WOMEN UNDER SIEGE

By Darra Goldstein. From From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food (2005).

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Who can measure the trauma of differing wartime experiences? Suffering is relative and unquantifiable, and comparisons can seem tasteless, even disrespectful. Yet even if suffering cannot be quantified, human deprivation can be. Starvation is a matter of simple subtraction: Below a certain number of calories per day, the body begins to consume itself, and several universal, physiological consequences ensue. First come listnessness and apathy. As the body grows emaciated, the skin assumes an unhealthy pallor and stretches tight against the bones. Often the body becomes bloated, with fingers and toes so swollen that even buttoning a coat is difficult, and walking an ordeal. Gums bleed; the body is covered with open sores that refuse to heal. Certain psychological symptoms are also universal enough to be considered chemical. Starvation tends to reduce us to a primitive, de-humanized state in which our only concern is to find food.

The experience of the siege of Leningrad shows that even when facing starvation, people will fight to keep their humanity intact. And though their heroism was not always voluntary, women were the acknowledged saviors of Leningrad. Admittedly these women had a physical advantage over men: their better-insulated bodies enabled them to endure greater privation, at least initially. But something else was at play, which had more to do with nurture than with nature. Women’s traditional familial and social roles made the crucial difference in their ability to negotiate through the seemingly endless days of the siege. Their primary impulse to focus first on their families helped them to overcome the forces of inertia, both physical and psychological, during the nine hundred days of extreme deprivation when continuing to live seemed pointless and irredeemably bleak. While it would be erroneous to imply that all women behaved nobly during the siege—numerous cases document the selfish, even savage, behavior of some—women made sacrifices that often proved life-saving, both for themselves and for others. The very fact of their femaleness arguably helped the women of Leningrad to survive the terrible blockade of the city.

In the United States and Great Britain the preferred wartime attitude of women was an admirable pluckiness coupled with an enthusiastic embrace of innovation: If sugar and eggs are in short supply, we’ll still bake our cake, we’ll simply use substitutes! This positive ideal presupposes the availability of a certain basic amount of foodstuffs, with which people can afford to be creative. Leningrad women had to be creative beyond measure. Tested by want, they searched their apartments for edibles in the forms of tooth powder, Vaseline, glycerine, cologne, library paste, and wallpaper paste, which they scraped from the walls. They tore books apart and gave their children the glue off the bindings. Hardship demanded innovation, but it was hardly light-hearted. In wartime Britain, butter and eggs may have been scarce, and flour dark and heavy, but people did not starve. Such cookbooks as Ambrose Heath’s Good Food in Wartime insist that many pre-war recipes “by some very slight adaptation to present needs, can still appear with success upon our war-time tables, not quite up to their pre-war form perhaps but certainly more than merely presentable.” The British Ministry of Food worked hard to educate housewives in wartime economy, providing information about unfamiliar products like dried egg powder and recipes for belt-tightening meals. Thus the Ministry’s Food Facts No. 331 suggests a “Swiss Breakfast,” a highly nutritious muesli touted as “a delicious change from porridge.” One might argue that Britain’s wartime exigencies actually broadened people’s palates by introducing them to a wider range of foods once they had to forego their beloved bacon and eggs.

Though it is a commonplace that the nurturing of the family falls largely to women, the extent to which women will sacrifice their own well-being for their family’s has not been fully examined. One wartime study in Britain showed that mothers regularly gave their husbands and children the best food from their own plates, and the women of Leningrad largely did the same. But amid widespread hunger, against the absolute limits of human endurance, such acts of maternal self-sacrifice become something other than noble. During the German siege of Leningrad, which lasted for nearly nine hundred days, over one million people died of starvation and related causes; nearly 200,000 died in February, 1942, alone. The resourceful women of Leningrad painstakingly retrieved old flour dust from the cracks in the floorboards and licked decades of spattered grease from the kitchen walls, savoring it slowly.