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Families & food: Wartime tucker

Paper presented at From Curtin to Coombs: war and peace in Australia seminar, Curtin University of Technology, 25 March 2003, by Ms Michal Bosworth, historian and researcher.

Musical introduction: Billy of Tea, Hammer ‘n Tap, LP, 1981; Giovanna’s deli, Kavisha Mazzella, Joys of the Women CD, 1993

I want to talk today about how we Australians slowly moved from seeing the billy of tea as the essence of our food tastes to our widespread celebration of what we can buy in any European-style delicatessen. This change has taken place over a long period of time, beginning in the 19th century in the eastern states and the first years of the 20th century here in the west. Encapsulated within that time frame was the Second World War. Here we see a Western Mail March 1942 advertisement for beer illustrating what many Australians must have believed was a good meal: meat, veggies and a goblet of beer. During the years especially from 1942, when the war came almost to our doorstep, food was thrust to the forefront of the national consciousness. It was put there by an advertising campaign which declared food to be a ‘munition of war’. Australians were exhorted to save food, grow food, avoid the black market in foods, raise chooks in the back yard and generally behave as though every morsel was valuable. Thrift equated with virtue, and with money for war bonds.

John Curtin’s legacy can be read in many ways. He placed austerity on a public platform but the exhibition at the John Curtin Centre also suggests that he opened the path to a modern Australia. Among other things he realised a closer relationship with the United States which inadvertently, perhaps, added to our food story, while his government’s insistence on a period of planning for post-war reconstruction also included food production as an important item. These two issues, the developing ties with the US and government planning can, to some degree, be illustrated by the history of Australian food.

It is not easy to generalise about diet and nutrition, even during the war, because different people eat differently. Women eat differently from men, children from adults, the poor from the rich and migrants from the Anglo-Australians. During wartime there was also a difference between urban and rural eaters. Many farmers, despite drought and rationing, had continuing access to abundant cream, fresh fruits and eggs, as well as plenty of meat. Townspeople were not always so well supplied. Rationing, first introduced in 1942 when tea was put on coupons, thus was not a simple matter. It was bound to affect different groups in the population differently. For example, coffee drinkers could barter their tea coupons for extra advantage, but inveterate tea drinkers were at an immediate disadvantage. Two ounces a week is not much for those accustomed to consuming up to eight cups a day.

Wet tea leaves were dried and re-used, tea was made with sugar, left in the pot and then bottled and diluted so it would go farther. But not everyone was rationed. Those who lived in remote parts of the country (in WA that meant north of Geraldton) were never rationed. Food controls in Australia were partial and not particularly severe.

The history of food is a relatively new area for Australian historians. Recent scholarship, particularly from the United States, assesses wartime changes through gender and race: women moved from the kitchen into the workforce, home-makers lost their cooks, they lost their maids, they began to acquire or to see reason to acquire, domestic appliances. 1 There were similar experiences here as women undertook jobs otherwise closed to them, although advertisements for kitchen appliances began after the First World War and continued throughout the 1950s as women were encouraged back to the home.

Australians were quick to examine government policies and the committees which were spawned in order to implement them. 2 War proved a great motor for social control (among other things) and several groups were established to advise farmers and government how to respond to home needs as well as exports. Decisions on what needed to be grown and how it was to be marketed were made by groups of producers and experts around the country. From these years Australians got the Australian Food Council, followed by the Potato Board, the Egg Marketing Board, the Wheat Board, the District War Agricultural Committees and many more product committees, several of which remained in place for years after 1945. 3

Australians were lightly rationed compared to other combatants. The basis for rationing in all countries which introduced it was to equalise the food supply and to reduce inflation and the malign grip of a black market. Policy makers were influenced by the British example of rationing but never had to institute such draconian measures as the British Ministry of Food. Here, rationing was introduced to ensure civilians did not hoard valuable resources, to be certain that Australian servicemen were fed adequately (although army food requires a paper to itself), to fulfil trade agreements with the British government and to provide for the American servicemen stationed here. Rationing was not the result of scarcity, but more the result of planning needed to feed so many extra mouths. Glut, especially with fruits, was an unforeseen problem. The British no longer accepted fruit imports because the nutritional value of apples and pears was not as high as meat or cheese and the product took too much space in valuable shipping. In W.A. apple orchards were pulled out, apples were fed to pigs, a local juice was prepared, competitions were mounted for recipes to use the fruit, but the problem did not disappear until the Americans declared their fondness for apple pies.

