substitution cooking.  After all, it’s an authentic recipe. Maybe it tasted just fine to the 1940s family, who was less reliant on sugar. Or maybe the phrase, “Food is fuel. You don’t have to like it,” was invented during the 1940s.

Wheaties and Steak

Next, I tried Emergency Steak, a recipe I heard about on a wartime Betty Crocker radio cooking show. In her smooth and ultra-confident voice, Betty made this recipe sound enticing and patriotic. By just adding Wheaties to the ground beef, the food would be more filling and keep a family within its legal amount of meat usage. As Betty’s voice repeated the directions slowly, I scribbled notes and added a box of Wheaties cereal to my grocery list.

Emergency Steak

1 lb. ground beef
½ cup milk                                                              1 cup Wheaties                                                                            
1 tsp salt                                                                 ¼ tsp pepper                                                                    1 TBS finely chopped onions (optional)

Combine ingredients and pat into the shape of a T-bone steak, about 1 inch thick onto a pie pan or broiler plate. Broil 8-15 minutes (depending on if you want it rare or well done). If you don’t have a broiler, pan-broil it on top of the stove in a heavy pan. 

Again, the results failed to impress. We ate a few bites…and then I cooked another meal. Did WWII cooks possibly believe that bland, mushy ground beef was even close to a T-bone steak?

I know that good food was cooked and eaten during the war, and amazing cooks came from that era (Grandma, you were the best!). In fact, some wonderful blogs exist about good WWII fare, which can help the modern cook save money and even lose weight!

As for myself, a busy woman with average skills in the kitchen, I’m glad to have traveled down the road of historic WWII substitution cooking…and then ended the journey. Believe me, my family is relieved that Emergency Steak did not make it into my recipe box.