By Chris Hopkins
For our fourth Heritage Open Days blog, Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, looks at food in a German novel which was tremendously popular in Britain.
Erich Remarque’s novel about the trenches was first published as a newspaper serial in Germany in 1928 and grabbed public attention both because it remembered a war which many people did not wish to talk about openly at this point, and because it was seen as vehemently opposed to war (leading to the work being denounced by Nazi newspapers, and later being banned and burnt when the Nazis came to power). It very soon appeared as a book, quickly became a best-seller in Germany, and was translated swiftly into some twenty-two languages. The English version by A W Wheen was published in 1929, with the German title, Im Westen nichtes Neues translated as All Quiet on the Western Front (rather than the more literal, ‘Nothing New in the West’.) This equally became an immediate best-seller both in Britain and the USA. Many readers and critics (though by no means all) who were veterans of the trenches saw it as capturing trench warfare for the ordinary infantryman with astonishing accuracy, often leading to a sense that whichever side one had fought on, the war was a shared experience of futile agony. The American film-version (directed by Lewis Milestone, produced by Universal Studios, 1930) was also a critical and public success, and both novel and film have been written about extensively ever since.
Food might not seem the most central topic in a war book, but in fact there is a great deal of reference to food in All Quiet on the Western Front and it plays an important part in the book. The young men in the trenches (most schoolboys only months before) are hungry nearly all the time, and food is one of their few sources of pleasure and comfort, but ‘our provisions are generally bad’ (Vintage kindle edition, translated by Brian Murdoch, 1993, location 1272). A German veteran, Karl von Clemm, interviewed in Episode 2 of the excellent ‘People’s Century’ documentary, The Killing Fields: 1914, (BBC 1, first broadcast in the UK September 1995) recalls that they were often issued with soup made of dried vegetables, which was nicknamed ‘barbed wire’, because it was so hard and tasteless, unless you could find some meat to add. He says that a horse freshly killed by gunfire would be quickly stripped completely of its flesh by passing infantry so they could improve their meals (a YouTube copy covers French, British and German trench provisions from16.55 to 18.36 minutes in: People’s Century Part 02 1914 Killing Fields – YouTube). Poor food was common in British trenches too, and of course, delivery of hot, varied and nutritious food to the front-line was difficult, but the German situation became increasingly bad as the allied blockade of German ports had a major impact on food supplies for both civilians and soldiers.
All Quiet begins with a meal. It is the first thing the central character, Paul Bäumer, tells us about:
We are in camp five miles behind the line. Yesterday our relief arrived; now our bellies are full of bully beef and beans, we’ve had enough to eat and we’re well satisfied. We were even able to fill up a mess-tin for later, every one of us, and there are double rations of sausage and bread as well – that will keep us going. We haven’t had a stroke of luck like this for ages.All Quiet on the Western Front, location 30.
The great stroke of luck the company has had is that they have been sent huge quantities of food – enough to satisfy even their hunger. It is, though, as Paul, says all a mistake (‘the Army is never that good to us’). When they were sent into the front trenches, there were one-hundred-and fifty men, but a British artillery barrage has caught the company badly, and seventy men have been killed. This is the good luck – Paul and his comrades have been sent seventy extra meals, which they do their best to eat. Of course, part of the point of this opening incident is to make clear, without ever having to state it, how much the war has desensitised these boys, has made the grossly abnormal, normal: they have no time, nor will, to think about seventy dead men, but are glad to eat their fill. The extra food is still at least a bodily and mental comfort, whatever outrage delivered it to them.
There are dozens of references to food in the novel – mainly to beans, potatoes, turnips, bread and beef, which are the most common rations (the beef is usually bully beef, and Paul says that when they can, they take enemy corned beef from captured trenches because it is so much better tasting). The turnips are fine as turnips, but have bad associations because the overall German food situation is so bad that the authorities have had to resort to ersatz foods. A new recruit reports, perhaps sarcastically, on his food in the barracks before being sent to the trenches: ‘Bread made out of turnips for breakfast, turnips for lunch, and turnip cutlets with turnip salad in the evening’ (location 392). They seem rarely to be given other vegetables (not even dried), but they do crave them (‘we want fresh vegetables’, location 2456) and they steal potatoes, peas, carrots and cauliflowers from the farmers’ fields when they can. We get a few references to Army meals: in the barracks there is ‘a watery rice soup’ (location 2015) with miniscule strips of beef, and there is one reference to luxurious sausages with red cabbage being served in the hospital, but the staples seem to be hashes or stews of corned beef cooked with potatoes or with beans, the last being most popular with the men.
