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:

La plus belle ville du monde

The other night I saw “Midnight in Paris” (because! I’m volunteering at the Pickford Film Center and you get free passes and it’s awesome and I can’t wait to see all the sweet independent films/documentaries to come) and I decided that I should finally make that Paris post that I never did. In the movie I saw all the same streets I walked, all the same buildings I photographed, all the grand parks I sat in, and felt the same awe and… I don’t know… deep overflowing nostalgic love and longing for the most beautiful city that could ever be?

But I really hate all these pictures. I wanted to just walk around the city without my camera. But I knew I’d probably regret that so instead I half-tried to take a bunch of shitty photos which I also regret. Anyway, try to enjoy these?

A Parisian morning at the Jardin du Luxembourg

I love all these little booths along the river. They sell all the typical tourist stuff (postcards, magnets, etc) PLUS old books, maps, art, records… pretty much everything I love encased in this small green hut.

Me and Notre Dame. Want to watch the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” right now.

I forget what this is? Maybe a museum?

We went on a boat tour – “Les bateaux mouches” or fly boats – that travel along the Seine. Worth it.

My first real view of le tour d’Eiffel.

And the view from the almost-top of the Eiffel Tower. We waited in line for 2 hours. Then walked up the stairs. Also worth it.

There are a bunch of these little fake worker statues as you walk up the stairway. Don’t know why.

Sacre-Coeur in Montmarte. It’s a-top a hill so you have a gorgeous view of the city. There is also a ton of artists here. I really liked it so therefore I took no pictures. 😦

This is the park in the nearby town of Sceaux, where I was staying. This is the view at the halfway point of this giant expanse of a lawn. Europe really knows how to do ginormous parks.

Also, this spur off the main lawn. Just a small pond. For this small town.

The monstrosity known as Versailles. Touring the inside was like being in a slow-moving flood of hot human molasses. But once outside, I really liked it.

The famed hall of mirrors.

Want my bedroom decorated like this.

Many pointless rooms in this complex. This is the 1830 room.

The grounds are massive. Miles upon miles of gardens. The royal family’s “summer home” is (for Alicia and I) a 1 hour walk away.

Marie Antoinette’s “hamlet.” Her own little getaway. JUST LIKE A FAIRY TALE!!!!

A little farm so she could pretend she was not living in a palace for a few days.

So, for the weekend we went to Cabourg, in Normandy. We left at night and arrived at night so I couldn’t see anything and I was tired and fell fast asleep. When I awoke, I looked out my window and saw this.

Yes, a thatched roof house. This whole town was like a fairy tale. THE. COOLEST. ARCHITECTURE. I’ve ever seen.

Where I was staying…!

The beach, just a minute away. Where we spent two whole days. Wow. How badly do I want to return.

And I don’t want to make a whole separate post for this so I’ll do it here. Right before leaving, my roommate and I hiked up Mt. St. Victoire.

The goal, from the road.

I love lakes this color.

And, for our last dinner, Paige and I made some “American” foods. Which was really hard! Finding ingredients and stuff. But the kids just absolutely adored it which was really funny. I hope they come visit me here some day.

Caesar salad, chicken strips made with potato chips, Kraft macaroni & cheese, and Nutella cookies (they don’t really make cookies over there…).

And finally, this is the bounty of stuff I brought home with me. Not including all the new clothes I bought. Surprisingly, I still have a lot of it.

C’est vrai; Paris, je t’aime!

I only took 100 pictures total of both Paris and the town of Cabourg in Normandy. That’s all, for a whole entire week. I was really depressed whenever I saw gangs of tourists, armed with their cameras and brochures, taking snapshots and posing in front of every single monument. It was like a race to see as many things as they could and take pictures to prove that they’d been there. I used to have that same feeling, but not anymore.

I stayed with my former exchange student Alicia and spent a wonderful week just relaxing with a friend. I saw some, but not all, of Paris and learned more new aspects of French culture and life. We made crepes (and also grilled cheese, chicken strips, sugar cookies…), read many books in the “Asterix” series, went to Parisian pet shops, had drinks at a sidewalk cafe, relaxed on the beach in Normandy, went on bike rides through town, played French board games I’d never heard of, and watched “Lost” in French. There was no pressure to see every single tourist attraction (though of course we did see Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, Versailles… but not the Louvre!).

It was just so refreshing to HANG OUT and not be a tourist every moment of the day. I feel like I’ve been doing that every day of the past four months. I love traveling but that’s been the primary hobby of a very tiny handful of hobbies I’ve been able to enjoy for that whole time period. I miss all the other things I like (and the people!). If I was trapped inside of a bakery for four months, I’d probably end up getting tired of baking cookies at some point (though that’s hard to imagine right now since I sit here everyday looking at, my hands aching for baking utensils and ingredients and a reasonable oven). The point being – I’m ready to come home, not be a tourist, live in a familiar culture, and return to my normal “boring” life.

