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War in the kitchen

Cwiertka: `War can also be a source of innovation.'
Japanology specialist Katarzyna Cwiertka has been awarded a Vidi subsidy for her research into food during times of war in Japan and Korea.  In people's minds war is synonymous with hunger.  But a lot can be learned about the relationship between food and war.  Cwiertka: 'It's very interesting to research how food shortages are handled.  The lack of food also has consequences for the period afterwards.  More and more researchers are starting to discover food as a way of gaining more insight into history.'

The traditional image of war is quite stereotypical: war means death, hunger and suffering.  And once peace is restored, everything changes.  But Cwiertka considers this image too one-sided.  Once peace is restored, there are a lot of things which do not change. This continuity is what fascinates Cwiertka.  'If you take food as your basis, you can follow that continuity very well.  People have to eat every day.  If a shoe factory closes for a number of years, people still carry on walking, even if it means they are walking on worn-out shoes.  But just a single day without food is next to impossible. You can take food to look behind the facade of major historical events.  What interests me is not the battlefields, the peace treaties and the power struggles, but the war that goes on in the kitchen.'

Japanese soldiers at the dinner table.

Vitamin pills
The war in Japan lasted from 1937 to 1945. At the start, the food situation was reasonable, but the longer the war lasted, the more difficult it became to feed the people and the army. Half the Japanese soldiers died of hunger or hunger-related illnesses.  And that was in a situation where feeding the army had priority above feeding the general population.  The enormous shortage of food in Japan had the effect of causing people to look for other ways of keeping people in reasonable physical condition.  Courses, posters and pamphlets gave practical advice on cooking healthily with few resources. Towards the end of the war (1943-44), the Japanese government encouraged the use of chemical nutritional supplements, such as vitamin pills, yeast powder to improve digestion and even products based on heroin to pep people up.' 

Japanese army kitchen with tinned food (right foreground).

Food for the troops
Japanese soldiers were given food which was quite different from the traditional Japanese dishes which they were used to. It consisted mainly of vegetables and grains or rice for the people in the cities, and millet, barley and occasionally rice for the rural population. Cwiertka: 'They realised that the soldiers had to do heavy physical labour and that they therefore needed energy-rich food.  You can't exist for long on rice and vegetables.  Fat, meat and potatoes provide more calories for less money.  Japanese army cooks started preparing Western and Chinese food which contained high proportions of these ingredients, including fried dishes and casseroles.  They also added spices such as curry powder to disguise the taste of cheap and less appetising ingredients.  This new international food was new for most soldiers, but quickly became popular. 

Canning, drying or freezing
As part of her research, Cwiertka wants to chart the social consequences of war, both in the short and long term.  Companies which during the war only supplied their products to the army, focused on the consumer market after the war.  The techniques which originated or were promoted during the war, such as canning, drying or freezing, continued to be used after the war.  The fact that the food industry in the second half of the last century acquired such a strongly technological character can, then, largely be traced back to the war. How does Cwiertka intend to gain an understanding of these developments?  'I am going to study cookbooks and popular magazines, but I also want to look at governmental measures related to food production.  And, of course, I will be taking a close look at the black market and other unofficial channels of food distribution.'  

Research team
It is not uncommon for Cwiertka to work seven days a week, but she has only included four days a week for herself in the Vidi budget. 'I didn't have enough money for any more days.  I need a research assistant, but I also want to appoint two Japanese post-docs with whom I have already been working closely. One lives in Korea and the other in Japan.  The researcher in Japan is very good at tracing unique sources, such as pamphlets from the war and old magazines containing interesting information. The post-doc in Korea is a specialist in oral history.  Printed sources in Korea are almost non-existent because a lot were lost during the Korean War (1950-1953). This post-doc will be interviewing people about their memories of food during and after the war.  The three of us are going to write a book about the relationship between food and war.'

Cwiertka studied Japanese in Poland, and left the country when she was 23.  Why did she choose this subject for her research?  'Maybe it has something to do with my Polish background.  Information in the newspapers in socialist Poland was quite different from the reality.  I have personal experience that the official story was not the true story.  It gave me the drive to know what really happed, to look behind the scenes. Food rationing was introduced iIn Poland in the eighties.  I well remember that food was the main topic of discussion for years.  Where could you still get a particular product, when were you going to go and stand in the queue?  Everyone was taken up with thoughts of food the whole day long. I think my choice of research subject cannot be separated from these experiences.  Now that I have made food the subject of my research, I want something positive to come out of it.'

(12 September 2006/DH)

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