How did food win over the war? A comprehensive study of the impact of First World War on the culinary culture of American population

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

30 Pages, Grade: 9




CHAPTER ONE. A brief of Commission for Relief in Belgium and a prelude to the 1917’s Food . Conservation

CHAPTER TWO. (In)Voluntary Food Conservation

CHAPTER THREE. Cutting across races and forging of a cosmopolitan diet

CHAPTER FOUR. Thin body: a demarcator of patriotism (?)



How did food wine over the war? A comprehensive study of the impact of World War I on the culinary culture of American population

Pratyusha Guha

Dissertation submitted to the Department of History, Presidency University,

in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of





KOLKATA — 700073

27 May 2016

Head of the Department

Department of History

Presidency University, Kolkata 3


This is to certify that the Dissertation titled “How did food win over the war? A comprehensive study of the impact of World War I on the culinary culture of American population” submitted by Pratyusha Guha in partial fulfilment of the requirement for the award of the degree of BACHELOR OF ARTS is her original work and has not been submitted for the award of any other degree of this university or of any other university.

We therefore recommend that the university may accept the dissertation.

Supervisor Head of the Department

(Mridu Rai) (Mridu Rai)


Prior to the military involvement of the United States of America in World War I in 1917, American humanitarian participation during the early years of the war was unprecedented due to the nature of its benevolence and significance. The supply and distribution of staple food to her European Allies battling the war had become the foundational humanitarian venture undertaken by the USA government in the twentieth century. On being encouraged by the government propaganda and campaign, American people voluntarily aimed to preserve their food surplus, with the commitment of donation to the countries at war. The military participation of America in the war in 1917 had prompted the government to establish the United States Food Administration which only amplified the food saving campaigns and agendas to feed the population and soldiers on both the fronts of Europe and America. My dissertation delves into making of modern American cuisine, to exhibit the inextricable connection between the history of war and food in America; the shortage of food surfaced as a boon in disguise. Amidst the tumultuous atmosphere of food crisis, American gastronomic culture underwent a profound transformation over time and in such a fashion that it modified and moulded the food habits not only of its domestic population, but also of the global population.


Who does not like Oreo biscuits, the chocolate sandwiched cookies? Or the luscious mayonnaise-filled burgers of McDonald’s? Or the economical, and at the same time nutritious oat meal in their regular diet? From youngsters to reticent sexagenarians, food is the anthem for all. Food remains the most indispensible aspect of a person’s life, both as a medium through which extravagance is to be showcased and also for preserving lives. By virtue of globalization, the multifarious foods have been made to transcend their respective national boundaries and travel across different countries to appeal to the taste buds of a larger population. American origin foods are part and parcel of dietary schedule of almost everyone.

The foods mentioned above are of recent production, stretching back to the early and mid decades of the twentieth century. The American Progressive Era which had marked a beginning of profound socio-political transformation with a scientific outlook on every sphere of life coincided with the worldwide political scenario to produce a diverse range of foods. As the Americans got involved in the war, scientific development coincided with culinary crisis to elevate the experimentation at its zenith. Having received vigorous encouragement by the federal government, Americans popularised the lesser known foods, incorporated the foods of immigrants in their diet and created a diverse range of experimental food. At the same time, encountering social challenges like, contesting the racial orthodoxy and challenge with one’s own self to toil for achieving a healthy and admirable body had all happened in first two decades of the twentieth century.

The Food Administration and food conservation campaigns revolutionised the American outlook on food. A great deal of awareness and education was required to understand food and its consumption. The birth of nutrition as a discipline of science belongs to this era. Its principles were given tremendous importance to classify food as per their benefits and nutritionists became the virtual advisors of every American. As we see today, these trends did not remain restricted to America. The imprint of their remarkable influence on food and life style all over the world made an extraordinary outlook on food marked by Progressive modernity, a subject of worth studying. The influential global character that it has assumed will fascinate any interested individual to unravel the processes through which this modernised food pattern had begun to transform in its country of origin.

