Recipes from World War I (Part 2) - Wheatless


Oat and rye flours were possible alternatives to wheat (white) flour duirng World War I.

[This posting of Special Collections News follows the one of January 16 that presented recipes for meat alternatives.  Today’s focuses on wheat substitutes, as revealed through the weekly Progressive Farmer and publications of the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service (now called North Carolina Cooperative Extension).]

During 1917 and 1918, the United States shipped wheat, in the form of white flour, to Europe in order to feed our troops and allies.  To guarantee that there would be enough, the U.S. Food Administration encouraged Americans to conserve by having a “wheatless” meal every day and “wheatless” days every week in which no flour would be served.  This government agency distributed information to help housewifes and other food preparers make substitutions.  It issued such publications as Wheatless Recipes and War Economy in Food, with Suggestions and Recipes for Substitutions in the Planning of Meals.

Promoting Substitutes

Home economists nationwide and the North Carolina Home Demonstration agents spent the war developing recipes with alternatives for white flour.  In the 5 January 1918 Extension Farm-News, North Carolina’s Jane S. McKimmon recommended 2 lbs. of flour per person per week (with 6 lbs. considered “average consumption”):  “This flour ration will furnish a sufficient number of biscuits for two meals per day, but necessitates the use of corn meal at the third, or some other wheat substitute.”

On 11 May 1918 Extension Farm-News called on housewives to stop buying white flour all together until the next harvest in September.  McKimmon stated that women could “take the wheat flour that you have on hand and parcel it out to furnish you a wheat loaf now and then, but do not call on your grocer for another pound if you would join the ranks of those corn-bread patriots who are lining up behind the Food Administration in its efforts to send food to our Allies and armies.” (“Wheat flour” was the term used for white flour in the literature; the U.S. Food Administration did not include whole wheat and graham flours in the “wheatless” campaign.)

The 6 July 1918 Extension Farm-News showed that many alternatives, such as cornmeal, rye flour, and rolled oats, could be purchased at prices similar to that of white flour (6 to 8 cents per pound).  Also,  drawing on the emerging field of nutrition science, all of the flours could be equated as costing approximately the same per calorie (38 to 44 cents per 100 calories).  See the end of this news post for a guide to proportions for substitutes.


This was probably the major white flour alternative that was promoted during World War I.  The Home Demonstration agents encouraged housewives to make the batter breads, spoon breads, corn mush bread, griddle bread, and fried hominy recipes contained in existing Extension publications, such as Plans for Community Club Work in the Study of Foods and Household Conveniences and A Study of Foods for Home Demonstration Clubs.

These recipes drew upon generations-old traditions of cornmeal use in North Carolina cooking.  In the 11 May 1918 Extension Farm-News, McKimmon advised those yearning for a white flour biscuit to remember the cornpone of her readers’ childhoods:  “the little thin pone of corn bread baked to a golden brown . . . will go far towards satisfying this craving,” and she provided this recipe:  “Make your dough up very soft indeed and let it stand for at least a half hour before baking, that the meal may absorb the water.  Use some of your bacon drippings for shortening, and pat the pones until they are very thin.  Served hot with butter, they are hard to surpass.”  Additional recipes using cornmeal were published in Extension Farm-News for the duration of the war. 

The agricultural weekly the Progressive Farmer also advanced the U.S. Food Administration’s promotion of cornmeal by equating it with white flour.  In the 15 December 1917 issue (p. 15), the article “Corn Meal—How to Use It” said cooks would notice little difference between cornmeal and white flour:  “corn meal has practically the same composition as wheat flour except that there is more fat in corn meal than in wheat flour.”   Hoping to play up health benefits, it claimed that this fat made it “a little more nutritious.”  Drawing upon U.S. Department of Agriculture publications, the article included recipes for hoecake, cornpone, crisp cornmeal cake, sour-milk cornbread, spider cornbread, corn meal muffins, and this one for ash cake:

One quart corn meal, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 tablespoon lard or other shortening, boiling water.  Scald the meal; add the salt and the shortening and when the mixture is cold form into oblong cakes, adding more water if necessary.  Wrap the cakes in cabbage leaves, or place 1 cabbage leaf under the cakes and 1 over them, and cover them with hot ashes.

