Hunger, Power, and Invention: Impact of World War II on Global Food Cultures


World War II is well-known for its gruesome reality of genocide and violence. However, the effect it had on the food cultures worldwide, particularly within colonized nations, is less talked about. This great conflict not only gave birth to the infamous SPAM and M&M’s but also lead to incredible culinary innovation born from scarcity and struggle.

America’s Rise to Power and the Birth of Food Science

America was able to enter World War II as an emerging global power, largely due to their geographic isolation from the events of World War I. This position, coupled with the inventive food culture nurtured during the Great Depression, spurred the creation of food items like SPAM and M&Ms.

These items played a crucial role in the war effort, providing easily transportable and non-perishable food for the military. Corporations such as the Hershey Chocolate Company played a key role in this innovation, highlighting the significant relationship between entrepreneurship and the military during this period.

Colonized Nations and the Legacy of SPAM

The American military introduced these new food inventions to colonized and war-affected areas, which led to further innovation. For resource-strained regions like Hawaii, the introduction of SPAM became a lifeline during the war and continues to be a part of their culinary identity.

Similar adaptations took place in Korea and Okinawa, despite the tragic circumstances leading to the introduction of SPAM in these places. Current-day dishes, such as SPAM musubi and Poku Tamago, are reminders of this history even as these cultures strive to reclaim them from their colonial roots.

Europe’s Response: Government-Sponsored Creativity

In contrast to America’s military-focused food innovation, Europe’s response was primarily anchored in homefront adjustments. Governments sponsored new dishes like Eintopf and Woolton Pie designed to keep morale up despite food shortages and rationing. While these dishes symbolize past struggles for present-day Europeans, they don’t carry the ongoing struggle associated with colonized regions.

Unforgotten Plight: Bengal Famine and Resilience

Nowhere is this contrast more apparent than in the Bengal Famine. As a British colony during the war, India experienced extreme hardship, leading to millions of deaths. Nevertheless, the resilience of its people led to food innovation, even in these dire circumstances.

Similar patterns emerged across Southeast Asia, including the Philippines and Thailand. Scarcity led to creative food inventions – such as pad Thai and banana ketchup – and elevated the role of food scientists who used innovative ideas to support their countries’ self-reliance ambitions.

The Legacy of Hunger and Power

World War II brought enormous disparities in food security to the fore, underscoring the stark differences between colonizers and the colonized. Despite the dire circumstances, colonized nations exhibited remarkable ingenuity. But this creativity did not alleviate the ongoing risks of food insecurity or starvation, and many of the inventions from this period carry the heavy burden of colonization.

World War II, therefore, demonstrates an interesting dichotomy – as colonizing countries conducted government-sponsored programs to ensure their citizens were fed, the colonized peoples faced extreme food scarcity, which led to a struggle for survival and ultimately the invention of some of our most loved dishes today. The stories of these dishes reveal the broad and varied impacts of the war that went far beyond the battlefield.

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