Course 3 What to eat?

During famines
there is nothing
to eat

You are wrong!

Most people find something to eat during famines.

During famines, people resort to extreme measures to obtain food. They may substitute their usual ingredients with cheaper, more widely available alternatives. If that is not an option, they turn to unusual foods that they would not eat in normal times. These new foods and their recipes are commonly known as ‘famine foods’.

Some of these ‘famine foods’ have become well-known. For example, in Spain people prepared tortillas without potatoes and eggs, their usual ingredients. Soup was made from tulip bulbs in the Netherlands, and in Finland, people ate bread made from the bark of trees. Despite people’s creativity and resilience, it was often difficult to prepare food that was nutritious enough.

When things get extremely tough, people may do the unthinkable, like eating their pets or even other people.
Bark bread

Bark bread was a common alternative during periods of food scarcity and famine in Finland, as well as in Sweden and Norway. It involved scraping bark from trees, drying it, and grinding it into a flour-like substance. Unlike traditional bread made from wheat or rye, bark bread does not spoil, indicating its low nutritional value.

© Kuopio Cultural History Museum

This piece of bark bread was likely made during the Finnish Civil War (1918), when food insecurity plagued Finland. The photograph was made only recently and highlights that this bread does not spoil like regular bread.

© Kuopio Cultural History Museum

This is a bark scraper, made of bone. This tool was used to scrape bark from the tree trunk. Afterwards, the bark was dried and ground down to a flour substitute using a pestle and mortar. This scraper was added to the museum’s collection in 1936.

Tulip bulbs and sugar beets

During the Hunger Winter in the Netherlands, severe food shortages led people to use unconventional food sources like tulip bulbs and sugar beets. The Dutch Nutrition Council distributed information and recipes on using these items for food.

Johannes van Rhijn
(Rotterdam, 1945)
© The Rotterdam City Archives

Due to the war, the trade in flowers was halted. Hence, many tulip bulbs remained unused in storage. This photograph shows two bags of tulip bulbs that have been prepared for food consumption in a soup kitchen in Rotterdam.

Johannes van Rhijn
(Rotterdam, 1945)
© The Rotterdam City Archives

Sugar beets were normally used as animal feed or to make sugar. To process for human consumption, they required special graters, as the beets were too tough for regular ones.


Famine recipes offer insight into how people coped with food insecurity. Some originated within families, while others were circulated by governments to advise on managing scarcity. Informing people on how to substitute or handle certain foods, they often prioritise basic ingredients, simple cooking methods and low cost.

John Kelly
The Graves Are Walking (2012)

This soup recipe was developed during the Irish famine by the French society chef Alexis Soyer for use in soup kitchens and published in The Times. It cost only 3/4p per quart (c. 1 litre) to produce. It was criticised by contemporary readers for its limited nutritional value. The government ignored the criticism and invited Soyer to set up a model soup kitchen in Dublin.

David Conde & Lorenzo Mariano
Las Recetas del Hambre (2023)

During the long period of food scarcity and famine in Francoist post-war Spain, many food replacements were developed. For example, potato omelettes were prepared without potatoes or eggs. Orange peels’ white parts were used as a substitute for potatoes. Eggs were replaced by a mixture of flour, water, baking soda, ground pepper, oil, salt, and colouring.

War sausage

Economic warfare involves strategies to weaken an enemy’s economy, such as blocking crucial imports, disrupting financial systems, and seizing valuable resources or properties. This can result in shortages of essential goods, including food, affecting civilian populations.

"War sausage" is produced
(around 1917 in Landshut, Bavaria)
© BayHStA, Collection 6695

During World War I, economic warfare contributed to food shortages in Germany. To address this, Germans introduced an alternative sausage, called Kriegswurst, or ‘war sausage’. It could be bought at a low price without a ration card. However, it was not very popular because it mostly consisted of waste meat.

Eating unusual animals and cannibalism

During severe and prolonged famines, desperate people turn to eating pets or animals not usually consumed, as a last resort for survival. In extreme cases of starvation, instances of cannibalism have been documented. These acts, while uncommon and often culturally taboo, highlight the severe consequences of famine and the extreme measures people take when starving.

S. P. Svetlitsky
Killing Cats (Leningrad, 1942)
© Museum of the Siege of Leningrad Collection

The siege of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) by the Nazis during World War II, was one of the deadliest sieges in (modern) history. It lasted from 1941 to 1944. The blockade cut off most supply routes, trapping the city and its residents. It led to severe shortages of food, fuel, and other essentials. This sketch depicts a man killing a cat and preparing it to be cooked.

Letter written by Khurdei Oleksii (Aleksei) in 1989.
Part of the Maniak collection. Hosted by HREC.

When famines are especially severe, people might resort to the eating of other people. Such was the case during the Holodomor in Ukraine. In this letter, a survivor of the Holodomor remembers incidents of cannibalism.

In conclusion

Even in times of famine, most people are able to find some kind of food.

Studying what people ate when there was not enough food shows how creative and strong they were during tough times. But it is important to remember that the food they ate during famines was not always healthy or nutritious.

People sometimes had to eat things like trash or unusual animals just to survive. This was not something they wanted to do, and it could be embarrassing for them. Talking about this can be hard for people who went through famine. In other cases, people might talk about what they ate to show how serious the situation was, and how they survived.

What’s this like today?

Today, soup kitchens remain common, even in regions with high food security rankings. Due to economic shocks and the rising cost of living in the past two decades, the number of soup kitchens has increased in North America and Europe. In Greece, as a consequence of the 2008 debt crisis, austerity measures, and unemployment, some individuals had to scavenge for food and use recipes from famine eras to preserve resources. In situations of elevated food insecurity and famine, people still turn to famine foods. In early 2024, reports indicated that due to the Israeli government’s restriction of humanitarian aid to Gaza, people have resorted to using animal feed instead of flour to make bread.

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