Nearly all consumers are feeling the pinch of inflation, but not everyone is dealing with it the same way. A handful of lucky shoppers notice it, yet they are wealthy enough to ignore it. At the other end of the spectrum are those with limited resources who are postponing purchases. In the middle is another group—likely the majority of people—who are coping with inflation by drawing inspiration from hacks our grandparents employed 80 years or so ago.
There is something about the age of wartime food rationing, and its “make do and mend” mindset that resonates with folks of our time, particularly millennials. The ways in which they are embracing this are many. But when it comes to food, whether people are swapping out brand name products for less pricey, private label items (store brand sales recorded double-digit increases in Q1 of 2023), moonlight shopping at a retail tier a rung below their usual channel (Walmart experienced a surge in their grocery business last year from middle- and higher-income shoppers), or even eliminating certain products or categories from their shopping lists completely, elements of 1940s survival techniques are becoming increasingly common.
So are new price-driven fusions.
We know that the recent trend toward exotic, multi-ethnic flavor fusion is thrilling today’s foodies. As an extension of this, social media content that explores the fusion of unlikely-to-be-combined ingredients is captivating millions. A surprising number of these recipes hearken back to those found in the 1940s.
Consider crazy cake. Perhaps we can credit Avian flu and Eggflation for the assist in stirring up demand for this revered recipe that requires no eggs, milk, or butter. Instead, it draws its magic through the combination of cocoa (sometimes coffee), vinegar, and baking soda. Previously known as wacky cake, war cake, and chocolate depression cake, it was a lifesaver during the food rationing days of World War II. For a few wacky cake ideas, check out @lucileskitchen on Instagram, among others.
Perhaps it’s the “making do” resourcefulness of this era that draws the attention of millennials. This cohort, archetypically speaking, is comprised of spendthrifts and the sustainability minded. Nearly 10 million people, millennials included, follow TikTok baker B. Dylan Hollis as he campily makes old time-y recipes and then rates how they taste.
Wartime beef rationings forced home cooks and restaurant chefs alike to identify crowd pleasing, protein-rich alternatives to meat. Low-cost meal-stretchers were equally necessary. Although plant-based offerings today are de rigueur for the health-conscious, 80 years ago it was challenge to steer Americans away from our beef-centric culture. Meal-makers of the 1940s were forced to work with less meat, or with no meat at all. Today we call their creations comfort food, and we seek them out during emotionally uncertain times.
A glance at the nation’s top comfort foods today reveals that they were created or hit their peaks during economically uncertain times. To boot, many of them hail from the 1940s, a time when they would have been mastered by our grandparents. Headliners include hearty soups made with leftovers, plus:
Although this protein-stretching recipe existed in some form for centuries, it glowed in the time of rationing with additions like liver scraps, crackers, bread, quick-cooking oats, and breakfast cereal. For more on the history of meatloaf, see Bon Appétit’s article, A History of Meatloaf, Long May It Reign.
Mac & Cheese
Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner found its place on millions of stovetops in the US in the 1940s, thanks to its requiring no meat and few ration stamps. Coincidence or not, this past June — the same month that inflation hit a 40-year high, Food Network posted on its website “72 of the Best Macaroni and Cheese Recipes,” which included vegan, chipotle, and breakfast versions of the meal.
Cowboy caviar, a 1940s bean salad recipe, appeared in a video from @brialem in June 2022 and lassoed 17 million views/almost 3 million likes, earning it the most viral recipe video of the year; also, since the middle of last year beans and mac-n-cheese took over foodtok.
This canned pork-and-ham combo Army food with a long shelf life (developed in the 1940s, of course) showed the world it was done being ignored by mainland USA. Atlas Obscura mentioned Minnesota’s weeklong tribute to its homefield invention SPAM, a portmanteau of spiced ham in September of last year. By 3Q2022, CNN had declared SPAM was back.
As these foods from the past carve out a place in inflation-fighting meal rotations at home, something interesting is happening on the restaurant front. Since pandemic lockdown, those living in the US have been on fire for savory and heat-inducing flavored foods. This demand has yielded a noticeable increase in restaurants specializing in ethnic and ethnically fused cuisine—including Japanese, Korean, and other Asian classifications. These hip eateries are often led by multicultural chefs in their 30s, who wish to serve their own comfort foods to customers during these times of emotional and economic uncertainty.
The fascinating catch: these brave and bold chefs have soft spots for variations like SPAM-enhanced meals. Why? Because that’s what their grandparents served them as children.
On the other side of the counter, the trendy customers frequenting these trending restaurants may be too young, or too open minded, to care that SPAM traditionally has been tied to hard times. They just think it’s cool.