Such recipes recalled the colonial and antebellum periods, perhaps a nostalgic evocation of “simpler” times or childhood.  The 26 October 1918 Progressive Farmer actually titled a section “Old-Time Recipes” (p. 15) that included another version of ash cake, as well as bops, pot dodgers, Indian pudding, cornmeal mushes, spoonbreads, and this recipe called “cush”:

Stir smoothly 1 pint of sifted meal with 1 pint of cold water.  Cut ½ pound of fat bacon in dice, fry brown.  Add 1 quart boiling water.  Teaspoon of salt.  One-half teaspoon of black pepper to meal and water.  Cook 30 minutes, stirring constantly.


Another white flour alternative promoted during World War I was oats.  The Home Demonstration publication A Study of Foods for Home Demonstration Clubs contained a recipe for traditional oatmeal cookies and a breakfast oatmeal made in a "fireless" cooker.  Cooked oatmeal could then become the basis for other recipes.  The 12 January 1918 Progressive Farmer (p. 17) had these desserts: 

Oatmeal Betty – 2 cups cooked oatmeal, 4 apples cut small, ½ cup raisins, ½ cup sugar, ¼ teaspoon cinnamon.

Brown Pudding – 2 cups cooked oatmeal, ½ cup molasses, ½ cup raisins.

The instructions for both recipes were “mix and bake for one-half hour.  Serve hot or cold with honey sauce.  Any dried or fresh fruits, dates or ground peanuts may be used instead of apples.  Either will serve five people.”

The recipe for “Baked Oatmeal and Nuts” in the 26 October 1918 section of “Old-Time Recipes” may have been considered a main dish with the inclusion of peanuts (as a possible meat substitute): 

Two cups cooked oatmeal.  One cup crushed peanuts.  One-half cup milk.  One teaspoon vinegar.  One-half teaspoon pepper.  Two and one-half teaspoons salt.  Mix together and bake in a greased pan 15 minutes.  This is enough for five people.

Another non-breakfast recipe was the one for “Oatmeal Soup” in the 17 August 1918 issue:  “Cook ¾ cup oatmeal, ½ onion sliced, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 cloves, ½ bay leaf in boiling water for an hour.  Add 2 cups milk, seasonings and ½ tablespoons butter when almost done.”

Potatoes and Rice

During the 1910s, people viewed other starches as nutritionally equivalent to white flour.  The 30 March 1918 Progressive Farmer (p. 15) promoted potatoes, claiming “one medium-sized potato gives you as much starch as two slices of bread.  When you have potatoes for a meal you need less bread.  Potatoes can save wheat."  The article revealed a very mechanistic view of the human body, borrowing from the nutritional language of the time period: 

Potatoes are good fuel for the body.  They furnish starch which burns in your muscles to let you work, much as the gasoline burns in an automobile engine to make the car go.  They give you salts like other vegetables.  You need the salts to build and renew all the parts of your body and to keep it in order.

So instead of flour biscuits, housewives could make potato biscuits, such as this one in  the 10 November 1917 Progressive Farmer (p. 16, “Use Potatoes as a Substitute for White Flour and Help to Win the War"):

1 cupful mashed potatoes, 1 cupful flour, 4 teaspoonsfuls baking powder, ½ teaspoonful salt, 1 tablespoonful butter, 1 tablespoonful lard, milk, about ½ cupful.  Sift the dry ingredients.  Add these to the potatoes, mixing with a knife[.]  Work the fat into this mixture lightly.  Add gradually enough milk to make a soft dough.  Toss the dough on a floured board, pat, and roll it lightly to ½ inch in thickness. Cut it into shapes with a biscuit cutter.  Place the biscuits on greased pans and bake 12 to 15 minutes in a hot oven.

