Part IV: France <3 Food – Adapting to the Ration System

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.


Part III: Transportation during the Exodus

As a somewhat logical follower to part II, here’s a survey of the transportation options during WWII for the thousands of Northern French who headed South, fleeing the invasion of the Nazis. To know before you read: In June of 1940, the Nazis invaded Paris. Before their arrival, 4/5 of the city had fled. The mass movement of people (close to 25% of the French population) to the interior and South of France is called “l’Exode.” A month later, Vichy France (the cooperative French-Axis government) was set up in the unoccupied Southern “free zone.”

Transportation during l’Exode

In 1940, author Antoine Saint-Exupery served as a reconnaissance pilot for the French army. Just two short years later, he recorded his experiences in his book Flight to Arras. While flying on a mission just northeast of Paris, he wrote: “German bombers bearing down upon the villages [have] squeezed out a whole people and sent it flowing down the highways like a black syrup… I can see from my plane the long swarming highways, that interminable syrup flowing endless to the horizon… There is a crazy contagion in this exodus. Where are these vagabonds going? They are going south – as if in the south there was room for them, food for them, tender hands waiting to welcome them… But southward the most generous hearts are beginning little by little to harden at the sight of this mad invasion which little by little, like a sluggish river of mud, is beginning to suffocate them.” What he witnessed would become known as l’Exode, or “the Exodus,” the biggest single movement of a European population since the Dark Ages. As German troops invaded Northern France in the summer of 1940, as many as 10 million people fled their homes and took to the roads and railways in the hope of finding safety beyond the Loire River. Although many modes of transport were available, roads and resources were disorganized and the endless “black syrup” that pushed steadily southwards was “a stampede of alarming proportions” that would foreshadow the inadequacy of old trade routes and supply lines in wartime France.

When the Exodus began in May of 1940, modern conveniences such as airplanes and the TGV did not exist. It was not yet possible to jet across France in as little as two hours. Civilians had to travel by road or rail and they had many different options to choose from, though not all were appealing. In the war years before the Exodus, trains were used to transport injured soldiers to hospitals in the South. However, they became crowded beyond capacity as they began to carry evacuees as well.

The SNCF, the national French train company, even requisitioned freight cars so that they could hold passengers instead of cargo. At some point, the company had to cease issuing tickets because there were just not enough resources to transport everyone (SNCF cars would later transport Jews to Nazi concentration camps and the company would bill the state of France for 3rd class tickets for each “traveler”). Buses were also used to transport as many civilians as possible; on a typical bus there were 21 seats and 52 standing, at a cost of 10 francs per passenger.

Memoirs from the time recount a steady progression in the waves of refugees. First came the luxurious limousines complete with chauffeur. It seemed more like the normal seasonal shift when people from the North would go to vacation in the South. Second were the people in their family sedans; their cars packed full with their belongings. Finally, there were the least fortunate, who traveled with the cargo of supply trucks, in wagons and carts, on bicycles, or simply on foot.

An observer would have seen many emblematic French cars, from Citroens, to Peugeots, to Renaults. The vast majority of these cars were standard transmission, front-wheel drive and in the constant starting and stopping of the cross-country traffic jams, they commonly broke down. Stripped gear boxes, worn-out brakes, blown tires, overheating radiators, scarce amounts of gasoline and oil: all of this combined to make for huge numbers of broken-down vehicles, littering the sides of the road. The cars, with their “groaning springs and bulging tires,” were packed full of people and luggage and often carried a mattress on the roof. The mattress served a secondary, yet important purpose: protection from the bullets of the German air attacks. Along with aerial attacks, lack of gasoline was one of the biggest problems that refugees faced: as all importation of the commodity had stopped (and France has no indigenous oil production), there was an extreme shortage of fuel. Gasoline that was available was generally reserved for ambulances or army transports. The need for an alternative fuel led to the development of “gazogenes” – a generator that could be fitted onto cars and buses and burned charcoal or wood pellets. However, there was one major drawback to this invention: the cylinder was usually exhausted after 40 kilometers and there were very few “depots” at which to refuel.

As a result, modes of transport that did not rely on fuel became popular. Bikes, already popular since the late 1800s, became even more useful but were also very likely to be stolen. In at least one instance, when rubber was in high demand for military uses, bicycle tires were replaced with corks.
An enterprising young man, Fidele Outterick, invented the velo-taxi in June 1940. Essentially the French version of the rickshaw, they became very popular during and after the Exodus as a cheap and efficient means of transport in the crowded cities and on roads. Even by 1940, France was still a largely rural country; it was also very common to see wagons, as well as horses traveling on the roads. Imagine watching a country cart pulled by horses, piled high with hay and old peasant women, racing down the cosmopolitan streets of Paris. Additionally, if unfortunate enough to not have any wheeled-transport, people walked. Many tried to catch rides with motorists, but more often they were able to catch a ride with a team of soldiers on a supply truck.

