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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.
Examples of famine foods
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.
- Rutabagas were widely used as a food of last resort in Europe during World War I and World War II, and remain particularly unpopular in Germany.
- 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 which 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 which 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, atriplex 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.
Other sources of famine food
The term "famine food" has also been used to describe underused crops—edible plants which are not widely cultivated as food, but which could be cultivated as an alternative food source in the event of widespread crop failure.
In addition, undesirable parts of an otherwise popularly consumed plant or animal that would be rejected in times of plenty have become examples of famine or poverty food when needed.
- How lobster went up in the world, The Times Online
- "Бурьян, крапива и лебеда. На одном из харьковских хлебозаводов выпекли "голодоморский" хлеб", ATN Kharkiv.
- Jim Clancy (2010-02-24). "TV chef dropped for cat recipe comments". CNN.