Eating History: Canada War Cake

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Wartime food poster

We are saving you, YOU save FOOD, ca. 1918, Canada Food Board

By Sophie Hicks

This is the fourth post in a summer series exploring societal, community, and familial connections to food and food history. See the series introduction post here. An earlier version of this post appeared on The Canadian Cooking Chronicles, as part of a final project for an Archives Practicum class.

As an unapologetic fan of Ian Mosby’s work in food history, this post was inspired by Ian’s Active History piece on teaching the sensory experience of history. I made use of the same recipe for Canada War Cake.

In my previous posts on making Pemmican and Yorkshire puddings, I began to discuss the cultural and familial connections that can be drawn to recipes, but there is another element that I have yet to examine: era.  A recipe and its source are nearly inseparable from their era. There is a sort of symbiotic relationship between the two wherein each provides the necessary condition for the other to reveal a historical narrative. Like any primary source, context matters.  

Even if era were disconnected from our recipe, this one’s name is a dead giveaway.  This recipe for Canada War Cake comes from an archived copy of the Windsor Daily Star, dated March 19, 1942. The date tells us that this recipe was published during the Second World War, but the text under the title indicates that it was “also from last war”. This recipe was found in a column titled, “This Week’s Best War-Time Recipes” with two other dessert suggestions that would optimally conserve money and food as part of the war effort. In accordance with the gender norms of the time, this section of the paper would have been targeted towards women, with food conservation viewed as a way that women could contribute to the war effort.

A few lines below the recipe, the paper thanks the readers who have contributed to the column and urges them to continue in their efforts of conservation with these bleak words concerning food resources: “You know it is up to us to make this war effort count, and unless we try to the utmost (as our enemies are doing) there are dark days ahead”.  Although it may seem bizarre to find such a blatant warning in something as well-intentioned as a recipe column, the World Wars brought about weighty heaps of propaganda in many forms; why not a recipe?

Copy of recipe from newspaper

“This Week’s Best War-Time Recipes,” Windsor Daily Star, 14 March, 1942.

The recipe reads as follows:

Canada War Cake

2 cups sugar

2 cups hot water

3 Tablespoons lard

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon each of cloves and cinnamon

1 package seedless raisins

 Boil this together for 5 minutes and let cool. Then add 4 cups flour with 1 teaspoon soda dissolved (in 1 tablespoon water). I add also 1 teaspoon baking powder.

– Mrs. Graham

When making the cake batter, I followed the recipe exactly as stated without difficulty – although I can’t say I’ve ever boiled together wet ingredients before. The only modifications that I made was halving the recipe (due to an insufficient amount of flour on my part) and the omission of raisins (again, a hole in my pastry).  A more patient person would have waited to go to the store, but what’s more reminiscent of wartime baking than making due with what you have?

The consistency of the mixture itself was not the kind of smooth, runny batter that come to mind when the word cake is used, but rather a thick batter similar to muffins. The thickness led me to believe that this was going to be a dense cake, so I decided to opt out of a traditional cake pan in favour of a hardier loaf pan.

Batter in a loaf pan

Going into the oven.

Once the batter was ready, I had to decide how it should be baked.  Although there wasn’t an indication of the temperature at which to bake the recipe, I decided that 350F was a moderate enough temperature for it to evenly bake. As for the time, I simply put on a timer for 25 minutes and then checked it every 5-10 minutes.  It took about 55 minutes to fully bake.

Cooked war cake

Cake fresh out of the oven.

When it came out of the oven, I cheated a little bit and put a homemade maple glaze on top as a way to make up the sweetness of the omitted raisins. Even with the glaze, I have to admit that the loaf was… not great. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t necessarily all that good.

First off, calling the baked good a “cake” is generous. By modern standards, the density and texture resembled that of a bread. The low moisture of this cake and it’s use of preservable ingredients meant that it could keep well. Many of the recipes fitting this criteria could easily be made into double batches with the intent that women would make enough for their family, then the Red Cross could send the remainder of the food overseas to be used by the troops.

When I tested out the cake on my friend, she concluded, “If I was cold and wet, living in the trenches somewhere, this would bring me joy”.  Take that review for what you will.

Wartime poster about butter

Canada’s Butter Opportunity!, [ca. 1918], Canada Food Board

The lack of eggs, milk, and butter in this recipe is indicative of a conservational period that spanned from the early 1910s to the mid-1940s. World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II all put a similar strain on food, but had varying degrees of effect. Unlike the Depression years, the World Wars cast a shadow over Canada that affected every economic class. During the 1930s, middle and upper class that retained employment and cash flow were not required to make the drastic lifestyle changes necessary for the lower class. However, when Canada became involved in World War II, food conservation was no longer a result of financial means, but patriotic motives.

The prevalence of similarly conservational recipes conveys a broader importance than the cake alone.  It’s representative of a national sentiment in an era of uncertainty. As Ian Mosby said in “We are what we ate: Canada’s history in cuisines,” Canada War Cake was a “potent, if not slightly chewy, symbol of the mobilization of the entire home front for total war.”

Sophie Hicks is an undergraduate history student at Algoma University.  Her academic and research interests include food, gender, and political history, as well as examining the intersection of these areas.

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