How a Recipe Led to a Conversation about WWII

This post is the fifth installment in a semester-long series of posts from Towson senior Allie Woodfin. Allie is studying this Fall 2014 semester at the University of Avignon. You can also follow along on her tumblr at:http://provisoirementprovencale.tumblr.com/

People who travel often tell me that there are some foods that hold major significance for them—a tureen of soup in Hungary, soba noodles in Okinawa, brigadeiro in Brazil. These foods are unique enough that it’s hard to associate them with any other period in life—I’ll always have a deeply rooted memory of the smell of the chestnut cream that my host family eats on their pain au lait at breakfast. However, I think people cherish these tasty memories because they were also learning experiences.

 

In my case, I’ve eaten more endive here than I’ve eaten in the past 20 years of my life, and I suspect that endive will be one of the things I remember most about this experience. It’s quite tasty, so I’m definitely not complaining. Endive is a leaf vegetable that belongs to the daisy family, according to Wikipedia. It looks like a cross between a large white tulip and a head of lettuce. My host family does a few things with it, my favorites being a salad of chopped raw endive with a mustard vinaigrette, walnuts, apples, and bleu cheese; and steamed, buttery endive wrapped tightly in ham slices, smothered in Bechamel cheese sauce.

 

The first time we had endive, I looked at it with the same curiosity as I’d looked at the cheeses they brought in from town—something I was familiar with, but didn’t often eat in the U.S. for whatever reason. They explained that endive was popular in French cooking, but not for the previous generation (their parents, my grandparents)—during World War II, as it was one of the few foods available to eat.

A poster encouraging citizens to use bread rations carefully. Taken from sen51.free.fr

A poster encouraging citizens to use bread rations carefully. Taken from sen51.free.fr

 

Many French adults who lived through that period outright refuse to eat endive today (although I saw my host mom’s parents happily eating both of my favorite recipes when they came to visit). I shared that my paternal grandfather now can’t bear canned fruit cocktail—the slippery diced chunks and the sugary, metallic aroma are a powerful memory of rationed food that he ate all too often as a child.

 

Throughout this conversation, my mind kept going to the line in The Diary of Anne Frank where Anne talks about eating “endive with sand, endive without sand” in the cramped Annex where she spent years before being captured. Conditions were unpleasant and unluxurious in the United States—bad roads, making do with pre-war goods, saving bacon grease and silk stockings for shells and parachutes. Conditions in Europe, however, were a matter of life or death. If I understood my host mom correctly, many trapped in France died of starvation during the war.

 

There was no awkward silence after this exchange, no comparison between the hardships of life in America and life in France during the deuxième guerre mondiale. Instead, there was a brief pause of realization.  Everyone sent their boys to war, civilians everywhere feared for their lives, and everyone went without. There was nothing inherently political or significant about our dinner, but the last pieces of endive resting in the bowl were a reminder of the common ground we shared then, and share now.

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