Finding bread alternatives may seem like a thoroughly modern obsession. (Can someone pass the chia-millet rolls?) But the widespread search for substitutes to white flour, in particular, dates back at least a century, to World War I, when Allied forces aggressively urged consumers to change their starchy habits for nationalistic reasons.
On one hand, bread was symbolically important: It conjured ideas of comfort that were especially welcome during a time of fear and turmoil. The act of sharing a loaf — literally breaking bread together — carried psychological weight.
“If you had bread, you were OK,” says Joanne Lamb Hayes, author of the book Grandma’s Wartime Kitchen.
Problem was, diners on both sides of the ocean had a taste for white bread, which only made use of part of the wheat crop, and wasted the rest. Plus, Britain, an island nation, imported much of its food, including its grain – a task made harder with German submarines prowling the waters. In this atmosphere, indulging in white flour was viewed as wastefulness akin to aiding and abetting the enemy. At the same time, Allied forces called on the U.S. to donate some of its wheat crop to feed troops and civilians overseas. So, in the U.S. and U.K., government campaigns encouraged patriots to give up refined white bread in favor of heartier whole wheat, or to add other ingredients as fillers.
“There was a feeling that the troops deserved white bread, and the rest of us could add cornmeal or rye flour,” says Hayes.
In the U.S. during World War I, the federal Food Administration encouraged substituting ground oats, cornmeal, rice, barley, potato and buckwheat in place of wheat flour. (Yep — the same kinds of ingredients you’ll find in today’s frozen gluten-free waffles.)
In Oregon, for instance, the loaf locally called “war bread” contained 40 percent wheat substitutes, such as corn, barley, or rice flour; another type, known as “victory bread,” contained 25 percent substitutes. Those who munched on war bread, readers of the Oregon Evening Herald were told, were “15 per cent more patriotic than the one who eats victory bread.”
One 1918 pamphlet described these alternative breads as “foods that will win the war.” One wheatless meal per family per day, the pamphlet estimated, “would mean a saving of 90,000,000 bushels of wheat, which totals 5,400,000,000 lbs.”
American home bakers were also encouraged to mash up potatoes in their breads, because, as Hayes explains, “people could grow some sort of potato in their victory garden.” Whereas “with wheat, you really needed a farm.” Some newspapers even ran daily potato recipes, such as one for mashed potato biscuits.
Ditching white bread for the good of the nation was also a theme during World War II, though American eaters weren’t psyched about it. As Aaron Bobow-Strain explains in the book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, “during the 1930s and ’40s, Americans got more calories from white bread than from any other food,” and glared at attempts to tweak the recipe.
Still, newspapers under the Hearst umbrella dutifully compiled recipes by the pseudonymous “Prudence Penny,” who doled out patriotic calls to arms softened by singsong rhymes. The resulting cookbook, Prudence Penny’s Coupon Cookery, included ditties like this, an ode to whole grain flour as an alternative to white:
The cook who bakes her bread and rolls is everybody’s pal
Just that tantalizing fragrance will help to build morale
America is rich in grain, and grain is rich in health
Whole-grain bread and cereals may prove our nation’s wealth
Wartime ingredient swaps were common in the U.K., too, during both world wars, says Amanda Mason, a historian at the Imperial War Museum in London. Dried eggs — more widely available than fresh ones — became baking staples. Sausage meatloaf molded into the shape of a turkey or duck masqueraded as festive holiday fare. Parsnips were cast as fake bananas.
And, during World War II, U.K. consumers were introduced to Potato Pete, a dapper cartoon spud with a jaunty cap and spats, who instructed them on the humble tuber’s many uses – not just in standards like scalloped potatoes and savory pies, but also in more surprising options, like potato scones and waffles.
Indeed, Mason says the only bakery-made bread for sale in Britain during much of World War II was something called the National Loaf. This was a coarse, wholemeal bread that used as much grain as possible, including the husks — and which, Mason admits, was “generally unpopular with the average shopper.”
American consumers weren’t drooling over the taste of war bread, either. The writer of a 1918 story in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle glumly reported that the texture and flavor of war-time bread “are suggestive of saw dust,” and noted that “it doesn’t tempt appetite.”
Still, writers were quick to add that war breads were a patriotic duty: As the Daily Eagle noted, “Of course, we are resigned — we are even glad — to eat them.”
And the government and media outlets made sure people didn’t forget that duty. A front-page story in an April 1917 issue of Washington state’s Tacoma Times newspaper featured a drawing of Uncle Sam admonishing readers to “avoid wastefulness and shun white-flour bread.” That same month, Chicago’s Day Book chided consumers who ate white bread, reminding them that “war bread is more essential than bullets.”
Agencies in the U.K. also laid on the guilt trip to keep consumers away from white bread. Short propaganda films produced by the British Ministry of Food during World War II urged citizens to “make the most of every crumb,” because “bread is worth more than dough.” Posters echoed this sentiment, trumpeting, “Save the Wheat and Help the Fleet,” and “The Kitchen Is the Key to Victory: Eat Less Bread.”
Jessica Leigh Hester writes about urbanism and history. She lives in Brooklyn.