"The market was more or less agitated this morning in view of the scarcity of potatoes, but there were no incidents. The wholesalers tell me that they no longer dare to go to the country in order to buy potatoes, and that the country people will no longer hazard a trip to the market. All of the villages in the surroundings of Brussels have been warned by the German troops, and merchants and country people are constantly being stopped, threatened and held for hours. The situation is becoming very difficult." Dated 2 September 1914, this Brussels police report confirms that, one month after the arrival of the Germans, the Belgians were already having to deal with the now constant instability governing the potato market. This was notably the case in the major cities that depended on the countryside for their food: the population saw this food – solely intended for the poor and animals before the 19th century – disappear from its plates and its stomach.
The population saw this food – solely intended for the poor and animals before the 19th century – disappear from its plates and its stomach.
Who could imagine Belgium without potatoes? Even though the myths surrounding the actual origins of chips have led to interesting debates these days, the history of potatoes in Belgium is much more extensive and rich. As a starting point, it should be noted that it was the hand of hunger that wrote the story of its cultivation and consumption. This food, that crossed the Atlantic from the Andes Mountains to Europe in the boats of the "conquistadors", found a place in the Flemish farmlands only at the end of the 17th century, and took almost a hundred years to spread throughout the whole of Wallonia! Its farming was primarily motivated by food shortages, famine and a scarcity of bread, the "true" basic food par excellence in the collective memory. Before the war, its consumption particularly in popular settings prompted some of the more comfortable strata of society – closer to the French cuisine that had been expanding rapidly since the 19th century and not yet "obliged" to eat potatoes – to consider the potato as a food fit only for the "poor".
One of the reasons – if not the most important – for the growing popularity of the farming and consumption of potatoes in Belgium was the need to find a substitute for bread during periods of shortages. After a century of daily consumption by the working and lower classes, the potato was accepted at the table of the upper classes in the 19th century, thereby becoming a basic necessity food in Belgium. A potato shortage, always a threat during the German occupation, was one of the most pressing food realities of the war that the Belgian population had to face.
"And first of all, here you hear the same thing as everywhere else, no butter, no potatoes! Both rich and poor are deprived. There are many families, even from the upper class, that haven't eaten potatoes for two months. Along the road, it's frequent to see people who have travelled 20 or 25 km on foot in order to go find 10 kg of potatoes.."
This excerpt from an official report from the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) on the imports needed in Belgium for 1916, indicates that the communication between the production sites and the consumption sites was frequently interrupted during the occupation. Walking towards the potatoes… waiting for the wagon loaded with bags imported from Ireland, Scotland and the United States… going to the morning market with the hope of finding a few kilos for sale… not becoming totally destitute as the result of requisitions and theft… The history of potatoes during the Great War was one of constant waiting, crushing uncertainty and, especially, disappearances. Many kilos would evaporate either during the trips between the farms and the distribution centres, or on the boats coming from the other side of the Atlantic. The percentage of losses in 1915 varied between 25% and 75%!
And first of all, here you hear the same thing as everywhere else, no butter, no potatoes! Both rich and poor are deprived. There are many families, even from the upper class, that haven't eaten potatoes for two months.
Having to banish from their memories the tradition of freely going to the urban and rural markets, Belgians had to adapt to the realities imposed by rationing. In most cases, the CNSA, responsible for supplying the country during the period of the conflict, made agreements with local producers relative to the sale and purchase prices, in order to be able to provide the population with kilos of this tuber through the Communal Stores. With potato vouchers in hand, civilians had access to bags that were sold for 65 centimes per kilo per household, on a daily or weekly basis according to their needs and the country's regions (before 1914, 1 kg only cost 8 centimes!).
The hunt for potatoes
The German requisitions, primarily involving potatoes throughout the Belgian territory, brought this food into the hands of enemy soldiers who, just like the Belgians, the French and the English, spent countless hours peeling them… The producers, the harvest, the carts and the wagons intended to supply the Communal Stores and the markets were strictly controlled by the Kartoffelversorgungsstelle (Potato Supply Centre).
At the beginning of the conflict, the CNSA and the German authorities reached certain agreements regarding the limits on the occupier's requisitions of products from the Committee. However, there would always be an unimaginable gap between the percentages of quantities that they took directly in order to supply the army, and the number of kilos that the Belgians saw pass before their eyes, powerless to do anything about it.
Here, for example, is the description by an inspector from the Louvain district about a requisition where "they don't miss a thing" in February 1918: "During my visit to Weert-St-Georges and Louvain, I saw a brigade of 24 German soldiers, each equipped with a long probe. With information in hand, these soldiers go from village to village and make requisitions in order to look for stashes of potatoes. They search cellars, attics, gardens, silos, fields. They don't miss a thing, and there's no hiding place that gets by them. They have already done their work in Rhode and Bier-Beek and, to continue with their operations, the tramway had to provide them with a locomotive and wagon. According to what I was told, in Bier-Beek they found 24,000,000 kg (!) of potatoes, and applied fines amounting to 900,000 francs. With just one farmer, a certain Mr. Brasseur, they uncovered 300 bags."