Health and nutrition were vital new areas for research. It is surprising to note that these important matters were still in their infancy as far as public awareness was concerned since we now seem to be bombarded with information about the importance of eating correctly. In the last quarter of the 19th century some medical men had begun to equate nutrition and certain foods with health. Dr Philip Muskett, for example, in 1893 had noted severely that Australian ‘consumption of butcher’s meat and of tea is enormously in excess of any common sense requirements and is paralleled nowhere else in the world.’ 4 In 1939 Australians still ate more meat than anyone else, beating even the Americans, with their average 248 lbs a year (an amount which did not include wild foods like rabbit and kangaroo) and drank more tea, averaging 6.9lbs per head. As late as 1962 a West Australian psychologist, Ronald Taft, who produced a Scale of Australianism, a series of statements to be posed to ‘new Australians’ to see if they would be more or less likely to adapt to local customs, included the assertion: ‘Wine is a good drink to offer a friend who drops in for a visit’. To agree with this was wrong -too European by half. By implication, beer or tea were preferred. 5 Those whose job it is to measure our food intake, generally agree that altering a person’s tastes is one of the hardest things to succeed in doing. We are wedded to what we eat (and drink) for food is very much part of our culture.

A Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Nutrition had been established in 1936 because of fears that the Depression was harming the health of low income families, a fear that was later borne out in a country-wide survey of eating habits, when it was discovered that some children were under-nourished, especially in country areas, although rickets and scurvy did not appear to be problems. These children did not drink enough milk or eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables. The committee continued to meet throughout the war, and after, as did the small state branches concerned with the same issues. It was believed many adults viewed milk merely as a necessary addition to their tea, rather than an essential ‘protective food’ for the growth of childish bones. But milk in Western Australia still carried the threat of TB, a matter which did not deter doctors and volunteer organisations from encouraging children and pregnant women to drink more.

Prunes also occupied nutritionists’ time. From January 1943 they were available only for invalids, infants and children in this State. Today this preoccupation appears a little esoteric, but not enough prunes were being sent across the Nullabor. For Western Australia’s main problem then as now, was its remoteness from the eastern states where manufacturers, themselves struggling with short supplies, found it difficult to provide WA with packaged foods. Nutritional science (as you can see by the claims made for vegemite) (Border Morning Mail 21 August 1952) still had a way to go, but infants, children and mothers were favoured recipients when certain foods were short. On vegemite labels now you can read the advice to eat a ‘varied diet’.

Did the war push people to try alternative foods? Did it in some way prepare Australians for an influx of new people and new tastes afterwards? Such matters take time but questions associated with the acquisition of new tastes during the war are inextricably linked with the presence of the American forces in Australia. Coca Cola and hamburgers were readily accepted. 6 The American soldiers were welcomed with open arms, at least to begin with.

In 1942, the Australian Women’s Weekly suggested:

‘We can break the boredom of camp life for these young men from America, give them a home from home. A dinner with a dinkum Australian family can do more to bind the ties of friendship between the two countries than a hundred plenipotentiaries. Since California has come to Canberra, Minneapolis to Melbourne and South Carolina to Sydney, it’s up to us Australians to see that they meet the folks.’

And what were Australians advised to feed their guests?

‘American chop stew with mint flavoured glazed carrots and peas.

