Food in books, ep.7: All quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. Food in times of war.

This novel, as well as its author, has a fascinating story. While some literary critics have praised All quiet on the Western Front as one of the most relevant and enticing war novels, others have denied its literary value and simply looked at it as a war reportage. Published in 1929, the novel had immediate, incredible success, selling over a million copies within a year after publication. Four years later, the German authorities banned the book, viewed as detrimental to the German nation. Piles of books were burned, the author being marked as a traitor.
Erich Maria Remarque was enrolled in the Great War in 1917, at the age of 18, as part of the Second Company. He was soon transferred to the Western Front. One month later he was wounded and sent back to a military hospital, in Germany, where he spent the rest of the war. After the Nazi regime banned the book, he fled to Switzerland, later becoming an American citizen. His remaining family faced horrid persecution back in Germany, one of his sisters being murdered by the authorities. As of 1948 he set for Switzerland again and spent the rest of his life there. What happened to Remarque during the war, but also what happened afterwards is nothing but a tragic, dreadful story. I will not attempt to present the storyline, as there is no way to capture it. I will, however, allow myself to advise the esteemed reader to pick up the novel, if there was no opportunity to do so yet.
While my interest in the connection between food and various cultural products is fairly wide, the Food in Books series is particularly close to my heart. Over the previous six episodes, I have explored a variety of literary works where food served as an instrument for constructing or at least supporting the story. Food has acquired different attributes and was portrayed in various capacities: as a means of control, as a marker for national identity or as comforter in troubled times. And yes, food is all these, and much more. Yet, I believe that in Remarque’s shattering novel food is simply food: a means of subsistence, sustainer of life and, ultimately, bringer of joy.

The Soldier’s relationship to Food

Undoubtedly, the close relationship between the soldier and his food is one of the central themes in the context of the present article. The prospect of death, the need for sustenance and strength for achieving physical duties, the sheer scarcity of food, the low calorie, low nutrient rations, the uncertainty of the next meal- all sediment the intrinsic connection between the soldier and food. “The soldier is on friendlier terms than other men with his stomach and intestines. Three quarters of his vocabulary is derived from these regions, and they give an intimate flavor to expressions of his greatest joy as well as of his deepest indignation. It is impossible to express oneself in any other way so clearly and pithily. Our families and our teachers will be shocked when we go home, but here it is the universal language.” For the young men, who left their families, their friends and their schools behind to join the war- most times enrolling as voluntaries- staying alive means clinging with all they’ve got to the last bit of life. And in times of war, life equals not taking a bullet to the head and having enough food to keep on surviving. Everything starts revolving around food, which takes a central place in their existence. Their every waking moment is filled with thoughts of food, their language adapts as to reflect these changes. The language of food becomes the universal language.
Thrown in the midst of war, the soldier has the lucid conscience of food being equal to life itself. “Enough to eat is just as valuable as a good dugout; it can save our lives; that is the reason we are so greedy for it.” The greediness for food is nothing else than the desperate desire to keep on living. The endless war seems to crush mighty ideals and ideas, it allows the human being to concern itself with only the basic needs: having enough food and shelter to ensure survival. Once these are addressed, the company of others is all the soldier needs to be content.
The imminence of death looms over and peaks at the soldier from behind of every corner or turn. It alters behaviors and makes people live every good moment, as if it were the last- and it may very well be. “It is this, for example, that makes Tjaden spoon down his ham-and-pea soup in such tearing¬†haste when an enemy attack is reported, simply because he cannot be sure that in an hour’s time he will be alive. We have discussed it at length, whether it is right or not to do so.” The question itself is a crushing one: if I were to die, is it better to do it on an empty stomach or after having tucked in one last meal? Having eaten before going into battle translates into fuel for the body, but the soldier is familiar with what the digestion process means. One can conclude eating before a battle is good, but not just before. Yet, how can one predict the time of an attack? Further more, the experienced soldier knows the ways of the war. “Kat condemns it, because, he says, a man has to reckon with the possibility of an abdominal wound, and that is more dangerous on a full stomach than on an empty one.” The haunting question, which sparked debates among the men of the Second Company does not really have an answer. But food remains on the soldier’s mind at all times, answers or no answers.
Yet, there are few passages in the novel where the men of the Second Company are truly enjoying the food, and, in a way, enjoying themselves. In harsh times, true friendships are born and even the most trivial things- such as a roasted goose or a cigar- become an exquisite delight.

