Workers, butchers, teachers, retailers, homemakers... unemployed, with an uncertain salary or with a stable income… within this range of how people experience a reality such as that of the First World War, one of the few elements common to the entire Belgian civilian population was the need to obtain food on the basis of what was available. Nutritional practices at the start of the century were confronted with a concentration of new products and, especially, with a limitation of the variety of alternatives when it came time to choose, out of desire or necessity, the location for obtaining prepared meals outside of the kitchen. From the start of the conflict, the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) set up two distribution programmes in order to meet the immediate needs.
The Popular Soup distributed at no cost "in order to help the destitute and persons who, as a result of the state of war, are temporarily deprived of resources", and the Economical Restaurants, intended "to serve meals at a reduced price to persons whose resources have been sharply lessened as a result of current events and who, without the need to be fed at public expense, can still look after a significant part of their day-to-day needs. This includes shop girls working only every other day, employees on reduced salary, artists without commitments, retailers whose affairs are in decline, persons with a small private income who are prevented from accessing their modest revenues, small homeowners whose rents from a few suburban houses, now vacant, form of the bulk of their earnings; in short, the social category referred to as the middle classes."
Amongst all of the efforts of the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) to supply the country and ensure a good distribution of the foodstuffs received from abroad or purchased nationally, the distribution of prepared meals was one of the greatest accomplishments of the 1914-1918 war. Intended primarily for the share of the Belgian adult population deprived of earnings or with major limitations, the Popular Soup charity, also known as the Popular Meals, had a shared objective with the School Soup programme, namely the distribution of one ration of soup and bread per person and per day. With the support of private initiatives in certain Belgian provinces, the unemployed and the needy arrived at suitable locations – markets, community halls, schools, etc. – with their own container in one hand and a household voucher in the other, and received their portion of soup from large boiling pots.
The unemployed and the needy arrived at suitable locations – markets, community halls, schools, etc. – with their own container in one hand and a household voucher in the other, and received their portion of soup from large boiling pots.
Along with these soups, normally prepared using vegetables, any available meat and a bit of animal fat, a portion of bread – rationed as well – was also distributed. In fact, just as the bakeries could only distribute their products in exchange for Bread Cards that determined the number of kilograms that each family could receive, the distribution of the Popular Soup was strictly monitored. The police verifications involved primarily the weight of the bread provided by bakeries that had signed contracts with the CNSA. Irregularities were common, sometimes caused by the poor quality of the flour received or by the need to produce the agreed quantities with few raw materials… "ten loaves delivered the previous evening, each of 600 g, actually consisted of 640 – 605 – 625 – 630 – 625 – 645 – 615 – 575 – 575 and 620 g. The bread did not appear to be of good quality. We were told by the canteen personnel that it was insufficiently baked. Too heavy in view of the large quantity or excessive water that it contained, most likely resulting in the abnormal weights and identified surpluses. In any event, the bread was not appetizing and, as supplied, would have been indigestible." (Police report from the city of Brussels, 26 October 1915).
Despite this example amongst many, that cannot be generalized as proof of the charity's weak efforts throughout the territory, it is beyond dispute that each ration of soup was, in most cases, the only daily fraction of vitamins, protein and fat that adult Belgians received for the duration of the conflict. The charity was intended to be entirely reserved for the Belgian civilian population, but in many cases, the volunteers on hand to prepare and serve the Popular Soup found themselves faced with German civilians, leading to a delicate and uncomfortable situation. Letters going back and forth between the charity's managers and the Central Committee in Brussels reiterated that even if foreigners had already been present within the territory before 1914, they could not obtain a free portion of hot soup and bread that were intended for unemployed and destitute Belgians, but rather could purchase food from the Communal Stores.
And if you wanted to buy your meals elsewhere?
Alongside the beneficiaries of the Popular Soup who had to make their way to the selected locations for the soup's distribution, another part of Belgian society saw not only its its eating places change, but also the content of its plates. Here we refer to everyone already accustomed to obtaining, from time to time, prepared meals outside of the home, more by choice than out of need: the middle class.
