Food is so important in this novel. Its title suggests that nature’s ability to produce food for us is more important than whatever we humans might choose to quarrel about.
We often ask ourselves how could the Holocaust happen. Is food a clue? A terrible depression hit the world in the 1930s. It was particularly bad in Germany. Some of the Nazi cruelty towards the Jews involved deprivation of food.
Food becomes symbolic in the stories. Baking represents optimism for both Clara Lehrs and Helga, one of the German girls. Food helps to define both Renate’s Germanness and Enlgishness. She still loves her Apfelkuchen (apple cake) and Käsekuchen (cheese cake) and longs for Zwiebelkuchen (a savoury pastry stuffed full with onions and eaten in the autumn). Yet she learns to love English custard – the sort made with powder. She eats a grand meal at a very English Lyons Corner House when she finally accepts her Englishness.
Both sides in the war experience food shortages and rationing. Both found ways around this. Foraging and growing produce was important in all three strands of the story.
There are suggestions that Germany may not have had it so bad as the United Kingdom. Since 1914 it had been self-sufficient for 80% of its food. Despite Hitler’s call for more “Lebensraum” (living room) it had access to a huge landmass with a thinner population than the United Kingdom and was occupying many countries for much of the war. A lot of open countryside offered many foraging opportunities.
Nevertheless, Germans also had ration cards. Rationing was brought in gradually: meat, butter, milk, sugar and jam were rationed from the 1 September 1939. Bread and eggs followed on 25 September.
Interestingly, the British system was more about allocation than rationing initially. Yet British and German ration cards looked remarkably similar.
We do not meet the Black Market in these stories but we do have examples of friends and relations in the countryside helping out. Everyone learns to make good use of the resources they have available.
Potatoes are an overarching theme. They are a staple in all three story strands. That they come early one year brings hope. The former title of The House on Schellberg Street was Potatoes in Spring. The German girls are almost driven to despair when their carefully preserved crop gets frozen and then goes rotten.
Do you find food symbolic?
Take a look at a British or a German ration card. Could you manage on that amount of food?
Look around where you live. How could you find free or very cheap food here?