Food givers, makers and providers

There are two characters that embody the figure of the food provider, and they couldn’t be more different. One is the sergeant-cook. “No one felt kindly toward him, for it was his fault that the food often came up to us in the line too late and cold. Under shellfire he wouldn’t bring his kitchen up near enough, so that our soup-carriers had to go much farther than those of the other companies.” Further more, when he cooks a feast of beans and sausage for 150 men, he does not want to divide it among the 80 men returning from the front. The army cook is somewhat sheltered from the real war, out in the trenches, he is the keeper of food-and of life- and he does not share his favors easily. No wonder the soldiers don’t have the noblest feeling towards him. It might be that the man is simply doing his job or it might be that he is abusing his power, in times of war it really doesn’t matter. The figure of the cook is a nefarious one, ultimately associated with scarcity and low-quality army food.
The other food provider is one of the main and most charming characters: Stanislasus Katczinsky, affectionately called Kat by the boys. He is the one that can find food even in the most unimaginable situations. As Paul says “I’m sure that if he were planted down in the middle of the desert, in half an hour he would have gathered together a supper of roast meat, dates, and wine.” Many times again, Kat saves the day, brings food and in this manner saves everyone’s lives. He is respected and loved by the boys. He offers advice, shares his knowledge and truly takes care of them, even in the most dangerous instances. Kat is more than a food provider or a caretaker, he is a father figure. It is the comfort the young boys need, in the most tumultuous and terrifying times of their lives. A father to protect and care for them.

Food, the currency of the war

In times of war, food- one of the most difficult to obtain resources- becomes the de facto currency. There are many examples in the novel; one such scene taking place right in the beginning, somehow setting the tone and establishing norm. When Paul gives Muller the wonderful, soft leather boots from Kemmerich, their dead comrade, Muller pulls out a large piece of salami and offers it to Paul. Not any piece, but a large one. Other similar exchanges happen in one shape or another throughout the story.
I would like to concentrate on one particular scene, of some considerable importance: the encounter between the boys and the French women. Throughout the entire scene, the national differences are estomped and we see the characters simply as people, men and women, not German or French. This encounter breaks the boundaries and rules of the war, which forbids this kind of interactions. The erotic attraction is there, however, the desire for food is the catalyst that brings the groups together. The women invite the boys to their house, on the promise of bread: “That produces a great effect. They nod and beckon us to come over.” And so they go, in the middle of the night, bringing bread and liverwurst, proudly watching the women enjoying this feast. After the dinner, Paul retires with one of the French women to her bedroom. This is not happy love-making, it is bitter-sweet, overflowed with memories of filthy brothels, which come to mind by means of association. Still, it feels beautiful and a break from the horrid war and everything that means. When the boys leave together Leer observes “”That was worth a ration-loaf.” Later on, thinking about that evening, Paul meditates “A man dreams of a miracle and wakes up to loaves of bread.” The whole thing was a charade, nothing more. Or still, I would dare arguing, it was a blunt, honest exchange. One of the most honest kinds there can be: food and sex collide once again, mingled in an exchange of basic needs, of life itself. These are times of war and everything has a different value. In a way, I think the encounter between Paul Baumer and the French woman was, indeed, a miracle.