Potatoes could also replace some of the flour used in desserts.  The same 30 March 1918 issue claimed

Potatoes are good in cake.  They are often used in this way to keep the cake from drying out quickly.  Mash the potatoes and beat up with milk until very light.  You can use your usual cake recipe, substituting one cup of mashed potatoes for one-half cup milk and one-half cup flour.

Another issue (23 March 1918, p. 19.) employed this substitution in Chocolate and Nut Potato Cake:

1 1/3 cups sugar, 1 cup lard compound, 1 cup cooked potato, ½ cup milk, 2 cups flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 4 eggs beaten lightly, ½ cup chocolate (melted), ½ cup chopped nuts, ½ teaspoon cloves, ½ teaspoon cinnamon.  Cream, [sic] sugar and fat.  Add potato and mix thoroughly; add milk and flour alternately.  Add the eggs beaten lightly, chocolate, nuts mixed with spices and lastly sift over surface baking powder and beat thoroughly.  Cook in well oiled muffin tins 20 to 30 minutes in moderate oven.

There was even a cornbread recipe that included sweet potatoes (26 October 1918, p. 15.):  “Boil two medium size potatoes.  Peel and cream with heaping tablespoon of lard.  Pinch of salt.  Tablespoon of sugar.  Meal enough to make small dough.  Mold into big thick biscuit.  Bake one hour slowly.”

Finally, the 12 January 1918 Progressive Farmer (p. 17) had this recipe for rice and tomatoes, promoting its nutritional value but perhaps recognizing that people may have been off-put:

Brown two sliced ordinary-sized onions in two tablespoons of sausage fat, add a quart of canned tomatoes, a dried green pepper, half a little hot pepper, a sprig of green celery top (to be removed later), one teaspoon salt, one-eighth teaspoon pepper.  Let simmer on the back of the stove until it is thick.  Add a cup of chicken or rabbit meat and two cups of boiled rice.  Pour all into a baking dish and brown.  Serve hot.  This makes a complete meal for eight persons with the addition of a little corn bread and a fruit or fruit juice, if bodily needs and not habit are considered.

This cartoon appeared in the 30 March 1918 Progressive Farmer.

Multiple Substitutes

Eventually people decided that the best white flour substitutes were combinations of corn, oats, and other meals and flours, both for nutritional reasons but also for taste.  The Progressive Farmer on 6 July 1918 (p. 13, “War Breads”), indicated that

Two groups of cereals are to be considered in choosing flours.  (1) Those that have a noticeable amount of protein, as wheat, rye, cornmeal, oatmeal, buckwheat and barley; (2) those that are primarily starchy, as corn flour, potato flour, rice flour and pure starch.”  It also listed a third group that included soybean flour, peanut flour, and ground peanuts; “the proteins of these are more like those of meat than of any other cereal.

While the article said these substitutes could be used singly, it stated that is was best to combine those in group two with those in group one to “. . . offset their strong flavor and stickiness.”  It then provided this list of ingredients for a quick bread or muffin mix:  “One cup rye, meal, graham flour or ¾ the amount of buckwheat, plus 1 cup of potato, rice, corn, barley or tapioca, to which add 1 egg, 1 cup milk, 4 to 6 teaspoons baking powder and two tablespoons molasses.”  There were also these factors to consider when using the wheat alternatives, as stated in the 1 June 1918 issues:  “bake all substitutes more slowly and longer,” “drop biscuits are better than rolled biscuits,” and “pie crusts often do not roll well and have to be patted on to the pan.”  The 17 August 1918 issue warned

One must not expect the same results in using oats, rye and other grains where wheat flour has been used before.  The bread is usually a little darker, wetter and closer grained but the flavor is quite as delicious if made with skill.  Even if they were less palatable[,] the fact that each mouthful of wheat we eat is one less for some soldier makes other bread acceptable.

The U.S. Food Administration publication Wheatless Recipes had provided numerous combinations, and similar ones appeared in the Progressive Farmer and the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service publications.  The 23 February 1918 Extension Farm-News reported a quick bread recipe (at 1200 calories per pound, comparable to homemade white flour bread) developed by the Wake County Food Administrator:

½ pound of soybean meal.  ½ pound of corn meal.  ¾ pound of graham flour.  ¼ pound of molasses.  1 pound of buttermilk.  ¼ pound of raisins.  1/8 pound of nuts.  2 teaspoonfuls common salt.  2 teaspoonfuls soda.