America’s first humanitarian attempt was in supplying food materials to Belgium under German occupation. Chapter 1 provides glimpses on scientific advancements in the early years of twentieth century. Then it discusses a break from a stereotypical understanding of World War I in terms of military history, so as to understand how political exigencies controlled not only wars or battles but the food pattern in America. It sketches in brief the food supply policy to Belgium the success of which accelerated the popularity of Herbert Hoover, who would come to wield authoritative power in the voluntary food conservation programme of 1917. The commencement of the food campaign induced values of self sacrifice in individuals which would form the foundation of historic achievement in American foreign policy.

Propagandas were absolute necessities in political campaigns, and their requirement in food programmes for overseas supply and conservation at home would be no exception. Chapter 2 describes the role played by propagandas in manipulating people to make them fall in line with the convenience of governmental demands. Instances of disapproval were not uncommon but those were met with serious social boycott by the majority of government supporters. Sections of populations, especially the distressed southerners and the immigrants remained aloof from food politics. This chapter explains the reasons why government coerced some but faced a partial failure to reach out to a substantial population to include them in food conservation schemes.

Chapter 3 discusses the victory of the nutritional science in theoretical battle over the Eugenics and Euthenics. The triumph of the former not only demolished the boundaries among foreign, national and regional foods, but it nullified the conceptualisation of diet through the lenses of racial discrimination. Food was to be eaten by all if it contained essential nutrients, and the use of racial connotation to compartmentalize food consumption suffered a setback. Diversity became the chief characteristic of American cuisine.

Chapter 4 explores the relation between body image and food intake. A thin body became the symbol of patriotism and a fat body was shamed as unpatriotic. Heath was definitely a matter of concern. An obese body was unhealthy without any doubt but the impulsive paralleling of the body with patriotism or otherwise became an obsession. Gradually, however, these strict equations faded. Being over-weight or underweight were conceived to be health issues partly caused by eating habits, but in the majority of the cases the desire for any body size was established as a matter of individual choice.

The conclusion, apart from summarizing the paper will locate the present range of acceptance of those shared values of altruism and conservation that Americans had experienced in early twentieth century. In this essay, I will study the evolution of American dietary pattern which forged the identities of modern American citizens. The phenomenon was underpinned by unparalleled aspirations of keeping parity between being patriotic enough to supply food to the European Allies and being self sufficient to feed her domestic population.

CHAPTER ONE. A brief of Commission for Relief in Belgium and a prelude to the 1917’s Food Conservation

Foods are so inextricably linked with socio-political forces of a state that the human agents who run these wider forces attempt to shape the manufacture and circulation of them to gratify the ostentatious and materialistic purpose of affluent class of people. In sum, food has been used as a representative instrument to gauge the distinguishing pre-eminence of a state before the world. Such an intricate proposition had been in operation against backdrop of early twentieth century American culinary culture.

History does not just tell the tales of wars, battles, victories and defeats of countries, it goes beyond the conventional study of events and their causal effects. Similarly, while comprehending the First World War, we envisage the pictures of battleships, trenches and soldiers in our thoughtful minds. What about the sustenance, which had kept the war going for years, and soldiers on their foot for every moment of those years? Many of us do not care to ponder over it, as the answer to these questions is so commonsensical. It is the food. America had supplied substantial quantities of food to the European nations who were fighting the war, which kept the soldiers fed and civilians alike. Story does not end there. Greater transformation had occurred in American food habits by incorporating the food shortages due its constant supply to European Allies.

The identification of vitamins, their differentiation and categorisation as Vitamin A, B, C or D, the invention of piggly-wiggly stores, pop-up toasters followed by other series of serendipities had marked the gastronomic culture of twentieth century America, the land of abundance.1 Prior to World War I, the confidence in self sufficiency had invoked the Americans to divert the resources in endeavours to create experimental food substances. It was only during the inception of the war that America was driven with the emotional vigour of providing charitable aid to her European Allies, whom the solidity and empathy were lavished upon.

In the month of August, 1914, the European power, Germany had attacked Belgium. The latter had put up a valiant resistance, but it suffered a defeat and came under German occupation. Although America was not involved in the war officially in 1914, but one American will always be linked with the tragedy experienced by Belgium in that war. His name is Herbert Hoover.