Food shaping the war, the war shaping the food landscape

While the Great War surely had some other, bigger triggers- truly, the men of the Second Company are not sure what motivates or justifies the carnage- food also plays its part. On the Western Front, the French canned meat is famous and prized. “Occasionally it has been the chief reason for a flying raid on our part, for our nourishment is generally very bad; we have a constant hunger.” The need for getting some good quality corn-beef, something nourishing and nutritious, has been the cause for some of the German attacks on the French troupes. The lack of resources of the German army is well known, and some argue this critical lack of food did contribute to the outcome of the war. “We bagged five tins altogether. The fellows over there are well looked after; they fare magnificently, as against us, poor starving wretches, with our turnip jam; they can get all the meat they want. Haie has scored a thin loaf of white French bread, and stuck it in behind his belt like a spade. It is a bit bloody at one corner, but that can be cut off. It is a good thing we have something decent to eat at last; we still have a use for all our strength.” The German troops were, indeed, in great difficulty when it comes to food for the front- the rest of the country wasn’t doing much better, either.
Setting a larger scope, and looking at the food of “the enemy” and at the larger war context, a few notable points emerge. Just before the war, Britain, Germany and the Low Countries were faced with widespread famine and all depended on imported food. Britain got large quantities of meat products from the US, Argentina, New Zealand or Australia. Dairy products came from Denmark and Holland, while lots of other foodstuff came from the far lands of the British Empire. Belgium received massive quantities of wheat from the US. Germany, on the other hand, was isolated. As Paul mentions several times, towards the end of the war, most of their diet consisted mainly of turnips, beets, bread and whatever else they could get their hands on. It is a matter of quality, but also of quantity. Proving the point, even in more modern times, at the height of the Cold War, the US Secretary of Agriculture said that “food is a weapon”. Which can help a nation win or lose a war.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the first compendiums of dietary advice came out in the US, nutritional sciences were gaining more and more terrain. It was also the same type of nutritional recommendations that shaped the rationing in the Great War. Meat, and beef in particular, was seen as the greatest source of protein and an imperative item in the soldier’s diet.
Canning and preservation was yet another advancement of the modern science that influenced the food rationing in the Great War. Germany was at the forefront of innovation, having developed techniques for meat processing and canning, vegetables canning, meat extracts, dry biscuits and even the invention of margarine, as a cheap substitute for butter. So it was not lack of technology or knowledge, but the lack of resources that prevented the German army from being well fed.

The food at home

Food can be a great comforter in troubled times, even more so the familiar food of home. When Paul comes back on leave, he finds his sister cooking potato cakes, his favorite food. His mom had hidden a jar of whortleberries jam, something Paul enjoys and hasn’t had in a long time. One would imagine all these familiar foods, his long time favorites would have a positive effect on him. However, they do not. Paul, the one that came back from the front, is not the same as the hopeful boy that voluntarily enrolled. He is, indeed, a changed man, who cannot find his place in this old, familiar world anymore, potato cakes or not. Two hypothesis can be proposed, in terms of the psychological influence of the homely food on Paul’s mood and behavior. Either the war has worn him out and all food is now equal, simple sustenance and fuel for the body. Or the pain of being back home and tasting his family’s cooking is too great, and he simply can’t stand it. Regardless, the outcome is the same: Paul feels estranged, is not able to relax, cannot relate with anyone and he does not enjoy the food. Even the care package he takes with him back to front gets divided between his comrades.
But Paul loves his family and he becomes a food provider himself, as the entire country faces severe food shortages. “I go and fetch my pack to the bedside and turn out the things I have brought–a whole Edamer cheese, that Kat provided me with, two loaves of army bread, three-quarters of a pound of butter, two tins of livered sausage, a pound of dripping and a little bag of rice.” Furthermore, he lies to his mother, saying the food at the front is not that bad, they do get quite enough. Paul is protecting his family the best he can: he brings food and gives hope.

Final thoughts

This article was not an easy one to write. I admit, it was in fact one of the most difficult ones. It is impossible to relate to the tragedy described in the novel, regardless of how well the story is told. The impossibility comes from its realism, the story is an account of actual historical fact. Seeing the Kafkaesque world of Gregor the enormous bug, or travelling through the made-up country of Absurdistan are imagination exercises; the fantastic comes to help explain and make the story more understandable, if not relatable.
In the end, food is a minor contributor to the story told by Maria Remarque. The shattering facts speak of the tragedy of a group of young friends and of entire nations. It is a story of death which neither requires, nor accepts any explanations. “I think it is more of a kind of fever,” says Albert. “No one in particular wants it, and then all at once there it is. We didn’t want the war, the others say the same thing–and yet half the world is in it all the same.”


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