The Progressive Farmer featured dozens of recipes combining cereals.  Here are a few:

Rice Cornbread (12 January 1918, p. 17, “from the rice growers of Louisiana”)

3 eggs, 1 pint milk, 1 ½ cups boiled rice, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 ½ cups corn meal, 2 teaspoons fat, 1 teaspoon salt.  Beat eggs very light, add milk, and other materials.  Beat hard and bake in shallow greased pan in hot oven.

Potato Corn Meal Muffins (30 March 1918, p. 15)

2 tablespoons fat.  1 tablespoon sugar.  1 egg, well beaten.  1 cup milk.  1 cup mashed potatoes.  1 cup corn meal.  4 teaspoons baking powder.  1 teaspoon salt.  Mix in order given.  Bake 40 minutes in hot oven.  This makes 12 muffins.  They are delicious.

Oatmeal Peanut Biscuits (6 July 1918, p. 13.)

1 ½ c rolled oatmeal (put through the meat grinder and sifted) ¾ c ground peanuts, 3/4 t salt, 3 t baking powder, 2 t shortening.  Liquid sufficient to mix.  (Peanuts are improved by parching slightly.)

Raisin Cupcakes (6 July 1918, p. 13.)

1 ½ c ground oatmeal, ½ c soybean flour, ¾ t salt, 3 t baking powder, ¼ c sugar, ¾ c syrup, ½ c shortening, 1 or 2 eggs, 1 t flavoring extract, ¾ c raisins.  Liquid if necessary to mix.

Soybean Meal Loaf (20 July 1918, p. 13) 

1 cup soy bean meal, 1 cup corn meal, 1/12 cup graham flour, ¾ cup molasses, 2 ½ cups buttermilk, ¾ cup raisins, ¾ cups nuts.  2 teaspoons salt, 2 teaspoons soda.  Mix bean meal, corn meal, Graham flour, salt, nuts.  Dissolve soda in the molasses.  Add to the milk and beat into dry ingredients, turn into greased pan, and bake in slow oven 1 hour.

Rye Bread (20 July 1918, p. 13) 

2 cups rye flour, 2 cups corn meal, ¾ cup molasses, ½ cup brown sugar.  1 cup raisins, 2 cups buttermilk, 1 teaspoonful baking powder, 1 teaspoon soda, 1 egg.  Mix together in a bowl rye flour, corn meal, sugar, baking powder, and raisins.  Stir soda, into molasses, add the buttermilk which has been mixed with beaten egg.  Beat into dry ingredients.  Turn into 2 greased coffee cans, filling each about one-half full.  Steam three hours, after which bake in slow oven for fifteen minutes to dry out.

Barley Biscuit (17 August 1918) 

Two cups barley flour, 2 tablespoons fat, ½ teaspoon salt, 4 teaspoons baking powder, 2/3 cup milk.  Sift the dry ingredients together, mix in the fat, and add the liquid until a soft dough is formed.  Roll to about three-fourths inch thick.  Cut with a cooky [sic] cutter, and bake in a hot oven.  This makes a very good dough for shortcake also.

“Wheat Substitutes—A Guide” (from the Progressive Farmer, 1 June 1918, p. 15)

Measurement of Substitutes Equal to One Cup Flour

Barley . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1 3/8 cups

Buckwheat . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7/8 cup

Corn flour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1 cup (scant)

Corn meal (course) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7/8 cup

Corn meal (fine) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 cup (scant)

Cornstarch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ¾ cup

Peanut flour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 cup (scant)

Potato flour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .¾ cup

Rice flour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7/8 cup

Rolled oats . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 ½ cups

Rolled oats (ground in meat chopper) . . . 1 1/8 cups

Soy bean flour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7/8 cups

Sweet potato flour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1 1/8 cups