The reluctance of German army to provide food to their civilians in Belgium and the failure of war-torn Allied powers to distribute food had prompted America to provide basic requirements to the destitute Belgians. Herbert Hoover was appointed as the head of the neutral organisation, Belgian Relief Organisation by American President Woodrow Wilson. Manufacture and distribution of food depended on government subsidies and raising money from foreign countries.2

The climate was one of chaos and nervousness when France and Britain, fell back to back victims to the German offensive. Worse was yet to occur when stalemates continued for months and non-combatants of the European nations were struck with the scarcity of food. By April 1917, 5 million people of Northern France and Belgium were destitute. When the Belgium Relief Organization was replaced by United States Food Administration in 1917, the government programme began to rely on the succour and voluntary participation of its citizens. That was when Americans were moved by the morals of austerity and improving vitality of their bodies through the practice of self discipline in embracing healthy dietary pattern.

Executive Order No. 2679-A of August 10, 1917, under the Food and Fuel Control (Lever) Act, the United States of Food Administration was set up. Decentralisation of power was established with the appointments of State Administrators after the Lever Act. By the end of 1918, there were more than 3200 local administrators. Their work would be to conservation of food and prevention hoarding at home and assure its systematic contribution to the Allies, all under the federal instructions by Hoover.3 This was going to be one of the most efficient and successful governmental initiatives in American history. The total amount of food delivered to Europe during the war and reconstruction period, was 33,841,307 pounds, equalled to $5,234,028, 11

CHAPTER TWO. (In)Voluntary Food Conservation

America had settled its own civil war fifty seven years earlier and until 1917, it had deliberately remained neutral in World War I. Now the Americans were dedicatedly engaged in building their nation along with the lines of prosperity and progression. All the endeavours came to a halt when Germany started its submarine offensive against all the ships in the North Atlantic, and in the process it sank American relief ships. One such event was taken to herald the threat and altered the attitude of Americans, from being neutral to agitation. This anguish was further cemented by the words of American President Woodrow Wilson, who recognised,

“We are provincials no longer. The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back. Our fortune as a nation is involved whether we would have it so or not.” 5

While, the Congress would take time to provide funding to the Food Administration, its Secretary Herbert Hoover stirred the nationalistic zeal in people to urge them to begin the voluntary conservations. In spring of 1917, the federal demands were simple. Reasonable purchase of food, prohibiting the wastage of the same, eat less flour, meat, fats, plant gardens to provide long term source of food to the families. Above all, selfless participation was expected of women and children. Posters were circulated to strike sympathy in hearts of Americans for their fellow Allies fighting the war in trenches.6

The picture of a lady dressed in a flag of the United States slumbers peacefully and the message written on the picture says “Wake up, America! Civilization calls, Every man woman and child”.7 Presentation of America in personification of a slumbering lady implied, in a more important sense, that America was still in oblivion of these worldwide catastrophes and she had to be awaken to assume her role of being the protector. The role of America was akin to the maternal nature of women as a source of nourishment and subsistence to the disarrayed and vulnerable childlike Europeans. Posters were also published by the U.S. School Garden Army which showed children doing their bit by planting and watering in their farms and gardens.8 The only state poster from Kansas was extremely informative since true bread imagery was used with numerical details about the consumption of bread during 1916 America and its contraction during wartime. Side by side with the mandatory display of motivational message of “Economy of food is patriotism” helped people in enriching themselves with the knowledge of food conservation.9 The book Food and the War published by the Food Administration was distributed and vigorously taught in each college, thus elevating the food conservation programme to the status of being an integral part of academic curriculum.10 Canning was emphasized in journals, and many food organizations tried to sell the idea that canned foods were good foods. Canning gained popularity with women throughout the war and was one of the most important contributions women made to conserve and sustain the food supply over the winter.11

However, the entire food conservation episode in American history was perplexing. No matter how simplistic and sincere the federal demands sounded there had been much more complications that contributed to its vastness. The wide phenomenon of voluntary conservation of food was underpinned by the intricate nexus of propagandas which the American people had never encountered before. From informative brochures to colourful posters and pamphlets circulated by both the government and other small organizations boasted of America’s food abundance and portrayed its conservation as a patriotic duty. Lessons in zero wastage of food, introduction of food substitutes and farming gardens led to an almost exceptional mass altruism of American civilians.

