Wartime cooking and rationing in New Zealand

Times of crisis cause us to pay more attention to what we are cooking and eating. No matter what is going on in the world, meals are still a necessity. During the lockdown period of 2020, some of us were lucky and able to enjoy devoting more time to food preparation and returning to slower ways of cooking  - the luxury of making our own bread rather than buying it – while others were faced with the difficulties of putting food on the table while unable to work, or finding supermarket shelves stripped bare of necessities by panic shoppers.

In past times of crisis, food has been equally central to people’s experience.


During the First World War and the following decades, New Zealanders, like much of the world, faced a time of austerity. Cookbooks from this period underline the need for ‘economy,’ making food go further, and letting nothing go to waste.

Elsie Gertrude Harvey. The “peace” recipe book : every recipe has been tested and is guaranteed economical. 3rd edition. Printed by N.Z. Newspapers at the Star Office, about 1919.

The “peace” recipe book, published in 1919, reassures cooks that “every recipe has been tested and is guaranteed economical.” Like many cookbooks of this period, it includes a number of vegetarian recipes, as alternatives for when meat was scarce. Dishes include “Parsnip or mock oyster soup,” “Vegetarian corn roast,” “Lentil and peanut dish,” “Lettuce and egg soup,” “Mock hearts,” “Celery custard,” and “Meatless curry,” to which the convincing subtitle is added: “(This is Delicious).”

M. A. Blackmore. Vegetable cookery and meatless dishes. Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1927.

Hallie Miles, author of the 1915 British cookbook Economy in war time, or, Health without meat, assured readers that there was no shame in not eating meat if they couldn’t afford to at that time. “Those who have to give up flesh-foods because of the high price of meat, etc., cannot be labelled ‘vegetarian,’” she writes in her introduction, “ - they are just would-be meat-eaters, who cannot afford to eat meat.” 

Ration book, World War Two. 1940s. Ephemera Collection.

During the Second World War, cooking and meal-planning was made more challenging by the introduction of rationing. Food rationing in New Zealand began in 1942 with restrictions on sugar and tea. There was no shortage of food here, but the emphasis was on feeding the people of Britain, as well as United States forces stationed in the Pacific.

From October 1943, each person was allowed 8 ounces (225 grams) of butter a week, which was four times the British ration. From March 1944, meat was rationed to 2½ pounds (just over 1 kg) per week – two thirds of the normal average consumption. Eggs were prioritised for young children, expectant and nursing mothers, and some invalids; shopkeepers had to reserve their quota before selling the remainder. There were egg shortages in the big cities especially.

Ration books had to be registered with local shops, and contained a page of “emergency counterfoils” to be used if you were “away from home and unable to secure butter or sugar from the grocer with whom you are registered.”

Ration book, World War Two. 1940s. Ephemera collection.

Rationing did not mean that New Zealanders were made to go hungry, but it did restrict the variety of their diets, and required those shopping and cooking for their families (primarily women) to think creatively about meals. Most rationing ended in 1948, but restrictions on dairy products and eggs continued until 1950.

War economy recipe book: containing excellent economical cake, pudding and savoury recipes. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1943.

Self Help wartime cooking suggestions: how to get the most out of your rations. Wellington: Self Help Co-op, 1942.

Economical cookbooks were published to help the home cook make the most from her family’s rations. Self Help wartime cooking suggestions (1942) is divided into groups of recipes according to what ingredients were available; for example, butter but no eggs, or eggs but no butter. Along with “Mystery cake” and “Unusual pudding,” is a recipe for “Eggless, milkless, butterless gingerbread.”

Self Help wartime cooking suggestions: how to get the most out of your rations. Wellington: Self Help Co-op, 1942.

Calling all cooks, a recipe book published by the New Zealand Women's Food Value League, suggests how to make butter go further, or what to substitute if you have none at all – including a candidly-named recipe for a “Butter spread that looks convincing”! 

Calling all cooks : a book of recipes and modern cookery, compiled by the New Zealand Women's Food Value League (Inc.). Auckland: Unity Press, 1947.

Handwritten recipe books provide a fascinating glimpse into what people cooked and ate in the past. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections holds two notebooks once owned by Mabel Harper and filled with handwritten recipes from the 1930s-1950s, many of which are labelled with the name of the person or magazine from which she got the recipe. Her list of ingredients for Anzac biscuits differs somewhat from the Kiwi classic we are familiar with today. She includes chopped walnuts, and wheatmeal rather than rolled oats; a reminder that there were many different early variations of the recipe.

Mabel Harper. Notebook. Chiefly recipes for cakes, and biscuits. 1930s. NZMS 1670.

In 1943, Mabel copied in a recipe for a “Patriotic fruit cake,” though it is unclear exactly what it is that makes it “patriotic.” On the same page are two methods for preserving fruit. As with many home recipe books, instructions for other household tasks are interspersed among those for cooking; on this page is a tip on how to stop wallpaper bubbling or creasing when it is hung.

Mabel Harper. Exercise book with cookery recipes. 1930s -1950s. NZMS 1670.

Preserving is a way to ensure supplies through the year and make fresh produce last longer, whether by salting, smoking, drying, bottling or canning in vinegar or sugar, making jams and chutneys, freezing, or dehydrating. 

Few New Zealand cookbooks published before 1970 do not include a chapter on preserving; Aunt Daisy’s 1948 New Cookery No. 6 included no fewer than 42 pages of preserving recipes! It was especially important in rural areas, where large amounts of fresh produce were grown and home cooks needed to feed not only their families, but also often considerable numbers of seasonal workers. Much guidance on preserving came from the home economy department at Otago University, such as this book by Alice Cushen published 1949.

Margaret Alice Cushen. Preserving. Dunedin: Department of Adult Education, University of Otago, 1949.

With the development of freezers in the 1970s, and increased commercial canneries, home preserving became less of a necessity.

During the 2020 autumn lockdown period, many people found themselves having the time to experiment with making jams and preserves, and using homegrown produce. (I spent my lockdown collecting a bucket of feijoas per day, scooping them out to freeze and use in crumbles all winter, and boiling up the skins for jelly. I also undertook a long and arduous process to make flour from acorns gathered from neighbourhood trees, which required approximately two weeks of labour and is not actually recommended as worthwhile based on the fairly unappetising final product). 

Activities that once would have been daily chores in New Zealand kitchens became enjoyable for those who found themselves with more time. The difficulties of baking when there was no flour to be found on the shelves - or the way our shopping, cooking, and eating habits adapted to new rules and routines - reminds us of the creativity and resourcefulness of cooks in past generations, who kept tins and tummies full despite the changes and challenges of the world around them. 

Author: Harriet Rogers, Heritage Collections

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