As a carnivorous society, Belgian depended on a local production of meat and especially on imported cattle, well before the August 1914 arrival of foreign German-speaking armies. Within the framework of a tradition common to Western Europe, the consumption of meat was first and foremost a symbol of belonging to a given social class. In the same proportions, the social differences in the carnivorous food habits of the Belgians were maintained during the long years of the conflict. Finding one's plate garnished with a piece of beef, pork, horse or poultry depended equally on the proximity to the breeding facilities and abattoirs, on the purchasing power, and especially on the quantities available after the veterinary inspections, thefts of merchandise and German requisitions. Abattoirs, butcher shops, delicatessens and the kitchens of Belgian homemakers had to adapt to the regulations intended, insofar as possible, to regulate how animals were processed and to ensure the good quality of the meat made available to the population.
As a carnivorous society, Belgian depended on a local production of meat and especially on imported cattle, well before the August 1914 arrival of foreign German-speaking armies.
In modern European society, vegetarianism is becoming increasingly widespread as a health-related practice, probably in response to the development of the agri-food industry since the 19th century. For a large part of the Belgians who lived through the First World War, refraining from the consumption of animal protein wasn't a deliberate choice, but rather a resigned adaptation as a result of food shortages. As the cities were largely dependent on production from the countryside, they were constantly affected by interruptions in the transportation means, merchandise thefts and German requisitions that decreased the quantities of meat distributed by the abattoirs.
Given the difficulty of unrestricted access to transportation means suited to the transfer of cattle and fresh meat, the national production of meat during the conflict was primarily beneficial to the people living closest to the breeding farms. As part of the dynamics imposed by the war, military advances and offensive strategies often blocked the transfers of cattle that had been scheduled for slaughter in the urban centres that required meat; this was the case in all regions that, in 1916, had to wait for months before receiving fresh meat coming from the provinces producing large quantities of meat, such as Hainaut and Western Flanders.
In addition to transfer-related problems, the food shortage also directly affected the stomachs of cows, pigs, horses and poultry, as explained in this memo from the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) sent to the local committees in December 1915: "The number of heads of cattle slaughtered in public abattoirs in Belgium has fallen by at least 40%, and the quantity of fat produced per head has been reduced in considerable proportions, given the shortage of cattle feed." The implications of this decrease were experienced on a daily basis by the country people that to find the means to feed their families while they watched their animals dying of hunger, but also by the city dwellers to whom the rationing allocated increasingly meagre quantities of meat and, in general, by the overall population that was required to consume poor quality meat.
A few weeks after the occupier's arrival, the creation of the CNSA and of the Commission for Relief of Belgium (CRB) was intended to supply and distribute basic necessity foods to the Belgian non-militarized population. With only a few exceptions such as canned meat (the famous corned beef), powdered meat, bacon and lard sent by the United States, and the few tonnes of meat sold by Argentina to the CRB, the cattle trade and importing of fresh meat were not included within the CNSA's functions.
An initial health-related and logistical reason for this measure by the CNSA related to the difficulty transporting live animals of varying origins, and the health condition of which had to be rigorously verified. From a political viewpoint and in the spirit of the Great War, in the final months of the conflict, imports by the CRB and the CNSA were completely prohibited by the English government (the CRB head office was located in England). Here's the reason: "The English government seems to be reasoning as follows: since each kilogram of meat entering Belgium allows for the export of a similar quantity to Germany, imports into Belgium must be prevented in order to end the exports benefiting the Germans." (Letter of 18 June 1918 sent to the CNSA directors).
The English government seems to be reasoning as follows: since each kilogram of meat entering Belgium allows for the export of a similar quantity to Germany, imports into Belgium must be prevented in order to end the exports benefiting the Germans.
During the first three years of the conflict, the only foreign source of cattle supply intended for human consumption was the Netherlands. These imports were authorised by the occupier thanks to the neighbouring country's neutral position in the conflict and its primary role in the operation of the CRB, once the United States entered the war in 1917. Only cattle transportation by railway was authorised, provided that the animals underwent a 15-day quarantine in order to detect possible illnesses before being routed to the national abattoirs.
Once at the abattoirs…
The majority of the food inspections were performed at the abattoirs certified as authorised primary distribution centres. Transportation documents, official stamps on the packaging, surprise visits by Belgian and German veterinarians, and inspectors in charge of counting the litres of blood recovered by individuals in containers, were all intended to guarantee the correct operation of the abattoirs. The presence of experts in the treatment of animals was intended to reduce the number of unofficial abattoirs, as well as of any working in response to a need motivated by the shortages rather than by a responsible production of meat. For example, throughout Belgium, it was prohibited to feed the animals within the 24 hours that preceded their slaughter, such as to avoid wastage; similarly, the slaughter of pregnant sows or of pigs weighing less than 60 kg could result in punishment.
Once the animals arrived at the abattoirs, a rigourous control was performed relative to the owner, the health condition of the animals and the quantity of meat resulting from the slaughter. In an effort to control the quality of the meat in direct sales and to limit potential fraud, it was mandatory to inform the public regarding the remainders of meat and bone that had almost no nutritional value.
In general terms, the presence of these expert inspectors played a fundamental role in meat distribution during the conflict, especially in the quality of the meats available to Belgian households. An order signed by the Governor General in Belgium, Freiherr von Bissing en 21 March 1916, illustrates the power of the inspections on the quality and on consumers: "If the meat has been inspected by a German expert and found to be of food quality, this meat can be used for all purposes. If the meat has been inspected by a Belgian expert and found to be of food quality, this meat cannot be used to feed members of the German army or any persons attached to its service."
If the meat has been inspected by a Belgian expert and found to be of food quality, this meat cannot be used to feed members of the German army or any persons attached to its service.
