One of my biggest fears in life is being interviewed about American history by some secret talk show reporter (I know- first world fears). Like the fools unveiled on Letterman or Leno, I’d stammer, make up answers and reveal an overwhelming lack of knowledge (at least I can identify Mount Rushmore- c’mon!).
I was fortunate to have really motivated, inspiring high school teachers, but cramming six years of complex WWII history into one lesson plan leaves a lot to be desired. Very little comes to life in such a consolidated academic approach, so mine became a position of apathy. Hence I first ignored the Heinz History Center’s WWII “We Can Do It”, brushing it aside with “I’m not interested in war.” Then I saw a listing for “WWII Cooking with Chris Fennimore,” and my curiosity was piqued!
That’s how I found myself diving excitedly into a WWII exhibit. Unlike a high-school class, the History Center has the ability follow smaller threads and more personal stories. The Heinz exhibit focused on how Pittsburgh affected the war and vice versa. Who knew the rugged, war-tested Jeep was a Pittsburgh/Western PA contribution? I didn’t even know Rosie, the beloved, iconic Riveter, was born right here in this steel city!
Beyond war strategies and alliances, the exhibit brought the home life to the forefront. WWII era America was progressive, with women filling traditional male roles such as mechanics, ground crew and security at the local airport. Women soared in WWII, yet 75 years later, we are still fighting for workplace equality.
Viewed through the lens of food justice today, America’s local food scene was also quite advanced in the war era. In the face of constricted food channels and the resulting rations, families and communities rallied in “Victory Gardens.” During World War II, these rural and urban gardens provided nearly 40 percent of the vegetables consumed in the U.S. The government elevated gardening to a civic duty through patriotic posters and campaigns.
Americans used imported foods in extreme moderation. One recipe advised waiting until several sugar rations could be compiled before baking the cake. After the war, however, the gardens were no longer necessary for sustenance, and urban developers excluded them from their plans. Advancements in refrigeration and transportation filled bright, shiny supermarkets with year-round produce, leading to the onslaught of overly processed foods and the associated health and environmental risks we face today.
Walking through the exhibit with curator Leslie Przybylek and cooking show host Chris Fennimore provided a mix of history and nostalgia. Fennimore’s father was a vet, and though he was often tight-lipped about his experience, he would often revel in certain foods, outright refuse other foods and delight in WWII supplies reborn as camping gear.
Fennimore brought even more life to the exhibit through the History Center’s test kitchen. He managed to strike a balance of historical accuracy and edibility, no easy task considering the canned meats, fat alternatives and overall scarcity of the era. He even managed to source a can of corned beef from a supermarket- a true vestige of WWII, with a key can-opener and all!
Since meat rations were especially lean, home cooks had to find ways to stretch the flavor of meat and fat. Channeling that necessity, Fennimore fried onions, peppers and finely chopped potatoes to create an affordable, flavorful, meaty hash. His cooking demo marked the first and hopefully the last time I will ever eat meat from a can, but questionable meat sourcing aside, the dish merited a second helping!
While cooking, Fennimore chatted about the reason he started his show. Much like my own motives for starting a blog, he began cooking on television to celebrate the nostalgia surrounding recipes and meals.
I highly encourage a visit to the museum for the “We Can Do It” exhibit (hurry, it closes January 10th). Beyond history books and academic lessons, the center provides several lenses through which to view this significant event. Perhaps like me, you’ll find new threads to spark your curiosity. For instance, now I’m wondering: When did dog food become a store-bought commodity? Why did jello become such a staple? Why did women disappear from the work force and have to fight so hard to prove themselves again?
Though Chris Fennimore’s cooking demo was a one-night treat, stay tuned as he’ll likely return to the History Center’s kitchen for the next exhibit- Toys From The 1950s.
Happy History Trails, my friends!
Disclaimer: I did receive free admission to the event, but all opinions are my own!