"Summum Bonnum of Living": Food in the 1940s

By Madeline Grimes

A few years ago, while waiting to be seated for brunch, a good girlfriend of mine looked around the restaurant and noting the line of customers that tumbled out the front door and spilled onto the sidewalk said, "you know, food is really the rock and roll of our generation."  

She might just be right. After all, there is an entire television network dedicated to what we eat, thousands of food blogs and bloggers extolling the virtues of bacon or asparagus, and yes, kale,  and in New York City, an entire museum about the study (and joy!) of food and drink. 

Gourmet Magazine's first issue, published January 1941 

Gourmet Magazine's first issue, published January 1941 

What I didn't know was that some of the seeds of our current food obsession were planted in 1941. The first issue of Gourmet magazine was published in January of that year, a holiday issue that featured articles like "Burgundy at a Snail's Pace," "The Choice of Wine," and "Pig Went to Table." The self-acclaimed "magazine of good living," originally intended for a male audience, was the first of its kind in the United States, not only an exploration on the joys of eating and cooking, but a publisher of superb food and travel literature. 

The first issue, published the same month as FDR's Four Freedoms speech, tells a story of a changing America, a period bookended by the worst recession the country had ever seen, and the threat of impending war. Within its spine is a portrait of a country on the brink of war: An ad for Huntley & Palmers Betterwheat Biscuits reminds readers of the war being waged across the Atlantic, stating "Britain is at war, but she still delivers the goods." And in his first introduction letter, editor Pearl V. Metzelthin reassures readers that food is an escape "if only temporarily, from the discordance of the world...

Ad for Huntley & Palmers Bettwerwheat Biscuits reminding Americans of the war across the Atlantic, Gourmet Magazine, January 1941. 

Ad for Huntley & Palmers Bettwerwheat Biscuits reminding Americans of the war across the Atlantic, Gourmet Magazine, January 1941. 

By year end, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, America had entered the Second World War. Ironically, sixteen months after the first issue of Gourmet magazine stated, "at our very fingertips in this land of glorious plenty lie an abundance and variety of foods unequalled anywhere," Americans received their first ration cards. First for sugar in May 1942, coffee in November 1942, and by the end of 1943, meat, cheese, butter, jam, and other items had been rationed. 

Although it isn’t our usual habit, this year we will be eating The Easter Rabbit...
— Gourmet Magazine, 1943

As a result of these rations, there were many attempts to reduce consumption, particularly of red meat: our current "Meatless Monday" trend took place on Tuesdays in the '40s; beef was replaced by heavier servings of poultry, fish, and innards; and towards the end of each month when meat points dwindled, savvy cooks created "veggie" burgers from soy and nuts. 

To help meet the demand for local fresh fruit and vegetables, so-called "victory gardens" were created from thousands of acres of yards, parks, school grounds, and urban rooftops. More than twenty million victory garden across the country produced 40% of all vegetables in the US. Due to shortages of canned goods, Americans took to canning these vegetables at home, and many recipes for vegetable dishes appeared during this time. 

The years following the end of the war saw a renewed interest in convenience. In 1947, both General Mills and Pillsbury developed instant cake mixes, and the first dishwasher hit homes in 1941. 

Throughout the war and after, Gourmet published its epicurean adventures, becoming a platform for some of the greatest food writers and celebrities including, M.F.K Fischer, Julia Child, and James Beard. The magazine shuttered, to much dismay, in 2009, leaving behind a unique portrait of American culture. 

Reprinted below are some of early Gourmet recipes from the 1940s that we can't wait to try.  


cajun macaroons

FEBRUARY 1941

Makes 4 dozen 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

Photograph by Romulo Yanes, via Gourmet Magazine

Photograph by Romulo Yanes, via Gourmet Magazine

These should be baked a few days in advance. They will keep several months when kept in a closed tin in a cool, dry place.

Work 1/2 lb. almond paste with a wooden spoon until it is smooth. Add 3 slightly beaten egg whites and blend thoroughly. Add 1/2 cup sifted pastry flour, resifted with 1/2 cup fine granulated sugar and 1/2 cup powdered sugar. Cover a cooky sheet or sheets with bond paper. The cooky mixture may be dropped from the tip of a teaspoon and shaped on the paper, or may be pressed through a cooky press, or shaped with a pastry bag and tube. Bake in a slow oven (300°F.) about 30 minutes. The cakes may be removed from the paper by means of a spatula while still warm.

Variations: Finely chopped or ground candied fruits may be added to the mixture before baking. Or the tops of the macaroons may be decorated before baking by placing in the center of each a nut half, a raisin (seedless, black or white), or a bit of candied fruit–such as a bit of angelica–cut fancifully, or by sprinkling with finely chopped nut meats. The cakes may be decorated after baking by dainty frosting designs formed with the help of a cake decorator or a pastry tube.

Reprinted, Gourmet Magazine, February 1941


BIJOU COCKTAIL

OCTOBER 1941

The Dry Martini is the world’s leading appetizer with a spirits base. Recipe guides and such still advise you to make your Martini with 1 part Vermouth and 2 parts gin, but the average Martini drinker appreciates the drier flavor of a 3-to-1 ratio. Since a drink as simple and satisfying as the Dry Martini was just too good to leave well enough alone, there have appeared through the decades literally hundreds of recipes that were, in effect, Martinis with a dash of this or that added. A Sweet Martini merely substitutes Italian vermouth for French vermouth, and, consistently enough, substitutes a sweet maraschino cherry for the dry olive as a garnish. Add half an ounce of Green Chartreuse to your Sweet Martini and you’ve got what is known as a Bijou cocktail. 

To summarize: In a cocktail shaker 3/4 full of ice, combine 1 jigger gin and ½ ounce each of sweet vermouth and green Chartreuse. Stir for about 20 seconds, adding more ice if the ice becomes submerged. Strain into chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Reprinted, Gourmet Magazine, October 1941

[Editor's note: FDR's favorite cocktail recipe can be found here.]


EGGS OBSTACULOS

MAY 1942

HHeat in a shallow dish 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil with 3/4 cup hot tomato sauce, or 3/4 cup tomato sauce seasoned with 8 drops Tabasco, rolling the mixture well around the edges. When the sauce bubbles, break 8 eggs into it. Heat slowly until the eggs are done, pour 1 cup beer over them, and serve at once with hot toast.

Reprinted, Gourmet Magazine, May 1942