Moving at the impossibly slow rate of five kilometers per day, on a route that was typically 100 to 500 kilometers total, at times the exodus resembled a vast boiling stew, rather than a steady flow of refugees. The slow advance owed partially to the fact that French army trucks were traveling the opposite direction than the Exodus. Army troops were moving north to halt the advance of the Germans, but the roads, blocked by refugees, impeded their movement. The mixing of French soldiers into the civilian crowds also caused the refugees to become victims of German air attacks. These “Stukas,” as the planes in the attacks were known, not only killed horses and people, but destroyed the transportation networks, cutting communication lines, destroying bridges, and delaying the arrival of supplies and personnel. When a German plane started firing, people were forced to abandon their cars and luggage and find safety in the ditches along the road. When horses were killed, people had to either abandon their belongings or carry what they could and continue the long walk south.

The Exodus of 1940 was an invasion of the South, mirroring the Germans’ invasion of the North. Though it was of course less hostile, Southern France was inundated by successive waves of refugees, each one sweeping through sleepy villages and gobbling up resources like food and shelter. This endless flow of people, lugging their belongings and all different types of wheeled machinery was a burden on the roads, transportation networks and communication lines, and supply movement for the French army.

The movie that made me want to research this topic (Rene Clement’s Jeux Interdits). Also, I think they might’ve actually killed a dog in it, which is kind of a bummer:

Marseilles, Marchutz, & Mazarin

Yesterday, I had a field trip to Marseilles with my archaeology class. I’d only been once before for my medical visit and after this I think I’ve seen it all! Marseilles is France’s 2nd biggest city and (according to a newspaper article I read) there are at least 300 crimes (major and minor) each day and in summary is NOT. APPEALING. In fact, many people in France don’t like it and they say, “You might as well go to North Africa while you’re at it.” It’s different from any other city in France and when it was named “European Capital of Culture 2013,” all of France laughed. They don’t believe it is in any way related to their culture. The city is pretty much completely run by the mafia, their government is controlled by the mafia, and my archaeology teacher complained that the site we visited was not being preserved because they (government/mafia) don’t allot any money towards preserving anything of historical value (hence, the irony of “capital of culture”). The site overlooks the main city area and the public housing that was built in the ’60s and should be avoided by all means necessary and is the site of many a car burning (among other things, like murder). The historic Vieux Port where we ate lunch has many a body, their feet in cement, resting at the bottom of it.

My second time eating in a restaurant – “Pasta Carbonara”

The archaeological site that we visited – my professor used to work here

My prof (I should probably stop taking picture of people while they’re talking)

“Boulevard of Sugared Bread.” How I’d love to live on a road with a name like that (added to summer apartment wishlist).

Today, it was absolutely gorgeous out. Didn’t even need to wear a coat. So Paige and I walked to Marchutz (the art school connected to IAU) so that I could see what it was all about. Pretty unimpressive, but delightfully art-y. I like being around artists and art supplies. Maybe this comes from spending all my lunches with Taylor N. in the art room in high school. I enjoyed it.

Path to the school

After that we walked to the Mazarin Quarter because Paige had never been there and I had never photographed it. I really didn’t find anything to take pictures of but I might go back later at a different time of day. It’s the part of town that is laid out in a grid (the ONLY part). It was built during the 17th century as a luxury residential area, and still is today. It’s also home to the St. Jean-de-Malte church which I think has a far prettier interior than the Cathedral Saint-Sauveur. I think I will do a church video because it’s hard to capture the atmosphere of churches with just my camera.

These are everywhere in European cities; do you know what they were used for? They were added onto walls during the Plague (meaning the 1300s to the 1700s) so that people didn’t have to leave their houses to pray. They could just lean out their window.

This places serves BAGELS and CUPCAKES. And it’s reasonably priced. This is incredibly rare and incredibly exciting. I will visit it soon, even though it is very obviously catering to people like me and is not authentically French. I have reached the halfway point and now I long for the comforts of home.

A Few More Scenes from Aix-en-Provence

I discovered a map in an old book. It was like discovering the Marauders’ Map and I almost fell out of my chair with excitement. Someone, at some time, had labeled this map with all the fountains and churches and historical monuments of Aix. So expect more Aix-focused blog posts in the future.

[Side note: These French children do not like Harry Potter. They love the Simpsons. But when I asked, “Don’t you like Harry Potter?” Rayan laughed at me and said, “Ahh non, il est stupide, avec sa petite baguette! woo woo!” Petite baguette means wand. Crazy (the children and the translation).]

Today I went to school and brought my camera (with both lenses!). So here are some more pictures of the area around my school:

Rue Gaston de Saporta (the main road up to the Place de l’Universite and my school)

And the view when walking up it.

Place des Martyrs de la Resistance, where one of three IAU-related buildings resides (right side of photo). It’s not a building so much as one room.

Stairway in the third building (two classrooms and offices on the second floor)

And the view from the window.

How French people park their cars… single file in a line and no space on either side… which makes sense…

Also, I went to the “Language Lab” at the University here (the French one) and participated in an experiment where I got paid 20 euro! They hooked me up to a bunch of electrodes:

And then I read words on a screen and hit a button if they were real words, or fake words. And whenever I saw a city/country name. And I got paid for this!


