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Shake Things Up This Holiday Season With Historic Recipes

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, millions of people will be celebrating Passover and the Easter season over the course of this coming week, holidays that are celebrated with special foods that for many evoke powerful feelings even when families are separated. And for many people, these holidays will be bittersweet for another reason, as people continue to struggle to afford enough food after losing jobs or having their hours cut back.

And that reminded staff at the National WWI Museum and Memorial of another time more than a century ago, when the war effort made food a strategic resource that needed to be safeguarded to prevent shortages. The museum, which is physically located in Kansas City, Mo., is hosting an online exhibit titled War Fare: From The Homefront To The Frontlines. It features recipes from a century ago that curators say you could use as inspiration right now, whether you're celebrating the spring holidays or just bored with your repertoire.

To tell us more, we're joined by Lora Vogt. She is the curator of education at the National WWI Museum and Memorial.

Lora Vogt, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

LORA VOGT: Oh, thank you. It's a real pleasure.

MARTIN: So, first of all, what parallels do you see between how we think about food now and the way food was seen during World War I?

VOGT: Oh, especially right now in this 21st century kitchen, when people are looking to eat gluten-free or vegetarian or local, maybe even hyper-local, that is very much echoing the time from a century ago, when we were looking to use less meat, less flours, less fats and sugars.

MARTIN: So the exhibit explains that during World War I, President Wilson actually had a food czar, a so-called food czar. This was the future president, Herbert Hoover. And they urged Americans to voluntarily help the war effort to save food. But the government didn't impose food rationing. And this led to a mass campaign that tried to steer people away from consuming certain foods like dairy and sugar. Why is that?

VOGT: Sugar was something that they felt could be better used on the frontlines - things that could be sent overseas, that could be used not just for energy, but really to let people go the extra mile - those foods that were easy to ship, like flour, like fats, like sugars.

The United States was asking Americans all to voluntarily ration, to choose to come together so that we together could win our objective. And in doing so, they started to put out a variety of new recipes that really looked to the diversity of the American peoples and the diversity of our geographic regions to find some replacements.

MARTIN: So there were encouraging people to limit themselves voluntarily. And that kind of reminds me of the - early in the pandemic, when paper products were running out and...

VOGT: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Cleaning supplies were running out, and people were freaking out and posting, you know...

VOGT: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Pictures on social media, like the empty shelves where the paper towels should be and the toilet paper should be. Did that happen then? Was there a run on, say, flour and sugar and things like that that the government had to step in and say, please don't do that?

VOGT: In buying sprees that harken the toilet paper run of 2020, there was a shortage of sugar in the United States in 1917. It both had to do with the increase of canning that was occurring since the United States had officially joined the war in April of 1917, but it also had to deal with this fear of shortage. And it's actually that fear that ushered it into reality. And so the United States government had to deal with giving people that sense of confidence and ushering them into an opportunity to not take all the sugar off of the shelves.

MARTIN: That's so interesting because it does sound so similar to what...

VOGT: Oh, my goodness.

MARTIN: ...Happened sort of this year.

VOGT: It absolutely is. So if you look back at this 1917, 1919 timeframe, you know, the United States is a nation of immigrants. We are absolutely torn apart by racial injustice. There's this raging battle to define full American citizenship, you know, arguing who could and who couldn't vote. And on top of that, we have a highly polarized Congress, and it's in the midst of a global pandemic. It would be challenging to find a time frame that I think we could more easily identify with than Americans of a hundred years ago.

MARTIN: People might be surprised at how creative some of these recipes are, especially in trying to prevent waste - which is, again, another thing that people are really concerned about right now. They're starting to put posters - I'm seeing posters at, like, the bus stops now about food waste. So what were some of the - can you just - do you remember any - some of the kind of creative strategies that people employed to do that?

VOGT: There is certainly a push to encourage people to save their vegetable scraps and to be making broths. And again, there's some really great recipes for broths and the like. There's an encouragement to use your extras and your leftovers. So if you have leftover hard-boiled eggs, there's a wonderful recipe in our War Fare exhibition of making a cream sauce. So you could make creamed eggs on toast...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

VOGT: ...Or creamed vegetables that you could then serve that next night, which is such - I think for many families, it's become quite an Easter recipe around this timeframe. But again, it's something that allowed you to make sure you weren't wasting anything that was around. In this push to shift away from sugars, there was an encouragement to create this sugarless sweet, so to use, say, dates and raisins and nuts. I mean, you actually make it, and you realize it's basically a modern-day Larabar.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

VOGT: But it's these - it's a lot of these recipes that you look at that are so very 21st century but were written a hundred years ago.

MARTIN: Lora Vogt is curator of education at the National WWI Museum and Memorial. You can find the recipes we've been talking about on the museum's website. Just look for the link to the online exhibition titled War Fare: From The Homefront To The Frontlines.

Lora Vogt, thank you so much for joining us.

VOGT: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLUM VILLAGE'S "HUSTLE INSTRUMENTAL MIX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.