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.
“America as the land of plenty was always part of the American dream and this idea intensified during and after the war,” says Lizzie Collingham, author of Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. The U.S. had managed to get through WWI without rationing. But this time around, Americans were not so lucky. And unlike the British, who contended with longer and harsher wartime shortages with characteristic reserve, Americans were simply not having it.
The war had pulled the country out of the Great Depression, and despite shortages, the American diet had likewise rebounded with a return to meat and fat. Civilians were not keen on depriving themselves again. Good wages from war-related industrial work increased the civilian demand for items that had been scarce during the Great Depression, like beef. At the same time, though most Americans supported rationing on principle, long-held suspicions of government policies led many to believe that rationing was more of a ploy to bolster patriotic fervor than a necessary policy to contend with food shortages. Some people’s anxiety over food shortages and inadequate nutrition led to hoarding; especially of coffee, sugar, and red meat, which further contributed to shortages.
Despite some shortages, wartime food production was in fact very robust. Rationing was imposed to ensure that civilians, soldiers, and our allies got fed while also limiting inflation. American soldier’s stomachs were notoriously full of the best cuts of meat deemed essential for their energy, masculinity, and virility, Collingham says. Even though civilians back home were left with the poorer cuts while rationing limited access to meat in general, the government knew that having sufficient supplies of meat was critical to the psychological and physical well-being of civilians. Even after the war, the government promised American housewives that more meat was on its way and implored them in the meantime to continue to “scrape, scoop, and skim every drop of used fat for salvage.”
Rationing ended right after Japan surrendered and the war finally ended in September 1945. Americans celebrated by eating. “It was like they were having a pig out,” Collingham says. The American way of life was back. The war had revived the U.S. economy, spurred Americans’ taste for more and better food and cemented the notion that food was a barometer of American’s wealth.
“Eating good food and lots of it was the way that America indicated its power, and this stayed in the psyche,” Collingham says. This assertion of power had other effects too. During the Great Depression, infectious diseases and malnutrition related-illnesses were the primary causes of American deaths. After the war, with the economy in full swing, five of the 10 leading causes of deaths stemmed from chronic diseases associated with an unbalanced or excessive diet. Roosevelt’s “Freedom from Want” had been protected, and then some.