Recipes for Victory
In honour of the centennial Remembrance Day, I made a WWI dinner. All recipes are from the new book Recipes for Victory edited by noted food writer Elizabeth Baird and Bridget Wranich, culinary historian at Toronto’s Fort York National Historic Site.
The book features different categories of recipes. These include recipes used at the front by military cooks; on the home front to encourage food saving; and by home cooks to send to the soldiers on the front to supplement their rations.
I selected two recipes from the “war front” section – corned beef hash and Madera Cake – as well as a cole slaw from the “Kitchens At Home” section.
The recipes were simple and delicious. The book gives the original recipes and modern equivalents.
The hash involves mixing together some cubed, cooked potato and corned beef with some bread crumbs. Then you pop it in the oven to crisp the potatoes and crumbs. This was a huge hit on the home front with my troops, and was declared good enough to go on regular rotation.
The Madera Cake is a very dense batter closer to a shortbread cookie dough than a cake batter. This is not a problem, as it essentially gives you a 10” giant shortbread cookie. Again, this was very popular, and people kept nibbling more bits from the tray. I left the currants out because my daughter is a raisin-hater. My daughter, who enjoys very plain preparations, said,”I gotta be honest, it’s maybe a little too plain”, which is actually a real advance for her. We agreed that next time I could spice it up with some lemon peel and lemon juice.
Food At the War Front
The beginning of the book includes some really interesting essays on food and the Canadian war effort.
The hash and cake recipes came from the military cooking notebooks of William Johnston, of Paisley, Ontario. He was a Gunner in the 55th Field Battery, Canadian Field Artillery. The notebooks were a rare find by David Webb, a retired military curator who found them in a box of military memorabilia he had purchased at a sale.
According to Webb’s essay, the notebooks comprise Johnston’s learnings from the Canadian military cooking school he attended in June, 1917 in London where he was trained to prepare meals for field soldiers (not officers). Johnston was one of almost 94,000 army cooks trained in the British & Dominion Forces. Since military cookooks only provided upper level quantities without a lot of detail, the notebooks provide valuable historical insight into how cook soldiers actually worked.
Although further from the front line than infantry kitchens, artillery kitchens such as Johnston’s were in range of enemy artillery and routinely strafed by enemy aircraft. Johnston’s battery fought at Passchendaele and the Hundred Days Offence. Kitchen work was considered a safer assignment but safety is obviously a relative concept. In October, 2018, Johnston wrote a letter home stating that of the nine cooks that he had started with, only he and one other were left.
Artillery units didn’t have the then-state of the art field kitchens of infantry battalions. Those were horse-drawn with a two-wheeled stove and boiler, and included place to carry fuel and rations. The infantry field kitchens could cook on the march.
Artillery units such as Johnston’s were equipped with a more rudimentary Soyer stove. Invented during the Crimean War, these are crudely efficient devices that are still in use for some purposes. The design involves a cylindrical ash can with a stovepipe and a separate cooking pot that permitted the use of any fuel available without contaminating food. Boiling was the only cooking option and a maximum 50 men could be fed. Unlike the more sophisticated infantry field kitchens, the Soyer stoves had to be emptied and cooled before they could be moved.
Cooks like Johnston were responsible for building field ovens (“Aldershott ovens”) if time and materials permitted, frequently from scrap brick, metal and other material left behind by previous battalions.
Every day, the cook sergeant would provide cook soldiers like Johnston with that day’s recipes plus the number of soldiers he would have to feed. Cook soldiers would have then had to to calculate the actual quantities of ingredients required from a manual of tables, as the military cooking handbooks simply listed total quantities per day.
Field cooks were also expected to help supplement their unit’s pantry by collecting compostable food waste and selling it to local farmers to purchase items such as milk, butter and sugar.
In extreme field conditions it was too hard to bring food forward to the soldiers. In such cases, the soldiers had to rely on their emergency rations or simply suffer without.
In his essay, Webb notes that it was surprising that there was a separate Canadian training facility for military cooks in London, since the Canadian forces were technically integrated into the British Expeditionary Forces. The British supplied the cooking equipment and the rations. “During the war, the British complained that Canadians and other Dominion troops tended to act as a independent allies of Great Britain instead of comprising part of a larger Imperial force. While Canadians may have simply believed that their teaching methods would work best for their own people, they also wanted to demonstrate their distinctive character . . . The war become a nation-building enterprise.” (page 50).
I encourage you to have a look at Recipes for Victory and try some of the recipes. As I made them in the warmth of my cozy kitchen, I couldn’t help but think of cooks like Johnston struggling to do the same in an open field kitchen with virtually no supplies.
Lest we forget.