Food offers us so much – nourishment, familial connections, status, comfort, security, and – above all – survival.
Truth be told, food allows us to wake up each day and face the world again.
With our bellies churning with adequate fodder, we trudge or dance along the path of life, free to create art or waste time complaining about the annoying antics of other humans, be they politicians or our next-door neighbors. For when we know where our next meal comes from, we settle down and relish many things besides Coq au vin and apple tarts. We can just “be” and, if it’s in our nature, even contemplate the earthy gifts of sunshine, rain, and bird song, as well as the family meal.
In moments of exile, pain, and uncertainty, that family meal becomes iconic, a poignant focal point of nostalgic longing. But it is during wartime, when the world suddenly explodes into indiscernible fragments, that food shows it true power.
Conquerors have always used food as a weapon, by cutting supply lines, burning fields, killing or carrying off animals, blockading ports and borders, and/or laying siege to the enemy.
For a culture such as that of France, caught up as it was in the dual culinary mythologies of cuisine grand-mère and haute cuisine, both world wars of the twentieth century proved to be devastating. Rationing and the black market provided some sustenance, but the inevitable elevation of the lowly rutabaga, turnip, and Jerusalem artichoke to the daily pièce de resistance wore down the population and provoked jokes about intestinal gas, bringing the demi-monde and the peasant together for once. And this diet proved lethal for many of the very young, who – like the elderly – always suffer most in times of war.
When the pleasure of food forms a cornerstone of people’s lives, how they deal with deprivation certainly reveals a lot about their inner life, their beliefs, and their resilience.
The French population faced stringent rationing that lasted – for some foods such as bread - until 1949, because most available food needed to be sent to the front, to feed the men fighting the Germans.
In 1940, rationing began in France. Seven categories delineated what certain age groups with various activity levels would receive for food allotments. Each person received ration coupons (un bon de décharge). The average caloric intake for a normal man with normal activities usually tallies up to approximately 2400 kcal. The following allowances from 1941 resulted in an average daily intake of 1300 kcal:
250 grams of bread (sometimes given as 350 grams for adults)
25 grams of meat
17 grams of sugar
8 grams fats/oils
6 grams of cheese
To have anything to eat at all, the French turned to root vegetables like Jerusalem artichokes, which were not rationed but were considered food for animals and the poor. Jerusalem artichokes boiled in water and mashed, perhaps with a little salt, became the meal of the day for many people during those hellish years when the German occupiers co-opted the potato crops and more. Rich in vitamin C, potassium, and iron, Jerusalem artichokes didn’t provide many calories – only 35 per 100 grams – but they kept people alive.
Not surprisingly, most French people of a certain age will not touch these knobby roots now.
To read more about food and war in modern France, see:
Cépède, Michel. Agriculture et alimentation en France durant la IIe guerre mondiale. (Paris: Ed. Génin, 1961)
Dutourd, Jean. Au Bon Beurre. (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1952)
Mouré, Kenneth. Food rationing and the black market in France, 1940-1944. French History 24 (2): 262 – 282, 2010.
Rousso, H. Les années noires: vivre sous l’Occupation (Paris: Gallimard, 1992)