Part IV: France seriously loves food. It’s on the top 5 list of French stereotypes amongst berets, smoking, mustaches, and baguettes. How did they ever adapt to the food rations during WWII?
France & Food: Adapting to the Ration System
In 1941, a Time magazine reporter witnessed a riot in Paris. A queue of people, waiting in line for their meager rations at a food store, became overexcited and began throwing rocks. German authorities watching nearby tried to stop the mob but the rock throwing continued. As punishment, the Germans banned potato distribution for 40 days. This was life in WWII France. With the food rationing system instituted in September 1940, tensions ran high and, as people began to feel the pains of hunger, desperation set in. In addition to showing the extremes to which people would go to acquire food, it also showed their impressive adaptability.
War and occupation in France affected many aspects of French culture, but nothing was hit harder than its cuisine. Food was and continues to be an essential part of French national identity. Adapting to a less plentiful and lower quality cuisine proved difficult. A correspondent for the French magazine Le Gerbe wrote in July of 1941, “Eating and, more important, eating well is the theme song of Paris life. In the street, in the metro, in cafes, all you hear about is food. At the theater or movies, when there’s an old play or movie with a huge banquet scene, the audience breaks into delirious cries of joy.” Despite their difficulties, the French courageously dealt with their circumstances, nicknaming their system of improvisation “le système D”, from the verb se débrouiller meaning to untangle or “to get by.” (Alternatively: se démerder which means to remove oneself from shit.)
(LEFT: “Save bread! Cut it in thin slices and use the crusts for soups!”) The rationing system was instituted to ward off inflationary prices and panic. Instead the system and the effects of occupation created endemic foot shortages and malnutrition, owing partly to an unequal distribution and availability of foods to the French population. Critical foods like bread, meat, cheese, and milk were rationed, with the daily amount being rationed decreasing as the war continued. Though it varied based on age, occupation, and health, an average person could expect to receive half a loaf of bread, a piece of meat about the size of one’s palm, and a few crumbs of cheese for a daily ration. The pitiful amount of food meant most people would settle for stale bread rather than no bread or the gristle on a piece of meat instead of the actual piece of meat. The food itself was also in a sorry condition – memoirs describe the common sight of “grayish bread and yellowish coffee.” Even alcohol was rationed: the iconic mid-afternoon aperitif was outlawed. France became a much more sober country during the war years.
France experienced a dramatic reduction in the food supply. The total food supply was estimated to have been reduced 50%; fats dropped even more and fruits approached nearly 100%. Food was in short supply because of many reasons. Imports of fruit, meat, and oil from North Africa had ended, on account of the blockade. Agricultural production had severely decreased. By 1944, production in France was 40% of what it was in the 1930s. Many farmers could not afford the price of fuel for machinery or seed for new crops. After turning to horse-drawn plows and carts instead of gasoline powered ones, they found that it was still too expensive to feed the work animals. Thus, a large number of farms were abandoned, especially when faced by the threat of advancing German troops. Cows and other farm animals were lost or killed and eaten by the German army. Refrigeration units had their electricity supplies cut and food spoiled. Whole industries were abandoned too. An example with an ironic ending was that of the fishing industry in the English Channel, which had been forced to end all commercial activity in the highly active military zone. In 1941, overcrowded herring began committing suicide by stranding themselves on the beaches of Normandy. This plentiful and unwarranted harvest was taken in trainloads to Paris to feed the hungry. There was also the simple issue of Germans outright taking food. Most food that was produced in France was shipped to Germany to feed German civilians. Nazi supply officers commonly arrived at markets in massive trucks and loaded up goods, requisitioned for German soldiers and officers.