This example, one of many other cases of contacts between the German occupier and Belgian producers, is indicative of this common characteristic in the desperate search for potatoes: hunger. While the complaints surrounding German requisitions and requests for restitution of the quantities seized by the occupier increased, the production and especially the distribution steadily deteriorated.
1916, the greatest shortage
Bread Cards, Household Cards, Potato Cards… the logistics behind food distribution during the war depended on these little official vouchers that controlled the rationing. Along with bread, potatoes were one of the CNSA's priority foods, and indeed, these two foods were the most widely distributed foods during this period. As with all foodstuffs and despite its efforts, the Committee had to deal with situations in which the distribution was insufficient to satisfy the needs of the population in all Belgian provinces. The shortage grew in the final months of 1915, and public complaints began to roll in: "When will it be our turn? In many communities throughout the country, especially in Wallonia, early potatoes have been distributed by the National Food Committee. Each inhabitant could obtain 1 kg for one franc. Will the inhabitants of Hasselt have to wait until there have been three or four distributions everywhere else?" (Excerpt from the 1915 provincial report).
In the spring of 1916, the greatest national potato crisis began: "In view of the shortage of potatoes throughout the country, requiring the strictest possible regulation on the usage of these foodstuffs, the Potato distribution bureau wishes to point out the need to take measures intended to prevent people whose needs are seemingly covered, either because they receive the "soup" or because they directly obtain potatoes, from being included in the distribution of these tubers by the communal authorities. According to press information, "serious inconveniences have already been experienced in this regard." (Communiqué from the General Government in Belgium, 2 March 1916) As the potato crisis became more serious, homemakers were left with fewer available ingredients with which to prepare meals that were both nutritional and tasty.
The efforts of the local authorities, and notably the spontaneous initiatives of the population in order to deal with this shortage, focused on seeking out unused areas that could be planted in order to increase the potato crop. Therefore, in villages such as Châtelet, we find traces of the requests sent to farmers in order to share – sometimes not very easily – their lands; or urban cases as were seen in Liège, where small crops were planted in suitable areas at various locations throughout the city.
On a more private side, one of the most extreme measures proposed in Brussels in an attempt to avoid the wastage of potato scraps in households was the one communicated in August 1916: "The Brussels Relief and Food Committee has resolved to gather, from the homes of persons agreeing to participate, all peelings from potatoes and possibly from other vegetables. Such waste will be sold for the benefit of the popular food charity. The proceeds of the sales will help to make up for the lack of resources resulting from the decrease of cash donations."
The Brussels Relief and Food Committee has resolved to gather, from the homes of persons agreeing to participate, all peelings from potatoes and possibly from other vegetables.
Potatoes at the table
As part of daily life in the kitchen, homemakers used potatoes when coming up with a way to correctly feed their families. Sometimes out of necessity and sometimes as a nutritional substitute for bread, the habit of eating potatoes made its way into cookbooks. During the war period, several publications advised homemakers on how to prepare meals economically, and within all of this advice, potatoes played a fundamental role.
Three examples of works can be mentioned: The bourgeois manuscript from Charleroi by Germaine Servais, the book written for the middle class Le coin de la ménagère by Tante Colinette and L’alimentation en temps de disette by the abbot Berger, rather intended for the working classes. Looking at the details of the recipes contained in these works, it's interesting to see how, even in the period of the war during which the tuber shortage was doubtlessly widespread, potatoes continued to be less popular on middle-class tables than on the tables of workers (i.e. workers in plants or fields).
Of the 55 recipes written by Mrs. Servais between 1914 and 1918, only five had potatoes in their list of ingredients: namely the one for trout Meunières, potato cakes, hazelnut cake, vegetables with bacon and yeast. In the case of Tante Colinette, one quarter of the recipes are based on potatoes (recipes for fish, fritters, stews, vegetable croquettes, meatballs…). Finally, for the most popular case, in the book by abbot Berger, we find stews, omelettes, vegetable ratatouille, cakes, purées, etc.; potatoes are present in 46% of the recipes!
With a level of usage in more or less sophisticated preparations that depended on the available ingredients and the desired result, the potato's place in the kitchen was characterized by its adaptability to the needs in the time of shortages. The fact of finding potatoes in stews as well as in purées and especially in cakes indicates to what extent potatoes were integrated into the daily food reality of the Belgians, going beyond a simple substitution and becoming an acquired taste. The only recipe repeated in the three above examples is that of the "war cake", for which the basic ingredient is the potato. It's probable that the variety of potato-based preparations taught to homemakers during the war period helped to consolidate its place within a special kind of "Belgian-ness", and especially within a series of food-related habits that have continued to this very day.