Can you imagine a European kitchen without potatoes, tomatoes, turkey, corn or cocoa? Before the "discovery" of America at the end of the Middle Ages, the taste of these ingredients was completely unknown to European taste buds. Just like the products inherited from Asia and Africa, such as sugar, coffee, spinach and rice, the integration of these flavours into European food habits took several centuries. With regard to the period of the first centenary of the Great War in Belgium, the place of two ingredients from completely different horizons, namely Asian rice and Central American corn, was decisive in fighting off famine.
When a widespread consumer product is directly affected by distribution and production controls, requisitions, theft or attacks on imported cargo, the public is forced to find other ingredients that can meet nutritional needs. The food supply during a period of war or during the years of the German occupation between 1914 and 1918 is no exception. It's common to see food substitution behaviour. The appeal to the international community by the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) and the Commission for Relief of Belgium (CRB) in order to provide Belgium with sufficient foodstuffs to ward off hunger within the Belgian population facilitated the arrival of corn, most of which came from Argentina, and of rice of Asian origin that transited via New York and Great Britain.
The two main reasons for the introduction of rice and corn into the Belgian diet were their nutritional quality as well as their market price. While a kilo of rice cost 76 centimes and a kilo of corn flour cost 1 franc in the first half of 1917, the same quantity of noodles cost 1,50 franc and 5 francs for coffee. The increase of imports and therefore of the marketing of these two products facilitated their increasingly widespread usage within the country's urban and rural areas. Most of the Communal Stores attempted, insofar as possible, to maintain stocks of rice and corn, without forgetting that they also depended on production seasonality and therefore availability, as indicated in a letter sent from the head office of the CRB in London to the Belgian directors of the CNSA on 11 March 1915:
"In the matter of maize, there is no more Argentine maize to be purchased at any price until the new crop is available about the end of April or middle of May. In the matter of rice, however, the old crop is now finished and there is no rice coming on the London market or available for shipment until the new crop is disposable, which means that we cannot get a boat-load in before the end of April, although we are making every effort to pick up some old parcels." ("En ce qui concerne le maïs, il n’y a plus de maïs argentin à acheter à aucun prix jusqu’à ce que la nouvelle récolte soit disponible aux alentours de la fin d’avril ou de la mi-mai. En matière de riz, toutefois, l’ancienne récolte est maintenant terminée et il n’y a plus de riz arrivant sur le marché de Londres ou disponible pour être livré jusqu’à ce que la nouvelle culture soit prête, ce qui veut dire qu’on ne peut pas remplir un bateau avant la fin avril, même si nous faisons tous les efforts possibles en cherchant d’anciennes parcelles.")
The war and the need to find substitutes
Before 1914, the Belgians were very timid when it came to including rice and corn in their daily food preparations. As the conflict intensified and its resolution became increasingly nebulous with each passing day, the access to products commonly bought from the market gardener, the grocer and the butcher was often interrupted; it was therefore necessary to find the best way to replace them. The uncertainty regarding access to potatoes and the price instability of the urban morning markets was due to sporadic blockages of railway lines or the impossibility for merchants to travel to the country in order to bring the tubers back to the urban centres.
Imported by the CRB, and distributed and stored by the CNSA in the communal stores, rice is presented as the ideal substitute. In August 1916, a survey is carried out with 500 Belgian families, in an effort to identify what were their preferred meal flavours. Here are two of the answers to the question relative to the composition of the midday meal, that illustrates the principle of replacing potatoes with rice: "Communal Soup, bread, rice or potatoes, when we have any, with a bit of fat, if any can be purchased from the National Committee store"; "Soup. When there are potatoes, we eat them with vegetables. When there aren't, we eat rice boiled in water."
In terms of corn, its usage in Belgium was not limited to human food; it was also used as a fuel for illuminating collieries, and as food for cattle, poultry and even pigeons! Major producers such as the Gérard Buckinx firm in Liège specialised in the manufacturing of poultry-based foodstuffs. During the war period, they were forced to replace certain basic ingredients - notably wheat - with corn flour. This flour also replaced – or was combined with – wheat flour in the preparation of bread.
The novelty of their usage is often considered as a purely temporary solution, that had to be officially recognised and regulated: "The use of corn and barley in the manufacturing of bread will probably only be temporary. If the Governor General's approval is obtained, the Political Department will provide the Foreign Ministers with a memo to be attached as an appendix to the report that establishes the conditions under which the Governor General will agree to the use of corn and barley in the manufacturing of bread." (Letter of 1915)
As a further indication of the new aspect of this ingredient, in 1918, there were still Belgian Provinces where the mills working on the grinding of cereals for the CNSA were only handling corn in a temporary manner, or had "never before ground imported barley or corn" as was indicated by the Provincial Committee of Limbourg in December 1918, during the annual verification of cereal grinding by the CNSA head office. Another example of a significant impact in the Belgian national production was the case of beer. In Louvain, the De Stordeur plant founded in 1911 was in charge of distributing ground cereals of Argentine origine to the region's breweries for the production of beer. Given the shortages resulting from the conflict, several brewers had to ask the CNSA for additional shipments:
"Given the shortage of malt and barley, corn has become essential for the manufacturing of beer; it allows for regular manufacturing to be continued, but only provided that this merchandise can be delivered to us according to our needs. Having somewhat increased its usage in our manufacturing, in order to use up less of our malt reserve, we need in the area of one wagon of 10,000 kg per week. M. de Stordeur delivers to us very irregularly, apparently unable to do otherwise." (Letter of 5 February 1915 from the Lannoy Frères brewery located in Ixelles).