“200 grams of meat per week, it’s nothing! _00 grams of sugar per month, it’s crazy! AND A ROUGH TRANSLATION FROM HERE: It would be possible to have more meat and more sugar for everyone… Only, there are some who are stealing the supply by using fake tickets… Anyone caught with counterfeit tickets will be arrested immediately…”
As a result of these shortages, some store owners were unwilling or unable to honor ration tickets. Many French people simply bypassed their ration cards and opted to trade directly with merchants. Trade was a more valuable exchange than money or ration points. Those who were desperate opted to make counterfeit ration tickets. The most desperate of the desperate devised a more sinister scheme: after reading over the daily obituaries in the newspapers, they would disguise themselves as police officers and steal ration cards from the relatives of the dead.
By 1942, chocolate and coffee had become unattainable, with sugar and candy almost equally hard to find. These sweets and other “unrationables” were able to be obtained only by the very wealthy. The demand for these items opened the doors for a black market. This proved to be an impressive hidden power in the French economy – it was organized and efficient and rarely suffered shortages of goods. It began operating two months after the ration system went into effect. Demand was so high that prices were often far above market price, but at least a desired product was available. All social levels were involved; in fact, even school children operated their own black market. Vitamin-enhanced cookies that were served in schools were in short supply and highly desired. Therefore children would save their cookies and then resell them for a high price. They’d use the extra money to buy fun things instead, like movie tickets or makeup.
A year after the rations started, the government allowed families living in the countryside to send care packages to their loved ones. The items sent were usually food, but the slow mail service and bureaucratic mire the packages usually got stuck in caused much of the food to go bad. Hardly appetizing, the food arrived covered in maggots and meat had to be soaked in vinegar and boiled for hours before it was relatively safe to eat. Some people living in cities took it upon themselves to do their own hunting in the countryside. Weekend excursions became popular and the trains running outside of Paris were given nicknames like le train des pommes de terre and le train des haricots verts (the potato train and the green bean train).
Meanwhile, housewives were learning how to adapt to new and fewer ingredients. It was a time of creative adaptation and substitution. To replace meat, many people began raising guinea pigs in their homes. It was also reported that pigeons and even cats were eaten – the Vichy regime had to issue a pamphlet warning of the dangers of eating stewed cat. Some other examples of substitutions include using mashed potato for flour, sour milk for cheese, grated vegetables for fruit, whipped margarine with vanilla instead of cream, saccharin for sugar, and, the most inventive, toasted barley mixed with chicory for coffee.
France’s iconic baguette and other breads is an interesting case study on the effects of food rationing. The war years would forever change the bread making industry in France. As ingredients became scarce, bakers substituted things like maize and rice for wheat in their bread. Flour that was shipped from America had a higher protein content and French bakers did not know how to use it. The quality of baguettes decreased significantly. After the war, people were concerned with quantity not quality. Mass production became the norm for breads and baked goods. Unfortunately this process created tasteless bread, though in appearance it was white and fluffy. This was in stark contrast to the dreary baguette of the 1940s, but it lacked nutrition and, of course, the French tradition. Much later, when French society could afford to care about the quality, artisan bakeries appeared, advertising that they used traditional recipes and better ingredients.
Food shortages and poor nutrition resulted in many health problems for the French. On average, a person consumed about 950 calories a day; with access to the black market, they might have enjoyed as much as 1500 calories. Diphtheria became a major health concern, reported cases rising from 13,000 in 1940 to 47,000 in 1943. Cases of tuberculosis and influenza also increased. Yet the resilient French survived, as did their cuisine which is popular and highly respected all around the world. Rationing ended in 1945 and the French rejoiced and, though there were still food shortages, once again began enjoying their traditional dishes. The government was reminded again of the importance of food in December of that same year, when bread rations were reinstituted, causing riots across France.
In Lyon, the bakers and townspeople celebrate the *end* of the ration system by burning their bread ration tickets. Banner at 0:38 says “Tickets are dead, they were hated. No one will cry, they are buried.”
Best museum for French life under the occupation: Musee d’histoire Jean Garcin in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. Which is a pretty tiny town that might be hard to get to but IT IS WORTH IT.