World War II brought rationing to the American public including members of the U.S. Coast Guard serving at Piedras Blancas and all other light stations. Ration books were obtained from the local O.P.A. Board [Office of Price Administration] by one person who collected them for all the personnel at one time. An entry in the Piedras Blancas Log dated Tuesday March 2, 1943, stated “To O.P.A. Board about food rationing for C.G. personnel” indicating that someone had to physically go to the O.P.A. office to obtain the ration books.
For many years Light Station personnel received nearly all of their supplies from lighthouse tenders, Coast Guard ships that arrived every three to six months, so they already knew how to get along without many items. If they ran out of something before the tender arrived, they had to figure out how to do without it or how to obtain it locally. The Piedras Blancas logbook entries between 1941 and 1944 include only two visits from lighthouse tenders. This would indicate that nearly all supplies were being obtained locally by that time. By the 1940s food supplies for the light station were being purchased from commissaries at nearby military installations such as Camp San Luis, Camp Roberts, Fort Hunter-Liggett and Vandenberg Air Force Base. The only things mentioned in the logbook as being delivered by the tenders were Presto Logs and wood fuel. Presto Logs were developed in the 1930s as a means of recycling sawdust from sawmills to create artificial fuel for wood stoves which were still in use at Piedras Blancas during World War II.
Unlike canned vegetables, fresh vegetables were not rationed and nearly 20 million Americans planted “Victory Gardens”. Nationwide, these gardens produced about 40 percent of all vegetables that were consumed. Piedras Blancas was too windy for tall crops like corn, but plants that grew underground or close to the ground did very well. Rhubarb, potatoes, carrots, peas and beans are among the things that have been grown at the Light Station. Fresh fish and shellfish which were abundant in the ocean surrounding the Light Station were not rationed so they supplied an important part of the diet for the families stationed there. Norman Francis, Jr., who’s father was Head Lighthouse Keeper from 1934 to1948, remembers eating a lot of “Bullhead” fish and plenty of red abalone. The “Bullhead” is a type of catfish that is found in salt water as well as fresh water. It will eat just about anything so they are easy to catch with whatever bait that is available.
According to Jim Lilly, who was an Assistant Keeper at Piedras Blancas from late 1945 to May 1, 1946, they used to grind up the black or green abalone to use as bait when fishing. At low tide it was very easy to harvest abalone from the rocks by simply wading into the ocean. Most people believe that abalone has to be sliced and pounded thin to make it tender enough to eat, but Jim Lilly told a different story in November of 2003. When Jim arrived at the station, Ray Davis, who had been at the Light Station since 1936, explained to the younger assistants that they should keep the abalone wet after they were pried off the rocks. Jim continued, “There was a six by six post in the ground about this high [about 3 ½ feet] and it was concave in the top. …. Well, I didn’t know what an abalone was ‘til I got down there and Mr. Davis told us you could get them and eat them. So we’d go down there and get one. We’d bring him home and try to cut him out of that shell, you know, and he resisted and doubled up hard as your fist when you got him out and then you’d peel him and hammer him and beat him and he’d still be as tough as sole leather when you got through. He said “You boys are doing it all wrong”. He says, “Now get your abalone, one or two, don’t take more than what you want, just enough for you to eat, there’s plenty of ‘em”. And he said, “Keep him in a burlap sack with a little kelp or something to keep him wet and he’ll live quite a while. Then when you get him up here take him up where that post in the ground is and lay him down there soft side up and over by the water tank there’s a piece of two by six about two feet long”. He said, “Pick that two by six up and smack that abalone as hard as you can. If you break the shell it’s alright, but you’ll kill him and then when you cut him out he doesn’t resist. He just hangs up like a wet sock and he doesn’t get all tough from pulling himself up in the shell trying to fight you.”
Jim Lilly’s Recipe for Abalone
Red or Pink abalone butter
Once you’ve managed to get the abalone out of its shell you peel him a little bit and then get a skillet hot with butter until it’s smoking. Coat the abalone with cornmeal and salt, if desired. Put abalone in skillet, cook thirty to forty-five seconds until the milk starts coming out the top. Then flop it over and cook about the same amount of time on the other side. Take it out and it will be tender and good to eat. Be sure to read the note above to find out how to tenderize the abalone before cooking!
Mr. Davis also told the young men how to make “phony Abalone” for those days when the weather made it impossible to harvest anything from the ocean. According to Jim Lilly, the Coast Guard food allowance in 1945 was only $1.20 a day. That didn’t buy much food for hungry young men.
Boneless chicken breasts Clam juice
2 cloves of garlic butter
Flatten those chicken breasts out, real flat, about a quarter or three eighths of an inch thick. Pour clam juice into a bowl and add a piece or two of garlic. Then soak the chicken breasts in the clam juice for about 24 hours. Melt butter in a skillet. Coat the chicken breasts with cornmeal, if desired, and cook for about a minute on each side or until done. When you cook them they are almost exactly like abalone.
Cooking with wartime shortages was challenging. The Culinary Arts Institute of Chicago published a wartime edition of the American Woman’s Cook Book with recipes that kept rationing in mind. It showed women how they could feed a family of two adults and three children on $15 a week. When sugar rationing first began in May 1942 people were only allowed to buy eight ounces of sugar per week for each member of the household. Refined sugar was not produced domestically and therefore the supply was very limited. By comparison, the weekly provision of sugar for Light Keepers in 1902 was 2 pounds of sugar along with one half pint of molasses. American women learned to substitute brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses or honey in their recipes. All of these were produced in the United States and were not rationed. Brown sugar and molasses are both made from sugar cane which was grown in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. This recipe for “Eggless, Milkless, Butterless Cake” was typical of the era:
EGGLESS, MILKLESS, BUTTERLESS CAKE
1 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon nutmeg
1-¼ cups water 1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup seeded raisins ½ teaspoon salt
2 ounces citron, cut fine 2 cups flour
1/3 cup shortening 5 teaspoons Royal Baking Powder
DIRECTIONS: – Boil sugar, water, fruit, shortening, salt and spices together in saucepan 3 minutes. When cool, add flour and baking powder which have been sifted together. Mix well, bake in loaf pan about 45 minutes.
Daily life at Piedras Blancas was always challenging and World War II only increased the difficulties that faced the creative cook in the kitchen. Thrifty homemakers have always found ways to “make do” when faced with shortages. The keepers and their families joined with the rest of the country in doing their part to see that the troops had what was needed while, at the same time, caring for those on the home front.