1940s Archive

France A.D. 1945

Originally Published January 1946

He was a bold man,” said Jonathan Swift, “that first ate an oyster.” In all probability he was a poor man and a hungry one as well, necessity, not roast beef, being the mother of invention.

What with their mussels, frogs, and snails, their sea-urchins and their larks, their tripe, beef muzzle, and tête de veau, their boudin and chitterling sausages and sheep feet with hollandaise, the French have always seemed pretty omnivorous by American standards. Perforce they became even more so during the war, and except in the cities and less productive areas where there was acute hardship, the old Gallic genius for improvisation did a good deal to make people's daily life tolerable, if not pleasant.

Hunting, of course, was forbidden during the German occupation, but poaching assumed the proportions of a national industry—there were snares under every bush, and the mortality among hares and rabbits was higher, probably, than it had ever been in the history of France. Frenchmen abandoned their beloved fishing rods and sallied forth cold-bloodedly with seine and dip-net and spear. The little screams in the Limousin and the Dordogne were combed for crayfish; there was a great increase in the consumption of fields salads—mâche and dandelion, wild mustard and water cress—and French children were even more energetic than usual in their search for the members of the mushroom family in which France is so rich—cèpes, morilles, girolles, field mushrooms. truffles. Framers set up little homemade presses and produced their own oil out of walnuts, hazelnuts, sesame, almonds, and sunflower seed—much of it far from bad. Purée of chestnuts became a staple, and many of the chestnuts were wild. The frog population was decimated, and there were chickens and rabbits feeding on the lawns of the proudest châteaux of France.

This is not by any means to say that French cooking did not suffer during the war, or that millions of Frenchmen, adults and children alike, were not hungry most of the time for four long years. They still need and deserve not only all our sympathy, but our help, and at least a decade will have to go by before such words as topinambour (Jerusalem artichoke), rutabaga, and the eternal adjective, orsatz, can be mentioned in France in polite conversation.

The miracle (and there is no other word for it) is that they did, after a fashion, get by. Their doing so was an eloquent proof of their frugality and good sense; it was even more a proof of that extraordinary knowledge and love of food, of cooking and the pleasures of the table, which, in France, permeates all classes and is the true, enduring fraternité of the French state. I very much doubt whether, under comparable circumstances, we Americans could have done as well.

Driving in uniform, in Anno Domini 1945, through the generally undamaged villages and along the still magnificent roads of most of France, it was sometimes difficult for those of us who had known France well to realize how greatly, since 1939, the country had changed. We remembered superb meals in odd, unfrequented places (discovered, thanks to Michelin or the guide of the Club des Sans Club), detours undertaken in honor of a plat régional or a specially recommended vin du pays, the absolute certainty of finding something rather more than edible in any town where noon or seven o'clock happened to overtake us. Such pleasures, alas! are no longer part of travel in France. Nevertheless, in the long run, the situation proved not quite so bad as some of us had feared.

Most of the French civilians who travel along French roads since the liberation do so by gasogène—a car or bus with a vast unwieldy boiler attached fore or aft which burns charcoal or wood instead of gasoline. These are generally capable of a speed of about twenty-five miles an hour on the flat; they have to be pushed up most hills; they break down convincingly and often, and if they are not much worse than the cars that all of us used to drive twenty odd years ago, they are still a long way from what the prewar Frenchman used to regard as appropriate for le tourisme. If you do not own one of these monsters, you practice what is known as “I'auto-stop” (which is modern French for hitchhiking, whatever the Academy may say); you bargain with the truck drivers, end up by paying them pretty liberally, and you travel as freight.

As a result, the pace of travel in France is a lot slower than it was, and the whole atmosphere has changed. There is not tourisme; everyone has undertaken his journey for a reason which to him is of transcendent importance; people are determined, but surprisingly cheerful and good-humored about delays and misadventures. Everything is very informal—strangers talk, share their food, laugh over their discomforts. They dress for warmth, not chic: most of the girls in slacks and sweaters, with handkerchiefs over their heads; the men in worn trench coats, high shoes, wool socks into which they tuck their trousers. Their baggage consists mostly of willow paniers—empty if they are on their way from the city to the country, full of food if they are on the way back.

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