By Cari Romm
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 (and pioneered the slogan “Food will win the war,” as well as the first Meatless Mondays). “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.”
“We should not wait for official rationing to begin to conserve,” he continued. “The same spirit in the household that we had in the last war can solve this problem.”
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.” As a result,
The black market was most active in the meat trade. During the war a large number of small slaughterhouses sprang up, which traded locally and were able to evade the inspectors from the Office of Price Administration [the agency that oversaw food rationing]. They would buy livestock for slaughter above the ceiling price and then sell it on to black-market distributors. Butchers would sell favored customers high-quality steaks in the guise of ‘pre-ground’ hamburger, which used up fewer ration points.
But the war had its home front, too, and the desire for meat consumption didn’t start and end with the families who now used ration stamps to buy it—the government also had a vested interest in making sure Americans stayed well-fed. At the time, public health—and, by extension, nutrition—were considered matters of national security. (Combining these interests under one agency, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Office of Defense, Health, and Welfare Services in 1941. Two years later, the office was disbanded in a bout of government reshuffling and its powers were absorbed by the Federal Security Agency, the predecessor to the modern-day Department of Health and Human Services.)
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 (considered to be one of the founders of social psychology). 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.
The committee members had their work cut out for them. Organ meats at the time were largely shunned by all but the poorest Americans, considered a marker of low social status or a rural, unsophisticated upbringing—and of all the social taboos, those related to food are among the most difficult to dispel, said Barrett Brenton, a nutritional anthropologist at St. John’s University.
“When you think of cultural identity, the last thing to go—even after language—is ideas about food,” he explained. “It’s one of the most deeply culturally rooted sets of ideas that anyone could have, the relationship to food itself.”
Up until that point, food-related war propaganda—as with World War I’s “Food will win this war”—had largely pinned its messages to ideas of patriotism, encouraging the public to use vegetables from their Victory Gardens, Can for Victory, or otherwise do their part in the kitchen to support the men on the front lines.
Mead and Lewin, though, had other ideas. Using patriotism as an incentive was all well and good, they argued, but it wasn’t the most effective means of steering eating behavior. A better method, they believed, was to focus on barriers over incentives—the question at hand wasn’t “What would convince you to eat organ meats?” but rather “Why don’t you eat them in the first place?”
One of the major reasons, they soon found through their research, was organs’ unfamiliarity—people balked at the idea of serving something without knowing its taste or even how best to prepare it. In response, the committee urged the government to produce materials that couched the new meats in more comfortable terms.
“One of the first interesting things they found was, you don’t go to people and say, ‘Look, eat beef brains every day,’” said Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University, in his 2002 paper “Changing Eating Habits on the Home Front: Lost Lessons from World War II Research.” “The first thing they did was say, ‘Let’s have a much smaller ask. Let’s ask people to occasionally try an organ meat. Insert organ meat into your meal planning.’ What was very clever about the way they did this, is they said, ‘Just try it for variety.’”
And thus, “variety meats” were born. Butchers, who already sold organ meats for fewer ration points than premium cuts, were encouraged to adopt the new term with their customers; so were reporters with their readers.
“Variety meats: They are good, abundant, highly nutritious,” chirped an article in the January 1943 issue of LIFE magazine:
For no good reason most Americans wrinkle their noses at the idea of any of the functional organs of otherwise edible animals. Yet tripe, kidneys, tongue, heart, liver, and the other “variety meats” shown on the following pages are not only rich in nutritive value but, when properly prepared, are among the tastiest dishes known.
Community groups held “variety” cooking classes; publishers released cookbooks instructing people how to make hearts filled with stuffing and chicken and how to prepare kidneys for meat and vegetable stew. Slowly, organs became, if not enthusiastically embraced, than begrudgingly accepted into the mainstream diet—and as their ubiquity grew, their stigma began to fade.
“Social norms to eat organ meats were dramatically influenced by the mere presence of these foods on the family dinner table,” Wansink wrote in his 2002 paper. “Organ meats soon became foods that ‘patriots’ ate, not necessarily foods that ‘poor people’ ate.”
The effect, though, lasted barely longer than the war itself.
In part, the timing was to blame. The Committee on Food Habits was prolific, conducting hundreds of studies over its few years in existence, but using the information they gleaned to overhaul social norms was a much slower process, and victory arrived before lasting changes to the American diet had a chance to take hold.
And in part, the propaganda was to blame, too.
“They pushed these organ meats in [propaganda] literature and pamphlets, but when it came to the visual propaganda, it still featured steaks, roasts, chops—these really high-valued cuts of meat,” said Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at New York University and the author of Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity. “So in a sense, they were sending two messages.”
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.