KC museum’s online exhibition focuses on how food helped win WWI

05/19/2014 2:43 PM

05/22/2014 3:47 PM

Arms and ammunition may top the list when outfitting troops for battle, but a new online exhibition highlights an often overlooked yet vital component of a winning arsenal: food.

“War Fare: From the Homefront to the Frontlines” (theworldwar.org) takes viewers through The Great War from a uniquely culinary perspective. The National World War I Museum offers the online journey to focus on how food affected the outcome of the war.

The exhibition launched last month as one of several events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the war and pairs text with archival photographs, historical quotes and vintage recipes. Online links to period publications and postcards illustrate both the civilian experience and a boots-on-the-ground perspective. Historic vignettes are served up through a timeline recounting periods of optimistic abundance then occupation and rationing. The concluding segment takes note of culinary trends spurred by troops as they returned home.

“We wanted to highlight an area that had broad appeal, and we knew food was a passport to the time period,” says Lora Vogt, museum curator of education.

Challenges ‘over there’

It wasn’t long into the war before German stomachs felt the effects of the Allied blockades.

“German soldiers and civilians suffered arguably the worst,” says Andrea Broomfield, an English professor at Johnson County Community College and a culinary historian. “Prior to the war, the heavily industrialized nation was importing roughly a third of its foodstuffs.”

But early military successes were overshadowed by the growing famine felt by Germans both at home and in the trenches. A vintage postcard from the museum’s collection offers Allied “Advice to boys at the front”— cook sauerkraut, wienerwurst and limburger in order to coax a surrender from starving German troops.

At the onset of the war, the French army was initially the most well provisioned — an advantage lost as German troops began occupying French farmland. Great Britain, still feeling the affluence and abundance of the Edwardian era, fortified its troops with generous rations including meat, bread, bacon, tea, jam, vegetables, lime juice, tobacco and even rum — at the discretion of the commanding general.

When U.S. forces entered the war in mid 1917, they brought a hearty morale boost and the nation’s reputation as one of the world’s largest food producers. Yankee ingenuity created the Liberty Kitchen, a rolling field kitchen that could cook for 200 men. Although rolling kitchens were not a new concept, the U.S. Army created Liberty Kitchens with a standardized design and interchangeable parts, then provided a constant supply of spare parts. Both the horse-drawn and motorized versions featured a stove, bake oven, three kettles, four fireless cookers, plus the necessary cooking utensils. Kitchens were delivered at an astounding rate of over 200 units per day, according to a U.S. quartermaster’s report.

On the homefront

Recognizing the need for federal oversight of the nation’s food supply, President Woodrow Wilson established the U.S. Food Administration and appointed Herbert Hoover to head the new agency.

Hoover quickly launched a massive campaign to educate and motivate the public to do its part for the war effort. Organizations held cooking, canning and gardening demonstrations, and publications provided recipes replacing crucial wartime commodities with alternate ingredients.

Snappy slogans of “Food will win the war,” “Feed a fighter” and “Save a loaf a week” encouraged voluntary rationing, as did the establishment of Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays. A wartime poster of a saluting toddler urged “Little Americans” to do their bit by eating oatmeal or corn-based cereals and “Save the wheat for our soldiers.”

Home cooks were asked to use molasses or corn syrup in place of sugar, and cornmeal or rye flour for wheat. Substitutions of rice flour or potatoes were common in making war bread. One publication exhorted, “Better eat war bread now than eat the black bread of Germany later.”

Chicago’s Patriotic Food Show of 1918 embodied the spirit of domestic food conservation in an eight-day educational extravaganza. (The show’s official recipe book can be viewed online in its entirety at theworldwar.org.) Such voluntary conservation efforts helped reduce U.S. food consumption 15 percent. Consequently, the average American soldier left the war 12 pounds heavier than when he entered it.

Julienne Gehrer is a freelance writer, period cook and author of “In Season: Cooking Fresh From the Kansas City Farmers’ Markets.”

Local chefs cook with rations

To launch its online exhibition “War Fare: From the Homefront to the Frontlines” (theworldwar.org), the National World War I Museum recently hosted a “Chow Challenge” competition pitting area restaurant chefs against each other in an Iron Chef-inspired culinary battle. An audience of more than 200 people watched as the Central Powers (Affäre and Grünauer chefs) and Allied Forces (Room 39 and Webster House chefs) each created an appetizer, entrée and dessert from rations representative of the time period.

During the competition, the German-Austrian ration included pork liver pate, vinegar, paprika, chocolate and beer. The British-French-American ration included dried beef, dried cherries, limes, hardtack biscuits and wine.

Room 39 chef/owner Ted Habiger (who also holds a degree in history) pledged neutrality as he emceed the competition. As the battle raged, culinary historian Andrea Broomfield provided an overview of wartime food history focusing on three countries: Germany, Great Britain and the United States.

Volunteers from the audience judged the chefs’ creations including pan-seared duck breast, pork schnitzel, red wine-poached eggs over sautéed spinach and Austrian chocolate over crushed Zwieback biscuits. Teams scored points for execution, technique, creativity and taste. “I enjoyed seeing the creativity that comes with limited supplies,” said judge John Kreicbergs.

The Central Powers emerged victorious from the culinary battle and claimed the “Chow Challenge” trophy fashioned from a WWI mess kit.

“I don’t like politics at all, so being structured by Allied Forces and Central Powers teams was a bit difficult emotionally,” said chef Martin Heuser of Affäre. “We were happy to win and went out for beers with the trophy afterwards.”

Julienne Gehrer, Special to The Star

To see a photo gallery, go to KansasCity.com

Potato Bread

The National World War I Museum enlisted cook and photographer Joey Armstrong to update and revise recipes originally distributed at the 1918 Chicago Patriotic Food Show. “The challenge was that the recipes in the cookbook are brief, sometimes a little outdated … and included instructions that assumed a lot of culinary knowledge from the reader,” Armstong says.

Recipes adapted by Armstrong and food stylist Alison Ramage are featured on the museum site. There are enough recipes to make a WWI themed meal, including potato or corn bread, bean and tomato stew, scalloped cabbage and even buckwheat chocolate cake for dessert.

This recipe was adapted from “War Fare” at theworldwar.org.

Makes 2 loaves

2 cups milk or water

2 packages active dry yeast

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons bacon grease or butter

1 pound potatoes (peeled, boiled and mashed)

6 1/2 to 7 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided

Heat milk or water until warm (105 to 115 degrees). Pour into a large bowl and sprinkle yeast on top, stirring until dissolved. Stir in sugar, salt and bacon grease or butter. Mix well. Stir in mashed potatoes. Add 3 cups flour and beat mixture until smooth. Gradually add enough remaining flour to make a stiff dough.

Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic (8 to 10 minutes). Place in a greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover with a towel and let rise for 1 hour or until double in size.

Punch down dough and knead again for 1 to 2 minutes. Shape into two loaves. Place loaves on a parchment-lined baking sheet or into two greased 9-by-5 loaf pans. Dust loaves with flour. Let rise uncovered for 20 minutes.

Bake in a 375-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until golden on top and hollow-sounding when tapped.

Per slice: 105 calories (10 percent from fat), 1 gram total fat (1 gram saturated), 2 milligrams cholesterol, 21 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 190 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

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