By Susanne Merrett
The quote most often, and incorrectly, attributed to Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake”, is a reminder that the winners write the history books. A few French Revolution historians credited her with that particular infamous quote to demonstrate the disconnect between the haves (the French upper class) and the have nots (the French peasants), whose main food source was bread (which ate up half of their income).
For me, that famous quote is also a reminder of just how interwoven food and revolutions are. Napoleon Bonaparte, another icon from the French Revolution, understood this concept, saying “an army marches on its stomach.” Not only does an army need food to fuel the war machine, food has been the cause of war. Foods at the root of revolutions include bread/grain/flour, rice, salt, sugar, spices and even pastries. Whether as a basic necessity of life or as a resource to be exploited, food has been a motivating factor in hostility and bloodshed.
On a lighter note, food, and the indomitable human spirit are also parts of war. When resources are scarce, and food rationing begins, people have proven remarkably ingenious at maintaining the status quo in the kitchen.
During WWII, when Canada was busy supplying Britain with much needed preserved food supplies, the Canadian government implemented a propaganda program to not only encourage the consumption of perishable food items here at home, but also to help out local farmers and fishermen who had surpluses. Quotes such as, “Serve apples daily and serve your country too,” and “It's patriotic and pleasant to eat Canadian lobster,” bolstered wartime spirit. (Given today's popularity of lobster, it's hard to imagine needing psychological prodding to eat one!)
In addition to eating more apples and lobsters, Canadians made other prudent changes in the kitchen. While rural residents often kept gardens, many urbanites did not. However, Victory Gardens (more wartime propaganda) grew in popularity, eventually producing 57,000 tonnes of vegetables per year. Besides growing food, Canadians also collected millions of pounds of fats (for ammunition) and bones (for glue) for the war effort.
Towards the end of WWII, food rationing became the norm. In Canada, sugar, tea, coffee, butter, and meat were all eventually rationed. In an effort to keep spirits up when taste buds and stomachs suffered, wartime cook books with titles such as Victory Cook Book, Wartime Economy Cook Book, and Cook to Win offered ration-friendly recipes while hopefully reinforcing wartime spirit.
One such recipe found in wartime cookbooks was for Canada War Cake, made without the benefit of eggs, milk, butter, or sugar. Considering that those ingredients are found in pretty much every cake recipe today, it is amazing that those ingenious cooks managed to make a sweet treat out of hot water, lard, molasses, raisins, flour, cinnamon, and cloves.
From a psychological standpoint, being able to offer (and eat) cake would make all the other rationing (as well as other stresses of war) seem, perhaps, just a little more bearable. In such circumstances, “let them eat cake” has a whole new meaning.
When my family contemplates cake, Borg-like, we collectively seem to gravitate towards cheesecake, that rich, creamy delight that wartime families could only dream of. While we all have our favourites (my husband prefers chocolate orange, my son goes for lemon blueberry, while I show no bias and love them all!), today I'm making Mini Blueberry Peach Cheesecakes. The mini size means they spend less time in the oven (which is good on these hot summer days) and I can never resist all that lovely fresh, local fruit.