Trim the veal chops neatly and flour well, season on both sides with salt and pepper and brown in hot fat. When nicely coloured pour one cup of sour cream over chops and simmer until meat is tender. Remove to a hot plate, garnish with tomatoes sliced thickly , dipped in melted fat and sprinkled well with grated cheese and browned at the top of a very hot oven. Thicken liquid in pan, adding more cream if necessary and strain over chops.’ 7

The Americans had a more varied dietary expectation than Australian soldiers with 39 items in their rations compared to the Australian soldier’s 24, and may have been somewhat surprised at this effort to harden their arteries. Fresh fruit formed part of most meals, they ate beef rather than lamb and had a fondness for sweet-corn. They drank coffee rather than tea, and ice cream was always available in their camps, in complete contrast to the Australian situation both for servicemen and civilians. (New Zealand soldiers on the other hand were not so deprived). Some vegetables, like okra, never grown before in WA except possibly in private gardens, were special to the African American servicemen.

Two young women who drove American officers in Queensland recorded what seems to have been an unexceptional experience. They stopped at a café for breakfast:

‘Steak and coffee for five,’ yelled out the waitress…
How did you know what we were going to order?’
”Mericans never eat nuthin’ else,’ she said. 8

The cooking was disappointing.

Australians benefited from the alliance and Lend-Lease. Between January 1942 and September 1944 Australia supplied 1,500,000,000 pounds of food-stuffs to the American forces at a value of around £45,800,000. 9 How was this vast quantity achieved? In 1942, as the result of an unfortunate botulism scare in tinned beetroot, the US sent processing technicians as well as experts in agriculture to achieve improvements.

WA’s industrial base was too small to make much of a difference. Here even milking machines were the exception rather than the rule and once young active men had enlisted from dairy farms milk production slumped. It became imperative to replace their labour with machinery that could only be imported from the US. Tractors were constructed in WA but after the war that one company went out of business, unable to compete with American imports which were sturdier and better designed. WA was particularly short of other expertise with no trained dietitians at all, although by 1942 grocers were well aware of the added selling power of foods advertised with vitamins.

By 1944 American influence on diet extended as far as the seven food groups declared to be necessary for health. 10 Now we have five, but ideas of nutrition had become ‘scientific’ and important. Other evidence suggesting that nutrition had now become a focus for family food lies in Kraft cheese advertisements for the Oslo lunch, and in Perth in the establishment in 1946 of the first Oslo lunch kitchen in Mt. Hawthorn public school.

Rationing was progressively introduced in Australia: tea in July 1942 (two ounces); sugar 31 August 1942 (one pound a week); butter 7 June 1943 (one half pound a week); and meat 17 January 1944 (average two and a quarter pounds a week, but this was later reduced). 11 It was later claimed that: ‘During the war years more food was produced and less wasted and fewer Australians went hungry than at any other time in the country’s history,’ 12 but this happy estimate ignores the shortages of grocery items that were aggravating.

The grocer felt himself to be in the front line when controlling distribution of scarce items. He was told by his professional association that he had a responsibility to apportion scarce goods rationally and fairly, yet goods like tobacco, matches, Bex, APC, marmite, blue, nugget boot polishes, Kiwi polishes, mustard, were in effect rationed by wholesalers from December 1941. All grocers were encouraged to hold three months emergency food supplies as reserve stocks while at the same time they were introducing new foods as substitutes for things they could not get, among them were cashew nuts, instead of Brazil nuts.

For most Australians their diet remained plain; one well suited to their Prime Minister whose favourite meal was the lamb roast. Elsie Curtin liked stews, cornish pasties, meat and three veg and baked wonderful scones, contributing her recipe to the pages of the Australian Women’s Weekly. Her attitudes towards food seem similar in many ways to the pages in hand written cookbooks I have in my study, written by my grandmother and her two sisters. They reflect their Scottish and English heritage and have little mention of herbs beyond parsley and mint, and none of taste enhancers like garlic or soya sauce.

Considering food as evidence, Curtin’s time as Prime Minister can be seen as pointing to times of change at least in technology. The wartime advertising campaign led Australians to consider what they were eating more closely than ever before. But Australians believed they ate well. When post-war migrants complained about the menus in hostels they were met initially with incredulity. Meat was served at every meal with occasional substitutions of eggs or cheese at breakfast. Understanding of cultural differences in diet and nutrition arrived only with a more open, and better travelled, world. A world that the Second World War made possible.

Appendix: Wartime recipes

Please note the names of the dishes. Political correctness had not yet arrived.


