- Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Food on Canada’s Home Front by Ian Mosby
This book is another encouraging sign that the history of the Canadian home front is entering a mature phase, where the axes being ground are scholarly rather than patriotic or deliberately iconoclastic. This is a study of the politics of food and nutrition in Canada during World War II, served up buffet style. Among other things, chapters deal with food rationing and price controls, home-front volunteerism, and the emerging science of nutrition, with a perceptive analysis of gender as the binding agent. [End Page 505]
Rationing is usually depicted in popular histories as an imposition on Canadians, a sacrifice they were required to make in a time of war. Ian Mosby argues that rationing, along with price controls, was surprising popular. Many Canadians, and most particularly, he argues, female consumers, saw support for wartime controls not merely as a patriotic duty but as an endorsement of a potentially new method of social and economic organization. Histories of women on the home front have often stressed their movement into the paid labour force. Mosby examines their wartime experience through the lens of their everyday experience as homemakers, consumers, and volunteers. The government’s large-scale intervention into consumer affairs, carried out under the auspices of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, transformed the consumer landscape but also offered opportunities for citizen-consumers to turn regulations in their favour. Of particular interest here is Mosby’s chapter concerning nutrition science. The creation of the Canada Council on Nutrition coincided with the war, but, in tandem with the Department of Nutrition Services, the council asserted itself powerfully during the conflict, often at the behest of women’s groups, in the form of a public health program that urged Canadians to improve their eating habits. That no consensus on these matters emerged is perhaps not surprising and illustrates the limits of the government’s ability to mandate and regulate where such matters are concerned.
Food Will Win the War is the result of careful archival research and judicious analysis. I would quibble here and there. The wartime consumer economy might not be so penurious as Mosby has it. Average per capita incomes grew dramatically during the war, retail sales grew well ahead of inflation, and, for the first two years of the war at least, there were no particularly serious shortages. Coupon rationing applied only to a handful of goods, did not begin until the middle of the war, and in some cases ended before the war itself, while many of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board’s rules were impositions on retailers rather than consumers. But these are objections of the glass-is-half-full variety. This is a very valuable contribution to the emerging history of Canada’s home front. It is highly specialized, but as George Orwell (quoted by Mosby at the outset) wrote, food is a universal experience and worth studying. I touched on some of these issues in my own work on Canada’s wartime consumer culture and had planned to return to them for a more detailed book-length study. Not now. In short, this reviewer has quite emphatically been scooped. But I take some consolation in knowing that Mosby has served up a better book than I could have. So there’s that. [End Page 506]