Following on the boots, horses and vehicles with which the German troops occupied Belgium in 1914, there remain countless incredible stories that are still waiting to be told. The 51 months during which the Belgians watched the comings and goings of these newcomers, these foreigners with their language unknown to a large part of the population, were a period of shared threat for both the occupier and the occupied. This threat had a name: hunger.
For a country like Belgium, recently industrialized at the start of the 20th century, at least one third of the products needed to sustain its population had to be imported. After the occupation that imposed major restrictions on cross-border food exchanges, the daily life of the Belgians was turned upside down; new means for getting supplies had to be found. In the city, the countryside and in the trenches, Belgians were confronted with inconsistent food supplies and had to do deal with the effects of the changes to the food market resulting from the requisitions – often at gunpoint – and from the efforts of hoarders, thieves and forgers.
Only the creation and the alliance, authorised by the Germans, of the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) and of the international aid managed by the CRB (Commission for Relief of Belgium) managed to lessen the effects of the constant threat of famine. In addition to the Communal Stores in charge of the official distribution, certain of the CNSA's national charities tried to guarantee at least one complete meal per day for the most vulnerable citizens: the School Soup for children and the Popular Soup for the destitute. Alongside these enormous quantities of soup that comforted body and soul, a greater variety of dishes was served on the perfectly set tables of the Restaurants Economiques (Economical Restaurants) that opened their doors to a "petite-bourgeoise" clientele.
At home, stopgap measures also had to be found. Our image of wartime is often accompanied by the idea of something new. As such, Belgian homemakers had to do their best to feed their families despite the modest quantity of available products. The use of corn in the preparation of bread and beer, the increased number of rice-based recipes and the "invention" of beverages made of flowers and wild roots are but a few examples of this "something new" that wartime flavours brought to the palate. Their usage is noted in remarkable testimonials: the diaries of soldiers, handwritten kitchen notes, economical recipe books
Family dishes including potatoes or rice, bread and beans, leftover meat – often prepared as a soup or a ragout – were eaten by the bulk of society: workers, countryfolk and members of the middle class. In addition to supplies through the official system, the black market also provided wealthier citizens with a selection of products (at exorbitant prices!) that could not be found elsewhere. Did you know that oysters from Ostende, French foie gras and bottles of Champagne could be found on the middle-class tables of Charleroi during the conflict?
The differences in how one coped with hunger, shortages and abuse would determine how one survived; first and foremost, the adaptation to the Great War in Belgium was a constant battle between need and resignation, with the help of the art of substitution.