I love to buy books, but my budget is limited. As a result, when I visit a bookstore, my first instinct is to head to the discontinued, discounted book section. When it comes to food writing these sections tend to be crammed with diet and celebrity chef cookbooks. Neither of these particularly interest me. Once in a while though, I come across a book like The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food, by Lizzie Collingham. If you’re a Winnipeg reader, you’ll notice from the corner of the bag, that I picked up my copy at the McNally Robinson discount table.
The book is laid out in three sections. The first lays out the pre-war food situation in both Germany and Japan. The second takes a look at the food situation on the frontlines of various theatres of war. The third looks primarily at the food situation on the various home fronts of the combatant nations. There is some overlap in the three sections, but primarily as a way of reinforcing the unique character of each section.
One of the interesting discoveries in reading The Taste of War, is how many of our modern nutritional battles find their roots in the Second World War. Several nations involved in the war put considerable effort into finding the best ways to deliver nutritious food to their troops and citizens. The war gave greater place to the role of nutritionists in defining and suggesting various diets for the people. Often there were great disagreements between the different groups.
Similarly, we see how the war gave rise to many of the processed foods which have come to dominate the shelves of our grocery stores. While we may look at the addition of chemicals in preservation as being of long term detriment to our well-being, during the war this development likely saved the lives of thousands of soldiers as contaminated food was one of the unseen killers during wartime.
We also get a glimpse at how different nations cared for their civilian populations. Rationing was everywhere. Even the United States imposed rationing. In the States though, even with rationing, meat consumption rose by about 10lbs a year(431).
Victory gardens or their equivalent were another important food element during the war. The Taste of War looks at self-sufficiency and the differences it made in various countries. This is just one of the areas that has lessons that can be applied to our own food systems today.
The Taste of War is a heavy book. It runs to 500 pages before you get to the notes, bibliography, etc. In addition the scholarship is quite detailed. This is fortunately set off by the fact that Collingham has added many personal accounts of eating during the war years. This brings humanity to what could be an endless litany of statistics about calories and portion sizes. Collingham’s writing style is also very accessible, at least once you get by trying to remember what autarky means. Nonetheless, it is still heavy, because the story of starvation during the course of the war is one that makes you start to despair over the behaviour of humanity.
Food as Weapon
As a weapon of war, starvation is one of the more ugly and horrendous ones Collingham never lets the reader escape that fact. She also reminds us that the participants shouldn’t be let off the hook either. While she offers up the full horror of German plans (they initially hoped to kill off up 100 million Jewish and Slavic residents of Eastern Europe (5), she also has a clear-eyed view of British atrocities, particularly in Bengal (145).
Collingham also details how the Americans ability to provide adequate food not only for their troops, but also for their allies played a key role in them winning the war. She goes further by detailing how American productivity also won them the peace. The result being the ubiquity of American culture, particularly food culture across the globe.
As with her study of food as a weapon of war. Collingham details the ways in which American hegemony has benefited the world, and the ways in which it has harmed many cultures throughout the world. If you’ve never known how Coca-Cola became a world giant, this book will tell you.
Collingham The Taste of War, Summary:
While she highlights both the good and the bad of many nations during and after the war, Collingham does quite a good job of maintaining scholarly detachment. Certainly many elements of the behaviour of nations during WWII have already had judgment pronounced. However, on the way forward Collingham leaves room for debate on questions surrounding the best ways to feed the world, even if she seems to lean toward the smaller scale, local approach.
The Taste of War makes me want to go back and re-read other books. This is one mark of a really good book. One such book that readily jumped to my mind was the book Whitebread Protesants. I particularly want to go back and read the sections on foreign aid in light of wartime and post war practices as outlined by Collingham.
If you are a history buff, The Taste of War will be a great addition to your bookshelf. It also provides great background information to many of the issues surrounding food in the present day.