In January 1943, just over a year into the United States’ involvement in World War II, former president Herbert Hoover took to the pages of the now-defunct magazine What’s New in Foods and Nutrition to deliver a part-pep talk, part-warning about the state of the American meat supply.
“Meats and fats are just as much munitions in this war as are tanks and aeroplanes,” wrote Hoover, who led the U.S. Food Administration during World War I.
“The problem will loom larger and larger in the United States as the war goes on … Ships are too scarce to carry much of such supplies from the Southern Hemisphere; our farms are short of labor to care for livestock; and on top of it all we must furnish supplies to the British and the Russians.”
Hoover knew of what he spoke. Just two months later, meat would join butter and cheese as a rationed food item, as growing quantities of beef and pork were shipped overseas to feed American and Allied troops.
But meat rationing represented a harsh blow to the American diet, which considered it a staple. As Lizzie Collingham wrote in her book The Taste of War, “Red meat, preferably beef, was highly valued as a prime source of energy, especially for the working man, and its presence on a plate helped to define the food as a proper meal.”
In 1940, at the behest of the Department of Defense, the National Research Council assembled a team of the country’s leading social scientists to create the Committee on Food Habits.
Its mission was twofold: First, they needed to launch an in-depth study of Americans’ eating habits—who in a household decided what would be served?
What made a meal a meal? What was the ideal balance of familiarity versus novelty?
And second, once it understood the factors that influenced those answers, the committee needed to change them in ways that benefitted the war effort.
To head the committee, the NRC recruited anthropologist Margaret Mead, along with German-born psychologist Kurt Lewin. At the top of their agenda: addressing the looming meat shortage.
More specifically, they needed to devise a way to convince Americans to abandon their steaks, pork chops, and other familiar cuts in favor of the meats that the soldiers wouldn’t eat—the hearts, livers, and other organs that remained plentiful stateside.
In other words, even the government didn’t fully embrace its own message that variety could become the new normal. Organ meats would do for wartime—but the satisfaction of a well-cooked steak was still a formidable foe.
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