It turns out that bacon fat is good for more than sprucing up bitter greens—it’s also pretty good for making bombs. And during World War II, handing over cooking fat to the government was doing your patriotic duty.
The American Fat Salvage Committee was created to urge housewives to save all the excess fat rendered from cooking and donate it to the army to produce explosives. As explained to Minnie Mouse and Pluto in one wartime video, fats are used to make glycerin, and glycerin is used to make things blow up.
One pound of fat supposedly contained enough glycerin to make about a pound of explosives. Patriotism aside, many American housewives were not enticed. Only about half donated their excess cooking fats. Saturated fats were of little health concern at the time and cooking grease was hard to come by, especially once rations were imposed. But moreover, many distrusted government-dictated food programs which also threatened what became a defining feature of the American way of life: being well-fed.
In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt reaffirmed America’s dedication to protecting four essential freedoms: freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Eleven months later Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered the war. Americans were anxious about said entrance for innumerable reasons, among them forfeiting a full-bellied way of life, which had only recently been restored following the Great Depression. Roosevelt's last two freedoms were threatened. Food rationing loomed. Salvage programs to supply the military with scrap metal, rubber, wastepaper, and rags enlisted families to play their patriotic part. Then the government turned to fat.
The premise was simple: Engage women in the war effort right from their kitchens. “A skillet of bacon grease is a little munitions factory,” announces a booming voice in the Disney propaganda cartoon. “Every year 2 billion pounds of waste kitchen fats are thrown away—enough glycerin for 10 billion rapid-fire cannon shells.” Making a roast? Don’t throw out those lovely puddles of grease drippings—save them for our boys on the front line. Housewives were directed to strain their leftover fats (no bacon bits in the bombs, please), and store them in a “wide-mouth can.” Once a pound or more was collected, the fat was to be handed over to any one of 250,000 participating butchers and retail meat dealers or 4,000 frozen food plants who would then turn the fat over to the army. The donor got four cents a pound for the fat, and in December 1943 when lard and butter began to be rationed, the government started offering two ration points per pound as well.
“Reusing was second nature,” says Susan Strasser, author of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. “The program was an expansion of the everyday habits of the early 20th century.” Mass-produced butter and lard were not readily available in stores, vegetable oils were expensive, and everything only became pricier during the war. At the start of the fat salvage program, a study found that almost three-quarters of households saved cooking fats for reuse (Southerners were the biggest fat savers). Doctors and dieticians at the time were more concerned with vitamin deficiencies caused by wartime diets than the consumption of excess fat or salt. Collecting the fat after frying up some bacon or roasting some beef was a practical and economical way to run a household. And there was a lot of leftover fat because Americans ate a lot of meat.
The American diet was traditionally rich and meaty. Red meat in particular had always occupied an exalted place in American cuisine—an outcome of its high status in Western European culture carried over by immigrants who could finally afford meat as working and middle-class Americans. As the rationing of butter, lard, and meat was imposed beginning in 1943, fats became even more valuable. Women were also busier than ever, charged with holding down the home front and taking up many jobs previously occupied by men. Donating fats took time and sacrificed a basic cooking ingredient. Consequently, many women did not readily cooperate in the fat salvage program.
Yet Strasser claims that the program was largely successful as a propaganda tool. Women who did contribute felt good about being part of the war effort, even if that contribution was somewhat of a ruse. The types of explosives made with such fats were not of major importance in the war, Strasser says, but that was of little importance in and of itself. America had plenty of resources. Keeping women busy and productive was the important thing. But the lack of participation in the fat salvage program was a symptom of a characteristic that became fundamental to American identity: abundance.