Supriya Ghosh (Editor)

Famine food

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Famine food

A famine food or poverty food is any inexpensive or readily available food used to nourish people in times of extreme poverty or starvation, as during a war, an economic depression or famine. Quite often, the food is thereafter strongly associated with the hardship under which it was eaten, and is therefore socially downplayed or rejected as a food source in times of relative plenty.

The characterization of a foodstuff as "famine" or "poverty" food is primarily social. Some foods, such as lobster and other crustaceans, are considered poverty food in some societies and luxury food in others, and these distinctions can change over time.

Foods associated with famine need not be nutritionally deficient, or unsavoury. Having been driven to consume them in large amounts and for long periods of time, however, people often remain averse to them long after the immediate need to eat them has subsided. That remains the case even if such foodstuffs might otherwise constitute a healthy part of a more comprehensive diet.


A number of foodstuffs have been strongly associated with famine, war, or times of hardship throughout history:

  • The breadnut or Maya nut was cultivated by the ancient Mayans but is largely rejected as a poverty food in modern Central America.
  • In Polynesia, plants from the genus Xanthosoma, plants known locally as ʻape, were considered famine food and used only when the taro crop failed.
  • The fruit of the noni, sometimes also called "starvation fruit," has a strong smell and bitter taste that often relegates it to the level of a famine food.
  • The nara melon of southern Africa is sometimes eaten as a food of last resort.
  • Several species of edible kelp, including dulse and Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), were eaten by coastal peasants during the Irish Potato Famine of 1846-1848.
  • Sego lily bulbs were eaten by the Mormon pioneers when their food crops failed.
  • Tulip bulbs and sugar beets were eaten in the German-occupied parts of the Netherlands during the "hunger winter" of 1944-45.
  • Bark bread (Finnish: Pettuleipä, literally "pinewood bread") is a bread made from a combination of typical rye flour and pettu, which is a combination of dried and milled vascular cambium and phloem of the Scots pine. The result is dark bread that is nutritious but rock-hard and anything but tasty. Also chaff (silkko) and sawdust is known to have been used on making ersatz bread in Finland. Pettuleipä constitutes a paragon Scandinavian example of a famine food.
  • In Maine and on the Atlantic coast of Canada, fish and shellfish were once considered poverty food, and people would bury lobster shells in their yards rather than disposing of them in their rubbish so their neighbors would not learn they were reduced to eating lobster.
  • In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond posits that disdain for seafood, including fish, ringed seal, and whale, as poverty food contributed to the collapse of the Greenland Norse.
  • During a number of famines in Russia and the Soviet Union, nettle, orache, and other types of wild plants were used to make breads or soups.
  • Spam was widely eaten in the UK during wartime, due to the lack of fresh meat available. Due to the much greater availability of meat, Spam is now used as a sandwich filling and for Spam fritters rather than as a replacement for other meat in its own right.
  • Cats were eaten in the northern Italian regions of Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, and Liguria in times of famine, such as during World War II.
  • Likewise, during the Siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, the menu in Parisian cafes was not limited to cats but also dogs, rats, horses, donkeys, camels, and even elephants.
  • During the Japanese occupation of Malaya, due to a severe shortage of rice, the locals resorted to surviving on hardy tuberous roots such as cassava, sweet potato, and yam.
  • In the semi-arid areas of Brazilian Northeast, the shoots and leaves of cactus Opuntia cochenillifera are normally used to feed the livestock (cattle and goats). But during long droughts, people may use them as a last resort.
  • Dandelions have a bitter taste, but can be stewed or eaten raw as a last resort. Primo Levi described concentration camp inmates furtively eating dandelion greens in his novel If This Is a Man. Malcolm X also wrote in his autobiography that his mother would feed the family stewed dandelions if no other food was available.
  • The Grasspea is edible, but if consumed regularly quickly becomes neurotoxic, leading to lathyrism. Goya depicted a group of afflicted peasants entitled "Thanks be to the Grasspea".
  • Nettles are edible greens, but generally only consumed in times of hardship. Tadeusz Borowski stated that one of the most hated meals in Auschwitz was nettle soup.
  • Historically in the Maldives the leaves of seaside trees such as the Octopus Bush and the Beach Cabbage were often used as famine food.
  • References

    Famine food Wikipedia