With the male population fighting the war, the women and children back in their home in America were taken for granted of being active participants in war efforts, thus they could not get away from the conservation plans espoused by the government. I will present a few instances to explain how the propagandas were orchestrated underneath the general appearances of governmental appeals. Wayne A. 13

Wiegand’s 1989 essay “In Service to the State: Wisconsin Public Libraries during World War I” is critical of some of the government supervision over its people in few cases.12 Libraries were important medium of enlightening oneself with the new upcoming policies of government and embrace the phenomenon of conservation and proper consumption of food through maximum education. American government had advised the state libraries of Wisconsin to censor the books, magazines which had the potentiality of inciting people against the government, or anything which was Un-American in nature.13 To nurture the minds of people through exhibition of books and bulletins to promote the values of farming fruits and vegetables was another important order.14 To abide by the order, the State Library of Wisconsin responded immediately by putting up displays, scheduling lectures for adults and organizing educational play activities for children.15 Thus, we see libraries being utilised as an instrument in government propagandas by which public taste and preferences could be controlled.

In Minnesota, the government aligned newspaper called The Duluth Herald published article to urge the boys to rise above self interest and “Farm your Back Yard” in order to mitigate the growing burden on world by increasing yield of farm cultivation.16 The director of agricultural extension in University of Minnesta, Professor A. D. Wilson had ordered dismissal of boys from high school and work on farming activities.17 From the above examples we can ponder over the fact whether the propagandas were driven by the mechanism of solely manipulation and minimal motivation. It also brings us to the question that how far these propagandas were successful in eliciting “voluntary” participation of American civilians which the government had claimed to have secured. The austere declaration was made by South Dakota’s Food Administration of holding any individual liable for treachery to the community if he/she was found to be neglecting or refusing to obey the food regulations propounded by the government.18 Threats of these kinds encouraged the over enthusiastic participants of food conservation to erupt their patriotic zeal in form.


1 Sherri Liberman, American Food by the Decades, (USA: Greenwood, 2011), 24-40.

2 George H. Nash, “An American Epic Herbert Hoover and Belgian Relief in World War I”, Spring 1989, Vol. 21, No. 1 [], 1989.

3 Records of the United States Food Administration: Records Available at the National Archives at Fort Worth,

4 William Clinton Mullendore, History of the United States Food Administration 1917-1919, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1941), 42.

5 John H. Cushman JR., “Annotating the Second Inaugural Addresses: How several presidents have handled the genre”, [], 2013.

6 William Clinton Mullendore, History of the United States Food Administration 1917-1919, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1941).

7 “Wake up, America! Civilization calls, Every man woman and child”, Illustration, (New York: The Hegeman Print, 1917), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

8 “We eat because we work: We belong to the U.S. School Gardern Army”, Illustration, Bureau of Education, Department of Interior, c. 1917, Special Collections , National Agricultural Library.

9 “First in War Bread First in Peace”, Illustration, Kansas State Council of Defence, Special Collections, National Agricultural Library.

10 United States. Food Administration. Collegiate, Food and the War: A Textbook for College Classes (London: Forgotten Books, 2013) ,Original work published 1918.

11 A. W. Bitting, Canning and How to Use Canned Foods, (London: Forgotten Books, 2013), Original work published 1916.

12 Wayne Wiegand, “In Service to the State: Wisconsin Public Libraries during World War I,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 72 , no. 3 (1989).

13 Ibid, 220.

14 Ibid, 214.

15 Ibid, 216.

16 Duluth Herald, April 30, 1917, 1.

17 Ibid, 1.

18 Charles N. Herreid, “The Federal Food Administration in South Dakota during the World War,” South Dakota Historical Collections 10 (1920): 309

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How did food win over the war? A comprehensive study of the impact of First World War on the culinary culture of American population
Presidency College, Kolkata
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Pratyusha Guha (Author), 2016, How did food win over the war? A comprehensive study of the impact of First World War on the culinary culture of American population, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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