Wheatless Wartime Boston Brown Bread

“FUEL IS FOR FIGHTERS. Do not waste it. Save WHEAT, MEAT, SUGARS, AND FATS. Send more to our Soldiers, Sailors and Allies.”

As a professor of nutrition at Columbia University, Mary Schwartz Rose made it her ambition to show the American housewife that the above message from the United States Food Administration did not necessarily mean months of tasteless meals lacking in nutrition. In her 1918 cookbook Everyday Foods in War Time, Rose extols the virtues of the wheatless, sugarless diet. To give up wheat, so “soft yet firm,” takes “courage and resolution,” she admits. And sugar does tempt from the soda fountain, bakery and candy shop. But Rose reminds us that oatmeal is rich in iron, one-half pound of cornmeal is enough to furnish “everything needed by the body,” and a touch of calcium-rich molasses can protect against the siren song of cane sugar.

An American poster from the First World War


The following recipe for wartime Boston brown bread is a perfect example of a recipe that proves more nutritious and delicious than its peacetime counterpart–Rose even makes a special point of mentioning that this recipe has “two and one half times the food value of a twelve-ounce loaf of white bread.” If desired, serve this bread with butter and honey, or with Mystic Baked Beans.

Wartime Boston Brown Bread

1 cup rye meal
1 cup corn meal
1 cup finely ground oatmeal
1 1/2 cups milk
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup molasses
2 teaspoons baking powder

Mix and sift dry ingredients, add molasses and milk, stir until well mixed, turn into a well-greased mold, and steam three and one-half hours. The cover should be greased before being placed on the mold. The mold should never be filled more than two-thirds full. A one-pound baking powder box makes the most attractive shaped loaf for steaming; place mold on a trivet in kettle containing boiling water, allowing water to come half-way up around mold; cover closely and steam, adding as needed more boiling water. One cup chopped peanuts and one cup dates may be added.

May-Day Bannocks

On the first of May 1892, chimney sweeps, their faces blackened with soot, danced down the streets of Cheltenham, playing fiddles and tin-whistles. A large cluster of bright green leaves and twigs fastened to a wooden framework followed. This strange manmade bush, out of which peeked a smiling face, was followed in turn by a large group of laughing, drunken men, each of whom was crowned with a garland of small, bright flowers and dressed in loose-fitting bodices and trousers of flower-patterned calico.

One might wonder what kind of madness struck the town of Cheltenham on that warm spring day in 1892. But it was nothing more than the sweet joy of a May-Day celebration.

Associated with the Celtic feast of Beltane, May Day marks the end of winter in the northern hemisphere. The holiday was cause for raucous celebrations among the peasantry and lower classes, and wild dances of unbridled happiness, usually around a maypole festooned with flowers and wreaths, took place across Europe and the Americas.

Such was the mirth and celebration of May Day that some towns refused to take their maypole down at the holiday’s end: Deep within the Black Forest, in the village of Furtwangen, a maypole stood all the year round, sporting a placard on which was written, “Glück und Segen dem neuen Wirth” (a wish for happiness and peace). A long string of red poppies wound around the proudly defiant pole, and wine bottles and beer glasses were affixed to its cross-tree.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes’s The Maypole, 1816-1818

The meals served on May Day were simple affairs — thick slices of bread covered in butter and honey, creamy custards and jugs of beer. But before preparations for the May-Day feast could start, the leftovers of May-eve dinner had to be buried in the garden lest, according to British superstition, fairies and other evil sprites rendered them fatal with their magic on Walpurgisnacht.

Here’s recipe for Scottish bannocks, a traditional May-Day food, from Rampant Scotland. They were usually marked with a cross after baking as protection against evil spirits. Serve the bannocks with butter and honey–and if you serve them on the eve of May Day, don’t forget to bury them in your garden the next morning.

May-Day Bannocks

4 ounces (125 grams) oatmeal
2 teaspoons fat, melted (use bacon fat, if available)
2 pinches baking powder
Pinch of salt
3/4 teaspoon (or more) hot water
Additional oatmeal for kneading

Mix the oatmeal, salt and bicarbonate and pour in the melted fat into the centre of the mixture. Stir well, using a porridge stick if you have one and add enough water to make into a stiff paste. Cover a surface in oatmeal and turn the mixture onto this. Work quickly as the paste is difficult to work if it cools. Divide into two and roll one half into a ball and knead with hands covered in oatmeal to stop it sticking. Roll out to around quarter inch thick. Put a plate which is slightly smaller than the size of your pan over the flattened mixture and cut round to leave a circular oatcake. Cut into quarters (also called farls) and place in a heated pan which has been lightly greased. Cook for about 3 minutes until the edges curl slightly, turn, and cook the other side. Get ready with another oatcake while the first is being cooked.

An alternative method of cooking is to bake them in an oven at Gas5/375F/190C for about 30 minutes or until brown at the edges. The quantities above will be enough for two bannocks about the size of a dessert plate. If you want more, do them in batches rather than making larger quantities of mixture. Store in a tin and reheat in a moderate oven when required.

Wheatless and Sugarless Wartime Cooking: Oat Flour Muffins

During the winter of 1917-1918, The Mrs. Farmer’s School of Cookery developed a collection of recipes to aid the American housewife in conserving meat, wheat, sugar and fats. These austerity recipes were tested in the school’s “Wartime Cookery” class.

The Mrs. Farmer’s School of Cookery was started in 1902 in Boston, Massachusetts. It offered classes to both gentlewomen and housewives on the rudiments of cooking and household management. The Wartime Cookery class was just one of many classes offered at the school, which later came to specialize in convalescent diets.

Mrs. Fanny Farmer testing wartime recipes


Here’s a recipe for oat flour muffins from Mrs. Farmer’s Wartime Cookery class. Oat flour produces a delightfully light texture in baked goods. Should you not find oat flour in your area, grind oatmeal in a coffee grinder until fine.


Oat Flour Muffins
2 1/2 cups oat flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 egg, well beaten
2 tablespoons molasses

1 tablespoon melted shortening
Mix dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Add milk, the egg, molasses and shortening. Bake in buttered gem [muffin] pans twenty-five minutes [in a medium oven]. This may be baked in a bread pan and sliced when cold.

Baumgarthuber, Christine. Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder. Reaktion Books, 2021.

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