Given the shortage of malt and barley, corn has become essential for the manufacturing of beer; it allows for regular manufacturing to be continued, but only provided that this merchandise can be delivered to us according to our needs.
Substituting in the kitchen: the key to new economical cuisine
The creation and change of a food habit normally require time, as well as the acceptance of new flavours. The growing use of large quantities of imported corn and rice would never have been integrated into the food practices of the Belgians without the efforts to provide information about the good nutritional and taste qualities of these two products: "Since the war, foods previously unknown to us have become part of man's diet. This was the case for all corn derivatives at the start, the introduction was carried out quite slowly, but they progressively came to be appreciated while providing essential services, at least to the industrial populations. Of course, the usage of these products resulted in significant changes in our culinary habits but, these days, it's necessary to take advantage of anything that we can use as supplies, or in other words to save our lives." (Letter of 20 April 1918 sent by Max Rasquin, state agricultural engineer and supply director of Charleroi for the Provincial Committees.)
Of course, the usage of these products resulted in significant changes in our culinary habits but, these days, it's necessary to take advantage of anything that we can use as supplies, or in other words to save our lives.
Both in the press and in official communiqués, on posters glued to the walls, in household economics books intended for the middle class, and even in books intended rather for working housekeepers, we note a constant desire to convince cooks of the benefits of rice and corn, while always stressing the importance of the economic benefit. Tante Colinette, author of a household economics book published in 1917, "Le coin de la ménagère", provides her readers with a series of recipes using Sugar Corn (a type of corn with a rather sweet taste), "a new product and the can only costs 30 centimes!".
In the same vein, a letter from the CRB central head office in London on 21 December 1914 advised the sharing of a series of corn-based recipes with the Provincial Committees because "it would be good to already start doing whatever is necessary to instruct the people regarding the use of such a nourishing food." Despite these efforts, one must recognise that its introduction in the country was more widespread in industrial circles and in the production of cattle feed. Today, in 2014, it's the most widely grown cereal in the world, and 70% of its production is intended for animal feed.
Today, in 2014, it's the most widely grown cereal in the world, and 70% of its production is intended for animal feed.
Without doubt, the product that found a primary place in the daily food of the Belgians during the war period was rice. It was already known, but the number of recipes published between 1914 and 1918 confirms its great success with the middle and popular classes. In fact, at the start of the century, it was rarely eaten. In economical food books for the middle class and in brochures intended for widespread distribution, we find rice in preparations that are both sweet and savoury, and in dishes with varying degrees of preparation difficulty: bourgeois hors d'oeuvres such as "kidney on canapés", rice pudding, rice tarts, savoury and sweet cakes, stews and soups with vegetables such as string beans, fried in the form of the ball, with fruits such as apples…
One of the most interesting cases is the recipe for "no fire cooking" by Tante Colinette, which presents cooking techniques that don't use fire (practiced in Roman times). This involves hermetically closing a pot and covering it with sheets, leaves, straw or newspaper for two hours so that the heat finishes cooking the rice pudding. Also known as a "haybox cooker" ("marmite norvégienne" in France), it's a very worthwhile culinary experiment to try, especially in the winter in order to save on coal.
Rice was appreciated by the working classes for its easy preparation, its price and its nutritional contribution. Indeed, in all of the recipes gathered by the Bénard Almanac published in 1917 and intended for the Belgian middle classes for the simplicity of their preparation and modest quantity of necessary ingredients, one recipe in four included rice. By comparing with a bourgeois manuscript from Charleroi, we see that for all of the 55 recipes that the author describes during the period of the war, only a single one contains rice – in the form of flour! –, namely the "potato cake".
It's important to remember that modern European cuisine, and Belgian cuisine is certainly no exception, relies firstly on enormous corn and rice plantations around the world, but also on food habits that, since the period of the Great War, have included these two products within the range of flavours. Today, the nutritional values recognised for these two products are not very different from the official statements in 14-18, which attempted to convince homemakers to serve rice and corn at the table as antidotes against famine, instead of very expensive and very rare potatoes or soup stocks that were low in nutrients. The objective was to have an impact on the collective memory and to convince that this is a food of unknown richness, and that one had to take advantage of its good market price.