In the dynamics of war, when animal strength was sometimes more essential than meat for the military troops, cattle requisitions sharply limited the consumption of horse meat that, until 1914, was quite common in Belgium. After illnesses and the permanent disappearance of beasts of burden, starting in October 1917, a national order prohibited the slaughter of equines (horses, donkeys, hinnies and mules), except in case of necessity: "those which, as certified by a competent approved veterinary, are rendered indispensable due to serious illness or animal accident".
This same order specified that the meat resulting from such slaughter was, out of necessity, considered to be inferior; however, this inferior meat was not prohibited for human consumption. Article 4 tells us that "Inferior quality meat originating with equines can only be delivered to consumers for their personal consumption, and in specialised premises (Freibanke) where such sales are carried out under the supervision of the authority. The purchase of inferior quality meats is prohibited for retailers, particularly for butchers, delicatessen operators, as well as hotel and restaurant operators. On a given day, each purchaser can only obtain a maximum quantity (at most 1 kg) as determined by the veterinarian in charge of the assessment of the meats. The latter also determines the price for inferior quality meats coming from equines; this price cannot be more than 2 francs per kilogram."
Honesty and cleanliness above all
Organised on a cooperative model, the Union des Charcutiers and the Union des Bouchers received strict regulations from the Belgian and German authorities, relative to the operation of their commercial establishments. Even though the CNSA was not in charge of the official import and transportation of meat in all provinces, the sale prices for all of Belgium were determined with the approval of the German authority. The sale of meat to consumers in authorised butcher shops and delicatessens adhered to the same food distribution logic as the Communal Stores: the presentation of Household Cards, specifying the authorised quantities for each family according to the number of persons comprising the household, was required. However, in an effort to control the profit-minded spirit of meat retailers, even if they used a Household Card, it was the obligation of the spouses of the butchers and delicatessen operators to purchase meat for their household.
Behind these sometimes makeshift counters in destroyed locations or even in churches, butchers and delicatessen operators had a great responsibility in their hands: supplying these sources of animal protein that were becoming increasingly important in the discussions on the science of nutrition. The messages circulating in the forms of posters, brochures and manuals on economical nutrition during times of shortages, were intended to inform people, especially the popular classes, of the importance of balanced nutrition. The importance allocated to meat in the nutrition discussions developed due to industrialization, that changed the very concept of physical work.
In view of these nutritional principles and of the rationing imposed by the war-related shortages, the quantities of supplied meat were strictly controlled: "Weighing verifications must be performed every day, before opening and after closing. The weighing before opening is intended to identify the stocks from the previous evening. The weighing after closing will determine the weight of losses, sales, etc., since the previous evening. The recorded weight will be listed in the manager's book, opposite the indication "Remaining in the store in the evening" and the losses will be listed next to the word "Waste".". (Brochure Instructions pour boucheries et charcuteries des Magasins Communaux distributed to all Belgian establishments in 1915).
Subject to severe penalties regarding working hours and even the right to access meat, butchers and delicatessen operators had to keep a written account of each sale, that was constantly monitored by the authorities. Also, the above-mentioned brochure helps us to better understand that the principles of hygiene and customer service that seem ordinary to us today, had to be learned, recalled and imposed in the form of regulations, on retailers who were not necessarily accustomed to them: "Coffee breaks during business hours are formally prohibited, as is smoking in the stores. Severe measures will be taken against agents who do not strictly follow these orders. A "No smoking" notification must be posted in the store. This prohibition also applies to the public. The staff will always bear in mind that it is there to serve the public; accordingly, it must serve the public in all circumstances with all possible speed."
Meat in the kitchen and on the table
Country people, who often raised cattle in order to provide for their needs and those of nearby households, managed to maintain a source of animal protein as part of the daily food. For urban populations, the access to meat depended more directly on imports or interruptions in the transportation means. For overall Belgian society, meat consumption during the war maintained the cultural trend of the 19th century, in which the quantities and varieties of meat in the plates determined one's belonging to a given social class.
For overall Belgian society, meat consumption during the war maintained the cultural trend of the 19th century, in which the quantities and varieties of meat in the plates determined one's belonging to a given social class.
While the popular classes had to be happy with bacon, offal and occasional beef steaks or poultry that was more accessible in the countryside in certain parts of Belgium, while the upper bourgeoisie could still afford to eat foie gras, imported hams and top quality meats during the conflict. The various recipes from 1914 to 1918, such as the ones included in Le coin de la ménagère, the Alimentation en temps de disette and the Manuscrit de Madame Germaine Servais, that respectively targeted the popular, middle and bourgeoisie classes, reflected these major differences.
Often prepared in the form of stews or soups simmered for a long time, meat was a minority ingredient in popular recipes and, to a lesser degree, in the recipes intended for the middle classes. Accustomed to preparing economical meals for their families with the ingredients at their disposal, homemakers often found themselves only able to access offal or remainders of meat that would be regularly reused for several soups or broth.
Abbot Berger, author of the Alimentation en temps de disette, tells us, in his book published in 1915, of the great irony of meat-based consumption in Belgium during the war period, when the cultural value of obtaining foods prepared outside of the home exceeded nutritional and rational principles: "The most popular dishes on restaurant menus in the big cities are in fact ones that are made from low price parts: tongue, Flemish beef stew, country beef, blanquette, liver sauté, brains, stews, veal trotters, mutton and vegetable stew, pieds de mouton mushrooms, sheep's tail, beef muffle salad, etc.…". Somewhat further in his text, he also asserts that the practice of paying more expensively for such meals "traces back to the homemaker's ignorance or negligence". Is such irony comparable with our modern food habits? The food shortages during the Great War and the behaviour with regard to the foods to which the Belgian population had access provide us with elements that can be part of the reflection on the change or persistence of certain food habits.