Sometimes, the men think of favourite meals from home (‘buckwheat pancakes with bacon’ in one case), but ironically in fact such meals have disappeared: food for the Army is prioritised and the civilians are starving. When Paul goes home, he is given by his mother the great treat of potato pancakes with cranberries, but this is now a rare thing. Anticipating the situation, he has managed illicitly to obtain some army supplies for his family, and empties from his pack: ‘a whole Edam cheese … two Army-issue loaves, three-quarters of a pound of butter, two cans of liver sausage, a pound of lard and a bag of rice’ (location 1720). When his mother asks him if he has enough to eat ‘out there’, he says they manage. One night at the front, when the men are occupying a ruined factory and have nothing to eat, and cannot sleep for hunger, the character Tjaden (unhelpfully?),
Describes his local specialty, broad beans cooked with bacon. He is scathing about people who try to cook it without the right chopped herbs. But the main thing is that the ingredients all have to be cooked together – the potatoes, beans and bacon must not, for God’s sake, be cooked separately. Somebody grumbles that he will chop Tjaden into the right herbs if he doesn’t shut up at once.All Quiet on the Western Front, location 424.
I am not saying that other dishes named in the novel might not be worth trying (those buckwheat pancakes, and no doubt miracles can be done with corned beef and potatoes, though not keen on the horse-meat …), but Tjaden’s favourite recipe is actually one I recognise and have often cooked and eaten, so it is my suggestion if you would like to try some food craved by these trench-dwellers, if not actually produced by a field kitchen. The dish is usually called Hanoverian Hot-pot and the way I make it is to fry onions, bacon and potatoes in rapeseed oil, then add stock and sliced carrots, and a sliced cooking apple. When the potatoes and carrots are not quite done, add broad beans, and green beans. Also add at this point two bay leaves, a bouquet garni, and chopped fresh dill (or dried if necessary) – which I can only hope are the right herbs according to Tjaden. Cook until the vegetables are all done and the apple has collapsed into the stock, thickening and flavouring it (if you like quantities and more precise timings here is a more professional recipe, with some minor variations from my method: Hanovarian bacon hotpot recipe | Schwartz). I hope it is palatable – a meatless version is good too – enjoy!
I’m not sure if Tjaden would approve of either of these versions of his dish (I do not cook everything together quite, and the apple seems essential and distinctive to me). I realise that my blog has had a slight change of gear towards the end, turning from lit crit to cookery, but the serious point about All Quiet on the Western Front remains. Food is important in the novel partly because it satisfies (for a while) a craving for the comfort of body and mind, but also at the same time shows that the lives of these soldiers are reduced to the basics. If they can sleep and find food, and stay alive, they can, in this abandonment of all other ambition, ask no more. Food in the novel is strongly linked to theft and lawlessness – the odd ‘lucky’ slaughter of comrades apart, it is the only way to get good food – but also to self-reliance: it is one of the few things the men can influence themselves and use their skills, knowledge and ingenuity on. They care nothing now for the nation-state they are supposedly fighting for, or for any larger social structure: they are set down in a world which makes little sense, and they must make their own way in it. The novel somehow simultaneously lets us understand the losses (including notable moral losses) brought about by being reduced to the basics, but also lets us appreciate how important those basics are. The comrade Paul most admires is Katczinsky, known as Kat, largely because of his food-gathering skills. The night when they cannot sleep for hunger in the ruined factory, and after Tjarden shares his recipe, Kat saves them by actually delivering real food:
Kat appears … he is carrying two loaves under his arm, and a blood-stained sandbag full of horsemeat in his hand …Kat has the knack of cooking horse-meat so it is really tender. You mustn’t put it straight into the pan or it will be too tough. It has to be parboiled in a little water beforehand. We sit around in a circle with our knives, and fill our bellies.
That’s Kat … he can find anything – camp stoves and firewood when it is cold, hay and straw, tables, chairs – but above all he can find food. No one understands how he does it … his masterpiece was four cans of lobster. Mind you, we would really have preferred dripping instead.All Quiet on the Western Front, location 439.
What most satisfying and sustaining – sophistication or the most basic things? Depends on your situation. Lobster or dripping for you?