I’m sorry I didn’t take many pictures, and the ones I have I’m not sharing. I’m just done and none of the pictures are very interesting because I put no effort into it. Not to sound really cheesy but my memories are enough; I didn’t feel the need to take pictures and record everything I did. Besides, I know I’ll be back and I’m sure that I’ll then have the desire to take pictures. Northern France has stolen my heart from the South – I don’t know what it is, but for some reason it’s so much better. You’ve all seen pictures of Paris; it truly is that beautiful and magical. Walking along the Seine there are people selling vintage maps, old books, 10 cent postcards (CHEAP!), baguette magnets – what more could I have asked for? Trying my first macaroon (one raspberry, one green apple by the way)! Fantastically dressed males (fantastic as in perfect)! Girls in skirts riding cool old bikes (I want to be them)! And an unfathomable amount of art and history!

Now, I do have something for you. Alicia and her beautiful family are the nicest people in France (maybe Europe) and took me out to dinner – once in Paris and once in Caen (as well as serving me delicious home cooked meals the other nights of the week). Our dinners were real French dinners – a bottle of wine, a carafe of Evian water, bottomless baskets of bread, a waiter that never talked to you besides taking your order, the whole thing lasting a minimum of 3 hours, and each person ordering their own appetizer followed by an entree and a dessert. You can eat a lot more food when your dinner lasts for that long. I loved every minute of it (which is weird because I am usually a person to eat quickly and move on to the next thing). Everything I tasted was out of this world and reading through the menu with all its exotic combinations and ideas was an experience in itself. I did manage to take pictures of all of these dishes. 😉

Gros escargots de Bourgogne – I finally did it, and they were really quite good. Just don’t look at them because then you can recognize the snail shape/body parts…

Saumon de Norvege avec les pommes de terre et creme roquette – I will only make my mashed potatoes with olive oil from this day forward, and I will try really hard to figure out how to make that sauce (it’s from some sort of lettuce leaf).

Steak tartare et frites – Alicia’s dinner but I tried a bite. For those of you who don’t know, that’s completely 100% uncooked ground beef mixed with some flavorings. Texture is bizarre (kinda like mashed potatoes!), but it’s not awful. And I didn’t die from eating raw meat.

Ile flottante – Again, Alicia’s dessert but I tried a bite. This is an “island” of meringue “floating” on vanilla/banana custard (hence the name), and sprinkled with almonds.

Gazpacho de fruits rouge avec petit pains d’epice et creme vanille – Genius idea. So simple and at the same time DIVINE. Just a cold “soup” of red fruits (strawberries, raspberries, etc) with spice bread “croutons” and a vanilla cream in the middle. This is #1 on the to-make-at-home list.

And now for French dinner #2:

Alicia’s and I didn’t write down what this was! But the salmon was just cooked on the top, the rest was raw and – guess what – REALLY GOOD.

Soupe glacee Parmentier et langoustines roti – My appetizer. A cold potato soup with a fresh chive cheese and “langoustines” which Wikipedia tells me is a type of prawn.

Brochettes gambas et rouget avec tagliatelles legumes – Skewers of shrimp and a red fish with shredded vegetables on the side. That’s a lemon foam on top.

Feuille a feuille citron vert et fruits rouge – OH MON DIEU. I changed my mind upon seeing this again – this is now top of the things-to-make-at-home list. Thin sheets made of cooked sugar and fruit pulp, topped with a vanilla-lime flavored sorbet/custard type goodness, and slices of strawberries. Accompanied with a “red fruits” sorbet. Best dessert I’ve eaten in Europe, hands down.

Expect variations on these meals when I get home.

*Also had lunch at McDonald’s one day. My first time this trip. I got the “1955 Special Edition Burger” which is apparently supposed to mimic some burger that McDonald’s originally had? With grilled onions and barbecue sauce and a way too salty meat patty? And I love, absolutely love, how every country has different McFlurry flavors. Trying every single one of them has been added to my life to-do list. I had the “Daim” flavor (caramelized toffee-type candy?), but they also had M&M peanut and Kit-Kat (I hear they have Rolo flavored in Spain… can’t believe I missed that!!!).

**And I now have the ability to try non-supermarket, non-typical American cheese. Though I still probably will not like them (can’t live without goat cheese though; will eat that every day of the week, with every meal). I tried Roquefort, which was WAY WAY too much “smelly cheese” for me. And the weirdest one was “taupinette.” It looks like this: