The Cuisine of War

On the brink of the First World War, Belgium was largely dependent on import for its natural resources and produce. When the international economy plummeted because of the war, food supply became a problem for the Belgians. The German occupation reduced the country’s farmland to 125.000 acres, of which another 86.000 were flooded to stop German soldiers from advancing. 95% of all arable land in Belgium remained in German hands until the end of the war.

During the war, Belgium became a lucrative area to Germany: the Belgian economy served to finance the costs of the occupation. Paper and gasoline, among other resources, as well as produce such as wheat and potatoes were regularly claimed by the German occupier. All collected goods were gathered and stored in Zentrales. The distribution of food over the occupied areas was organised from those central depots, although, in reality, a lot of Belgian products were shipped to Germany. To supply their troops, the Germans also installed several mobile bakeries in the region.

The Germans’ claim on produce and other provisions made life difficult for the Belgian population. Most communities were asked to take inventory of their grain supply and the number of horses available to them. Often, towns were demanded to hand over even more of their provisions as a punishment for disregarding German authority. Cereals of bread-making quality, potatoes and butter were in large demand. Before long, farmers and merchants started selling their products through illegal channels. The black market thrived — well-off citizens were more than willing to accept a tenfold increase in price — though not without putting a dent in the reputation of agriculturists and salesmen, whose practices were not seldomly scorned in the local newspapers. By the summer of 1916, smuggling had become the standard procedure for obtaining meat and potatoes.

With food supplies at an all-time low and prices sky-rocketing, many communities saw the need to start printing their own unofficial necessity money. In 1914, a National Committee for Aid and Food was founded in an attempt to lower the impact of the nutritional crisis. With local branches in many of the towns ands villages in the BIE-region, the Committee, in collaboration with the agrarian union, launched a number of initiatives to tackle the food scarcity. A noteworthy example was the distribution of soup to civilians. Provided they registered in advance, people had the option to queue for a cheap cup of soup.

Help also arrived from overseas. Many villages, including Izegem and Lichtervelde, welcomed the opening of “American stores”, where basic groceries could be purchased for little money. Exchanging food coupons for potatoes, cabbage and meat, civilians obtained provisions for their homes. Like the help committees, the stores served their purpose well, and long queues often built up in front of them. Despite their success, the help organisations were sometimes critiqued for being somewhat patronizing. 

Necessity being the mother of invention, people learned to use what little ingredients they had in a creative way. With a view to teaching the public how to make wholesome meals using limited means, the state published a range of leaflets and cookery books with recipes and tips. The consumption of high nutrition foods like peas and beans was encouraged; legumes and soup from root vegetables soon became the staple foods of wartime Belgium.