Wash and remove ribs from big firm leaves of a cabbage – cook in slightly salted water until tender but firm. Remove and allow to dry.
Mix 1.5 cups of bread crumbs,
half a cup of grated cheese,
1 cup chopped apples,
1 cup stoned prunes,
1 cup chopped cooked veal.
Add 2 tablespoons of melted butter, moisten with a little gravy
Season with salt and pepper and pinch of marjoram
Place two tablespoons of stuffing on each cabbage leaf. Roll into neat rolls, pack together into a casserole.
Pour over a cup of cream or milk.
Cook slowly until sausages are lightly brown.
Serve with tiny bacon rolls fried crisp.

Australian Women’s Weekly, 7 June 1941


Three quarters of a two pound loaf of white bread without the crusts, stand in water over-night. Carefully squeeze out all water.
One quarter pound each of raisins, sultanas and Jordan almonds
Half a packet of mixed spice
3 eggs; 1 cup milk; 1 cup sugar
Mix thoroughly and pour into pie dish
Dot the top with butter and almonds
Bake in slow oven

2/6d to Florence McConnell of Victoria
Australian Women’s Weekly, 3 January 1942


Half a pound of cold mutton, 2 tomatoes, quarter pound of dry macaroni, 1 teaspoon of meat extract, 2 eggs, pepper and salt.
Boil macaroni until tender and line mould with it. Cut up any remaining and mix with finely minced meat and tomatoes cut into small pieces.
Add salt and pepper to taste and meat extract.
Pour into mould
Steam for one hour
Serve with gravy.

2/6d to Mrs. H. Rosewall, South Australia
Australian Women’s Weekly, 11 April 1942

Seven Food Groups of 1942

1. green and yellow vegetables, raw or cooked
2. citrus, tomatoes, raw salad greens
3. potatoes and other vegetables and fruit
4. milk and milk products
5. meat and other protein, for example eggs, nuts, beans and dried peas
6. butter or margarine
7. breads and cereal.

Compare with Five Food Groups, 2003

1. Cereals and potatoes
2. Fruits and vegetables
3. Meat, fish and alternatives (nuts eggs etc)
4. Milk and Dairy products
5. Fatty and sugary foods

The entire nutritional basis for understanding food groups has altered as more research has been completed.


1. See especially, Amy Bentley, Eating for Victory: food rationing and the politics of domesticity, University of Illinois Press, 1998 and her bibliography for recent publications.

2. See J.R. Cramp, ‘Food -the first munition of war’ in Journal and Proc. of Royal Aust. Historical Society, Vol. xxxi, Pt.II, 1945; Commonwealth Yearbook 36, 1944 and 1945; and D.P. Mellor’s volume in the official history, Series 4 (Civil), The Role of Science and Industry, Canberra. 1958.

3. M. Bosworth, ‘Eating for the nation: food and nutrition on the homefront’ in J. Gregory (ed.), On the Homefront, Nedlands, UWA Press, 1996.

4. Philip E. Muskett, The Art of living in Australia, London, 1893, reprinted 1987 by Kangaroo Press, Sydney, p. 1 of Preface. Muskett was firmly in favour of fish and salads and a variety of vegetables to alleviate the potato and cabbage fixation of the times.

5. Cited in Janis Wilton and Richard Bosworth, Old Worlds and New Australia: the post-war migrant experience, Penguin Books Australia, 1984.

6. After the war Perth boasted 11 hamburger cafes instead of the single place before.

7. Australian Women’s Weekly, 2 May 1942, editorial, p.14; Cookery pages, p. 31.

8. M. Mann and B. Foott, We drove the Americans, Sydney 1944, pp.82-3.

9. J.R. Cramp, ‘Food -the first munition of war’ in Journal and Proc. of Royal Aust. Historical Society, Vol. xxxi, Pt.II, 1945, pp. 65-91.

10. See Appendix.

11. Sausages, edible offals, canned meats, poultry, rabbits, fish, bacon and ham were not rationed. See Commonwealth Yearbook 36, 1944 and 1945.

12. D.P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry, p.601