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Food in the time of war

Zubin Dsouza

War is a terrible thing to live through.

It is also a time to judge true character.

Living through war can be a hellish situation for both soldiers and civilians.

It takes a lot of grit; it takes a load of courage and it definitely takes a whole load of innovation should you want to come out sane on the other side.

It is surprising how many ideas and wonderful creations are realised when there are raging battles around the bend.

Apparently nothing gets the grey cell juices to stir faster than a hostile situation where the wrong decisions can result in starvation and death.

When nations first went to war, the key to survival was having food that could last a long journey. Strips of air dried meat like pemmican were standard parts of a warrior’s rations.

The Mongols preferred handfuls of minced meat which they could eat with one hand while guiding their horses with the other. After a bit of refinement, this became standard fare of French haute cuisine and was aptly named ‘Steak Tartare’ after the erstwhile tartar people.

The army always had entire divisions working towards their benefit. Whether it was nutritionist devising the best meal plan for the folks in uniform or an advance reconnaissance party that used their might and weapons to stake claim to civilian food and properties; they were covered.

It was the common folk that were most affected.

It was also the common folk that were the most creative.

During the 1870 siege of Paris at the height of the Franco-Prussian war, the residents of the city were surrounded by enemy troops and cut off from their supply lines. The Germans intended to starve the city to surrender.

Parisians who are known worldwide for their gastronomical penchants were not willing to give in so easily.

Some of the authorities had the foresight before the siege to bring in all the livestock from the surrounding areas. When the siege stretched on and the last of the cattle were slaughtered, the Parisians turned to their favourite modes of transport.

The horses were the first to go under the butcher’s knife, followed by the mules and donkeys. Simultaneously it was the turn of the rats that Paris was most famous for along with household pets. None were spared; not even the iconic Parisian poodle that all the well-heeled residents liked to flaunt.

Then the citizens turned their attention to the zoos. They ate through the gazelles and deer; some more exotic animals and did not stop till they consumed the iconic elephants that were famous all over the city.

In fact as the siege continued through Christmas, some of the more famous restaurants offered multiple course dinners peppered with horse, rat, wolf, kangaroo and elephant.

In fact Chef Alexander Choron created the most amazing dinner spread with the proteins that he could purloin from the zoo. This dinner for a city about to capitulate and accompanied by the finest wines as artillery shells whizzed past may have been the ultimate last supper.

During the Second World War, the Dutch were faced with imminent starvation. As winter set in, and the Germans tightened their hold on supply routes, several deaths were reported. Faced with almost nothing to eat, the forecast for the populace was rather grim.

Luckily, due to conscription of the youth into the army, most of the planting work had not been done.

There were hyacinth and tulip bulbs lying about in abundance. Hyacinths are toxic to humans and the tulip bulbs were rather dishevelled.

Undaunted and of course left with very limited options, the nation began to plod on with their choice of food.

The results were rather exciting. The tulip bulb comes from the onion family but has strong starch content. It may not have tasted the best but it saved an entire nation from starvation and today is a symbol for the beauty of the Dutch people and their resilience.

American troops stationed in the Hawaiian islands received their rations of the despised salted pork meat called ‘Spam’ which was a moniker for ‘Spiced Ham’.

Although most of the soldiers did not take too kindly to the product, it was a hit with the locals so much that it is now an integral part of the local cuisine.

The Russians fared better. They prepared tea by boiling grated carrots with a tree fungus. The carrots added sweetness while the colour came from the fungus.

The British were the best prepared when it came to rationing during the war. They had their ration books printed out in advance and distributed to the public just four days after they declared war on Germany.

With the help of these books and the coupons within, they managed to regulate the supplies and provisions to be distributed to their citizens.

The books detailed the foods that could be purchased as well as the amounts allocated to each family.

These could be used to buy milk, flour, meats or sugar.

Unfortunately for the folks who wanted to, elephants were off the menu!

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