Not too long ago, I hated cooking. It felt like a ton of work and time and stress for a meal that would inevitably disappear in a matter of minutes. I found it hard to get invested in a daily chore that felt so Sisyphean.
And just when I was at my most existentially bitter at my daily dinner preparations, I discovered archival cooking: I was sitting with my experiential learning students in a local archive, and one of the archivists mentioned that they have some old handwritten recipes from the area’s historical families. I’d never given serious thought to cooking historical recipes before, although I’d been interested several months earlier to hear about some teachers baking Emily Dickinson cakes for their classes. I was suddenly interested.
This was also about a month before Christmas—I was looking for gifts for my family, and what better than an old cookbook? It’s an authentic artifact that lets you create your own authentic artifacts that you can touch, smell, and, best of all, eat! So, that year everybody in my family got a WWI or WWII rationing cookbook (we were also all experimenting with a vegetarian diet, so the rationing element seemed like it might be especially useful). (And one relative got a WWII “Knitting for Victory” booklet with all sorts of clothing and accessory item designs for soldiers, pilots, etc.). Before I sent wrapped the cookbooks, which were all from eBay or Etsy, I scanned them and created searchable PDFs out of them. And over the coming few weeks, I tried some of the recipes that looked interesting: eggless, butterless, milkless apple spice cake; figgy pudding; vegetable pot pie. The recipes all impressed, and they were always made with ingredients that most people already have sitting around waiting to be used: flour, canned vegetables, small amounts of sugar, etc. I found myself looking forward to trying new (well, old) recipes that felt like history lessons in themselves. And it was through this excitement that I began to get better at cooking, to become more efficient at it, and to become less stressed during the process.
Now, several weeks into a widescale shutdown in which we’re all forced to become more resourceful and strategic with our food shopping and consumption, I’ve turned back to these war rationing cookbooks as guides for how to stretch supplies, how to replace certain ingredients with other common pantry items, how to make the most with what we have, and how to keep things exciting in the kitchen (…I’m sure I’m not the only one who was making pasta 2-3 times a week in March). Beyond the novelty of the “hobby,” cooking from these old wartime cookbooks offers real benefits right now. You can become more aware of what you have in you pantry and how you can use it, sure. But more importantly, if using these recipes means going to the grocery store even a little less, it also means decreasing the risk of coronavirus transmission. “Eating for Victory” has aquired new meaning.
So with that in mind, here are a few of my favorite recipes and a few public domain rationing cookbooks. I’ve also included some of the introductions/forewords, which themselves are historical artifacts.
Click here for Lysol’s 1943 public domain victory cookbook, which might seem particularly appealing during this time of increased attention to santizing products.
And click here for British wartime cookbook organized by ingredients that you do and do not have.
Finally, for those of you looking to calm down with some cocktails, there’s plenty out there for you, too! I’ve included two pages below, but there’s more of this and plenty like it on Archive.org, HathiTrust, and other sites. Bon appétit!