From cream to pig’s blood: How cooking evolved during the Protectorate
Whether it is gluten-free, paleo, vegan or just low-carb, the modern world offers special diets for the most selective consumers. But how does one eat when all but the most basic foodstuffs are cut off? That was the question that Czechs living during the Protectorate era between 1939 and 1945 had to ask themselves nearly every day.
Aside from that, however, soon after the Protectorate was established, a worldwide conflict erupted, leaving the Czech lands cut off from the outside world through blockades and enduring the deprivations of war.
However, historian Dr. Martin Franc, who has also dabbled into the history of Czech culinary culture, says that it was not as bad as we may think.
Speaking at a recent event recreating some of the dishes common during the Protectorate era, Dr. Franc said Czechs could not be picky. But neither did they starve and in the early months of occupation the Protectorate diet was actually more liberal than in the Reich, he says.
“After the outbreak of war, however, conditions quickly started to become more uniform with those in Germany. A relatively tough system was then implemented, which remained roughly the same until the end of the war. It should be said that gradually rations became scarcer, especially in the late phase of 1944 to 1945. However, these were largely limitations to foodstuffs available outside of the ration coupon system and to their quality. The quantity of basic supplies available through coupons remained more or less the same.”
“The scarcity mainly surrounded animal products, things such as meat, fats and eggs. Naturally, the availability of products shipped in from overseas was hit particularly hard as well, due to the naval blockade. Real coffee, for example, became virtually unknown to people living here.
“It should be noted however, that the relatively wide availability of fish on the Czech market, did not lead to their popularity. In fact, research undertaken in 1950 showed that children at the time despised fish, although this also had a lot to do with the forced ingestion of fish oil.”
Roman Vaněk, a popular Czech chef and public figure, who challenged himself at the recent event to cook for the public using only Protectorate-era supplies and cookbooks, says that just because we are used to luxury today, doesn’t mean that cooks could not be inventive then.
“Of course cooking became more logical and was undertaken with the goal of wasting as little as possible. But there were few extremes during the Protectorate era. It’s completely normal, average culinary art that does not go out of its way like today’s superfood crazes and such.
“It’s a sort of comfort food, for lack of a better name. Because there is a war going on does not mean that you have to eat horrible meals. Whether I use margarine instead of butter in some types of recipes is not relevant.”
Apart from depleted shelves in stores, Dr. Franc says that Czechs also had to count on revised menus at their local restaurants, which highlighted the division between occupier and subject in the dishes either nationality was allowed to order.
While Czech gourmets had to suffice with drab choices on their favourite restaurant’s menu, thanks to the importance of Czechoslovak military industry for the war effort, workers could actually look forward to increased rations in special factory cantinas, a system that was retained for years after the war.
“Those workers that were heavily involved in war production were privileged. The rationing system took them into account by supplying them with rations that were considerably larger than what was the basic supply.
Aside from rations there were also other ways to secure food. Those living in the countryside could for example use pigs’ blood, which was not rationed, and make blood sausage. However, it should be said that its quality was equivalent to the times, with meat often substituted by bread. Contacts with someone in the countryside or in the supply chain were very useful, but also dangerous says Dr. Franc.
“As far as the black market is concerned, it was smaller than in the First World War, because being involved in it became considerably more dangerous. It did of course exist, however, and offered more or less anything you can imagine, but for prices which were completely unaffordable for the average citizen. The greatest interest seems to have been in cigarettes and lard. Not coffee because there really wasn’t any, but it was possible to cheat the system when it came to lard deliveries.”
“I was just talking to a Moravian lady who lived through the era and she says that the most important supply was pork fat. That it was treated like gold, because it was used in more or less anything.”
While farmers were generally more likely to be better off, due to the fact that they were part of the production cycle, after the ascension of Reinhard Heydrich to the leadership of the Protectorate they had to count on visits from the Gestapo which carefully noted down everything they had. But according to some testimonies, these checks were not as tough as during the communist era.