The German Food Commission’s Wartime Kitchen Magic

woman selling ices in Germany

Spitting in public places; occupying all the benches in the parks, thus depriving old people of seats; playing your piano in an apartment after ten o’clock at night; handling fruit, poultry or game in market stalls; putting more people in an elevator than it can hold; employing a man until he is old and then throwing him out and giving his place to a younger man; baking cakes and pastry at home; selling or using cream; dancing during war – if as a Wilhelmine German you took a notion to do any these things, you risked incurring the wrath of the Reich, for it had ruled them strictly Verboten.

Yet the Reich encouraged as many activities as it discouraged. As the First World War raged, rationing became necessary. Ersatz comestibles, which came to replace the natural ones that were reserved for the Kaiser’s army, inspired something of a new culinary art in Germany. It was said the German Food Commission could work wonders, producing as if out of thin air a servicable substitute for almost any foodstuff. Sugar, flour, eggs and milk – each had its synthetic Doppelgänger that civilians, war-weary though they were, ate without complaint. (To balk at oleo or pine-needle tea was no doubt also deemed Verboten.)

Germany in War Time: What an American Girl Saw and Heard (1917) is the memoir of one Mary Ethel McAuley, a Yankee lady who spent the war years on the Continent. In it she praises the Commission, which “has everything figured out so that provisioning shall be divided proportionately each week, and just what each person shall receive.” To each according to his needs seems to have been the governing maxim, because “everybody does not receive the same amount of food in Germany.” Office workers received less bread than factory workers, and the aged and infirm received extra rations of cereals, butter and eggs.

An austere diet of carefully doled-out powdered eggs and saccharine tablets did little to sap the citizenry’s health and vigor. Indeed, McAuley observes that “”nine out of every ten Germans have never been so well in their lives as they have been since the card had been introduced.” “[S]pry, active and energetic” is how most of them reported feeling, primarily as a consequence of the fact that “one is constantly thinking of things to eat.”

ration card for bread in wartime Germany
This having things to eat constantly on the mind was perhaps relieved somewhat come Sunday, whose dinner, though still meager by peace-time standards, offered portions substantial enough to calm any hunger-induce antics. McAuley records in her memoir a sample Sabbath bill of fare:
Plum soup
130 grams of beef
300 grams of potatoes
Lemon pudding
If you should happen to feel your vigor flagging, and believe that a little wartime dearth can restore it, try this recipe for plum soup, which is taken from McAuley’s memoir. And if dessert isn’t strictly Verboten, you can follow your plum soup with some drop cakes without eggs, sugar or milk. Just make sure you don’t bake them at home.
Plum Soup
1/2 pound of plums boiled in a quart of water and strained.
2 tablespoonfuls of sugar.
1/2 cup of oatmeal.

Boil and serve cold.

Drop Cakes Without Eggs, Sugar or Milk

1/2 cup walnut meats.
2 eggs substitutes.
1/2 cup milk substitute, 1/2 teaspoon saccharine.
1 tablespoonful baking powder.
1 cup flour.
Add a little cinnamon. Bake as drop cakes. Flour the baking pan instead of greasing it.

Baumgarthuber, Christine. Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder. Reaktion Books, 2021.

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