The Economical Restaurants, a concept resulting exclusively from demand primarily in the cities and linked to the country's occupation, developed in the major cities, i.e. Brussels, Antwerp, Liège and Gand. Decorated with candles, silverware and crystal glasses, the tables with tablecloths in these restaurants offered a soup dish, a meat dish with vegetables and/or potatoes, a portion of bread and a cup of coffee (or chicory), every day. "Tongue, Flemish beef stew, country beef, liver sauté, brains, stews, veal trotters, mutton and vegetable stew, pieds de mouton mushrooms, sheep's tail, beef muffle salad, etc."… Each Brussels guest gave, for the hours around the table and these dishes, 35 centimes out of the total meal price of 75 centimes; the difference was covered firstly by the CNSA (two thirds) and secondly by the community authorities (the remaining third). Bold comments were quick to follow in the press, and with regard to the Economical Restaurants charity, in 1916, we find an article asking the following question: "Is it [the charity] discreet assistance for the ashamed middle class?"
To give the reader an image of the atmosphere in which this middle-class maintained the habit of eating in a private room, together with friends and professional acquaintances, without losing the right to be surrounded by fine decorative pieces and to enjoy table service, here is how one of the 57 Brussels restaurants was described: "Let's eat! And the starry-eyed young girls from Brussels, corsage brightened by a ribbon in Belgian and American colours, large store employees, embarrassed persons with modest incomes, tenants unable to pay their rent on time and people for whom life has never been easy, are well served from the menu that includes leek soup, a fine slice of veal with plain potatoes and Brussels chicory, a piece of white bread along with a cup of coffee for anyone who didn't order beer. After the meal, the men light a cigarette, the women chat, an elbow on the table, since everyone knows one another from seeing each other every day, and everyone enjoys, despite the current concerns, a few moments of relaxation and rest."
After the meal, the men light a cigarette, the women chat, an elbow on the table, since everyone knows one another from seeing each other every day, and everyone enjoys, despite the current concerns, a few moments of relaxation and rest.
With fewer embellishments and probably a different outfit, one could compare the operation of the Economical Restaurants with that of modern – and even bourgeois – dining halls in this specific case. The desire to go to a restaurant to eat with others is a practice that has been able to remain, while maintaining its proportions, even as disputes rage all around.
In addition to these restaurants, the traditional private locations where people could find prepared meals were strictly controlled. During the war period, cafés, restaurants, hotels, bars and cabarets received certain foods from the CNSA in order to prepare their dishes or beverages, such as potatoes, beer, milk, fat, etc. The quantities per establishment and per day were part of the rationing rules set down by the German authorities. In the case of flour, for example, there was a strong decrease in the quantity distributed to hotels and restaurants in Brussels and Liège in 1916, after an increase of the reports of abuse and wastage.
One of the occupier's greatest concerns was obviously the consumption and distribution of alcoholic beverages in premises that were not part of the network of food charities providing aid to the population. As indicated in the national order posted in the streets of Brussels on 12 August 1916, "keepers of taverns, cafés, cabarets and, in general, all parties selling wine, beer or any other beverage for retail consumption, are required to close and empty their establishments and outbuildings AS OF MIDNIGHT in all seasons; not to reopen them before 4 AM from 1 April to 31 August, and before 5 AM for the rest of the year, under penalty of a fine of 5 to 15 francs and imprisonment of 1 to 5 days, separately or cumulatively, depending on the circumstances."
The difficulties maintaining the clientele, ensuring sufficient provisions of regular food and beverages and maintaining sufficient revenues to pay for the rent on the premises compelled certain proprietors and cooks to close their establishments throughout the country or, in certain cases, to maintain them secretly with hidden doors open only to people in the know… The closing or clandestine operation of establishments was so common throughout the country that the identification of the most popular restaurants and bars during the war period is, unfortunately, a difficult task; the results are not very significant… Nevertheless, despite very random circulation of food and beverages, the habit of eating and drinking in the street or in establishments that accompany human society, at least since the Roman Thermopolium ("bars"), continued to be a part, however irregular, of daily Belgian life, particularly in the cities, throughout the war.
Eating outside of the home served to bring together, around the table, people who were still able to share a meal with their friends – these "economic guests" or "clandestine drinkers" – as well as the people who waited patiently in the same queue in order to receive a portion of the popular soup or people who shared the less favourable daily grind of day-to-day life imposed upon them by unemployment. In all three cases, this was a voluntary or necessary decision to eat away from home, to eat what others had prepared while certainly having to make a daily effort in order to prepare the meals as well as possible despite the low degree of variety. Around these soup containers that sometimes waited hours before being filled or around the fine bourgeois economical tables, we find a representation of the link between the civil and urban Belgian population, and what everyone was able to eat during the war period.