In preparation for my trip, I’ve been reading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, in which Mayle recounts his time spent living in a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the charming countryside of Provence. While this isn’t specifically about Aix, it is about the region and (probably) the local culture. Last night, I got to the chapter which specifically mentions Aix, and now I present to you an Aixtract:

“There was one excursion which we were always happy to make. We both loved Aix.

“The corkscrew road we take through the mountains is too narrow for trucks and too serpentine for anyone in a hurry. Apart from a single farm building with its ragged herd of goats, there is nothing to see except steep and empty landscapes of gray rock and green scrub oak, polished into high definition by the extraordinary clarity of the light. The road slopes down through the foothills on the south side of the Luberon before joining up with the amateur Grand Prix that takes place every day on the RN7, the Nationale Sept that has eliminated more motorists over the years than is comfortable to think about as one waits for a gap in the traffic.

“The road leads into Aix at the end of the most handsome main street in France. The Cours Mirabeau is beautiful at any time of the year, but at its best between spring and autumn, when the plane trees form a pale green tunnel five hundred yards long. The diffused sunlight, the four fountains along the center of the Cours’ length, the perfect proportions which follow da Vinci’s rule to ‘let the street be as wide as the height of the houses’ – the arrangement of space and trees and architecture is so pleasing that you hardly notice the cars.

“Over the years, a nice geographical distinction has evolved between work and more frivolous activities. On the shady side of the street, appropriately, are the banks and insurance companies and property agents and lawyers. On the sunny side are the cafes.

“I have liked almost every cafe that I have ever been to in France, even the ratty little ones in tiny villages where the flies are more plentiful than customers, but I have a soft spot for the sprawling cafes of the Cours Mirabeau, and the softest spot of all for the Deux Garcons. Successive generations of proprietors have put their profits under the mattress and resisted all thoughts of redecoration, which in France usually ends in a welter of plastic and awkward lighting, and the interior looks much the same as it must have looked fifty years ago.

“The ceiling is high, and toasted to a caramel color by the smoke from a million cigarettes. The bar is burnished copper, the tables and chairs gleam with the patina bestowed by countless bottoms and elbows, and the waiters have aprons and flat feet, as all proper waiters should. It is dim and cool, a place for reflection and a quiet drink. And then there is the terrace, where the show takes place.

That building right there, with the three circle windows, is my FUTURE SCHOOL according to Google.

“Aix is a university town, and there is clearly something in the curriculum that attracts pretty students. The terrace of the Deux Garcons is always full of them, and it is my theory that they are there for education rather than refreshment. They are taking a degree course in cafe deportment, with a syllabus divided into four parts.

One: The Arrival One must always arrive as conspicuously as possible, preferably on the back of a crimson Kawasaki 750 motorcycle driven by a young man in head-to-toe black leather and three-day stubble. It is not done to stand on the pavement and wave him goodbye as he booms off down the Cours to visit his hairdresser. That is for gauche little girls from the Auvergne. The sophisticated student is too busy for sentiment. She is concentrating on the next stage.

Two: The Entrance Sunglasses must be kept on until an acquaintance is identified at one of the tables, but one must not appear to be looking for company. Instead, the impression should be that one is heading into the cafe to make a phone call to one’s titled Italian admirer, when – quelle surprise! – one sees a friend. The sunglasses can then be removed and the hair tossed while one is persuaded to sit down.

Three: Ritual Kissing Everyone at the table must be kissed at least twice, often three times, and in special cases four times. Those being kissed should remain seated, allowing the new arrival to bend and swoop around the table, tossing her hair, getting in the way of the waiters, and generally making her presence felt.

Four: Table Manners Once seated, sunglasses should be put back on to permit the discreet study of one’s own reflection in the cafe windows – not for reasons of narcissism, but to check important details of technique: the way one lights a cigarette, or sucks the straw in a Perrier menthe, or nibbles daintily on a sugar lump. If these are satisfactory, the glasses can be adjusted downward so that they rest charmingly on the end of the nose, and attention can be given to the other occupants of the table.

“This performance continues from mid-morning until early evening, and never fails to entertain me. I imagine there must be the occasional break for academic work in between these hectic periods of social study, but I have never seen a textbook darken the cafe tables, nor heard any discussion of higher calculus or political science. The students are totally absorbed in showing form, and the Cours Mirabeau is all the more decorative as a result.

“It would be no hardship to spend most of the day cafe hopping, but as our trips to Aix are infrequent we feel a pleasant obligation to squeeze in as much as possible during the morning – to pick up a bottle of eau-de-vie from the main the rue d’Italie and some cheeses from Monsieur Paul in the rue des Marseillais, to see what new nonsense is in the windows of the boutiques which are crammed, chic by jowl, next to older and less transient establishments in the narrow streets behind the Cours, to join the crowds in the flower market, to take another look at the tiny, beautiful place d’Albertas, with its cobbles and its fountain and to make sure that we arrive in the rue Frederic Mistral while there are still seats to be had at Chez Gu.”