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Heather Thorstensen, Agri News, Published February 15 2010

Book looks at World War I food conservation

ST. PAUL – When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Americans voluntarily changed their diets so food could be sent overseas to keep the troops going.

This movement in Minnesota is the subject of a new book by food historian and St. Paul author Rae Katherine Eighmey. It’s titled “Food Will Win the War: Minnesota Crops, Cooks and Conservation During World War I.”

Led by U.S. food administrator Herbert Hoover, America knew Meatless Mondays, Wheatless Wednesdays, vegetable gardens and less sugar at home.

“Sugar came on ships, and ships were something that were used for troop transport,” Eighmey explained during an interview with Agri News.

These were radical changes to the American diet of the time, when meat was a staple of at least two meals and bread was served at every meal.

“In 1917, America was not really a world power, and this was the moment that we became a world power. And we became a world power through the might of our liberty, through the strength and goodwill and character, through the work of our people,” Eighmey said.

She spent hours upon hours, mostly in the Minnesota Historical Society Library, reading letters, diaries and newspapers from the time. The voices of past Minnesotans became very real to her through these first-person accounts.

She wrote the book by using their stories and voices alongside historical pictures, pieces of newspaper articles, public service fliers and recipes of the day.

She was compelled by their human nature. Of all she read, she didn’t see complaining.

“They just said: ‘Here’s the job, how I can help? Let’s get it done.’ ”

The movement changed everything about food, from farm production to the kitchen table.

She writes of one of the war’s biggest impacts on farms still evident today: silos. They became popular during the war as a way to conserve feed.

“There were not a lot of silos prior to World War I,” she said.

After working their town jobs, people were called on to help harvest crops if farm laborers were in the war.

People got creative to find new ways to eat. Women would get together in Hoover clubs to develop recipes that would be published in newspapers and friends would swap recipes.

Eighmey, a foodie, tested out the book’s 60 recipes and was surprised by how good they tasted.

“The way I approach history is if you can get a recipe, you can immediately be transported back in time,” she said.

One of her favorites is the Victory Cabbage recipe, which calls for nutmeg and cayenne. She also likes the Honey Fruit Chocolate, made with the paste of figs, dates and raisins. It makes eating dried fruit taste like the richest truffle in the world, she said.

“They had good spirits and they were just so exuberant. I think it’s important to recognize what they did and not lose sight of it,” Eighmey said.

With our nation once again at war, Eighmey believes our country could unite likes this again if our citizens are asked to work toward a common goal.

“I think it would be a good idea if we all could work toward those values that the folks during World War I did. We’re good people, we support others, we’re generous, we’re basically kind and we’re hard workers. I think that’s the essential American character. We just need to be put to task and share equally in that task and we can do anything.”