May 24th, 2013
Pity poor ersatz. In its native German, ersatz started out as a harmless word, connoting a simple substitute or replacement — a new part for something worn out. But two world wars and a whole lot of not-enough-food changed that forever, particularly on the lips of returning POWs who brought the word into English.
The reason that ersatz became something in its own right had to do with the fact that World War I wasn’t supposed to last as long as it did. According to “The Schlieffen Plan,” the blueprint that Germany went to war under, hostilities in France were supposed to wrap up in 42 days. They must have felt pretty confident because they didn’t have a backup, no contingency for things going on longer than laid down in the plan. And that was tricky because of two things — bread and bullets.
As strange as it may seem, bread and bullets both arise from the same chemical foundation: nitrogen. It’s the most abundant element in the atmosphere, but getting the atmosphere to yield it in useful form is something else altogether. That was a problem, because nitrogen was essential for the manufacture of gunpowder as well as the fertilizers that Germany’s thin and sandy soils desperately needed. Consequently, Germany was totally dependent on imports of guano nitrate from Chile to feed both its farms and arms factories. All of which would have been fine if not for the world’s largest navy, the Royal Navy.
With the outbreak of war, Britain reverted to its plan, which centered around a naval blockade to starve Germany into submission. They would have done it, too, if not for one of the great and grotesque ironies of history; just when Germany could have been forced out of the World War biz by lack of nitrates, the one person on earth who had figured out a way to artificially produce them turned out to German. This was professor Fritz Haber, a genius by any accounting, and a flawed man whose humanist impulse to help farmers by the creation of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers collided headlong with his key role in creating the world’s first weapon of mass destruction, poison gas warfare.
The upshot of all this is that the Haber-Bosch process allowed Germany to fight and not starve for the long years of the war. But while they weren’t starving, they weren’t eating well, either, and there’s a certain grim irony in that it was ersatz nitrates which enabled the comestible plague of ersatz foods.
Germany lacked food security, that is, the country couldn’t produce enough food within its own borders to feed its population. The comfort food of the prewar Germans was heavily weighted toward meat and fat, specifically sausage and heavily buttered bread. But sausage and butter both come from animals, and that’s the pinch. In the mathematics of calories, you end up with a lot less if you cycle that food energy through an animal before sending it to its human destination. So out went the animal products and in came the substitutes.
Kriegsbrot — war bread — was the first salvo. Growing wheat in Germany had always been a fools errand because of the northerly climate. Still, the recipe for kriegsbrot might amuse you because with 55% rye, 25% wheat and 20 percent of potato flour, sugar and shortening, I can see an artisan version of it selling today for five bucks a loaf. But kriegsbrot was just the start. The German government viewed fake foods as part of the war effort, so soon there were 837 certified varieties of ersatz sausage, exhibitions showcasing the remarkable variety of ersatz foods, and a full-scale propaganda campaign appealing the patriotism of everyone with a stomach.
Coffee became the most emblematic ersatz food, so much so that you could simply order “ein ersatz” in any Berlin cafe and end up with your substitute coffee. What, exactly, that kaffee ersatz would consist of depended on how many months and years you were into the war. Roasted barley and oats spiked with a hit of coal tar really wasn’t bad, so they say. But the grains were needed for other uses, and so kaffee ersatz-ersatz came into being, chicory mixed with sugar beet. But who could keep that up for long? The next invention (is it starting to become clear why you’d just order “ein ersatz?”) was roasted nuts (or sometimes the shells of nuts) flavored with coal tar. That got too expensive, so the brew became roasted beech nuts and acorns. Only, in the “turnip winter” of 1916-17, all acorns were reserved as pig chow, so your cup of ersatz became an infusion of carrot and yellow turnip which sounds pretty dire but at least would harmonize with that winter’s turnip stew and turnip bread.
There was a certain degree of ingeniousness — and boldness — in the substitutions. The ersatz lamb chop may have been formed from a wad of rice in the shape of a chop, but — once fried in mutton tallow and accessorized with a wooden “bone” capped with little paper rosette — it made a respectable presentation to the eye and nose. Steaks, too, built of spinach, potatoes and nuts, were at least nutritionally worthwhile, even if their interior was joltingly green. The amazing clutch-hitter of the egg played a role making all these hang together, of course. Or rather, they did until ersatz eggs took over, ginned up out of maize and potatoes.
Then there’s jam. You or I may think of bread and jam as perfectly nice, but recall that bread slathered with butter and/or meat fat was both central to and beloved in the pre-war German diet. So when the government advocated jam as a substitute for this, all hell broke loose. In 1916, a crowd of food rioters had as their chant, “Bread! Bacon! Fat! Potatoes! Away with jam!” But time and privation will have their say and by later in the war, jam was perfectly acceptable and no longer even seen as a substitute.
In parallel with ersatz foods, there was ersatz stuff: cloth made from paper, shoes made from wood. The propaganda that surrounded all these adventures sold them as patriotic, and playing along as good citizenship. But there was something more at work, a mindset quintessentially modern. It takes a certain way of thinking to break open a spiffy packet labeled “ersatz pepper” and filled with a teaspoon of ash — and scatter it over your meal, however ersatz it may already be. Food, that most corporeal foundation of society, was becoming notional, the site of sustenance moving from the belly to the mind.
Not that this came without some cost. There was ersatzkrankheit, “substitute sickness,” which came from eating too many foods that weren’t really what they should have been or weren’t even food at all. But there was another, more telling, neologism that emerged. This was ersatzmenchen — “substitute people,” a uncomfortably sinister term that reflected the front line’s endless appetite for its own kind of substitutes.
After four appalling years, the war ended. What was on the shelves didn’t change much, however. For one thing, the British kept up the blockade until the Germans folded to the onerous terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Even then, German farms didn’t spring back to life because the war had swallowed up so many farm boys. So ersatzmenchen continued to walk the streets of Weimar Germany, eating more substitutes and longing for foods that now lived mostly in nostalgic memory.
That turns from a historical curiosity to something more ominous when you consider the Nazi party’s early propaganda. It’s almost impossible to recall from this end of history, but the Nazis didn’t just claw their way to power with violence, intimidation and racism. They also were very clear that “it’s the economy, stupid,” and that the sharp end of the economy is what’s on your dinner plate. In the beginning, the Nazi party played on that nostalgia, harkening back to lost golden days at the same time as they spun fantasies of future abundance. It was a powerful lure to a starved population, enough to help the Nazis begin winning elections. By the time that people started noticing that the flood of good food on the shelves never arrived, elections were a thing of the past.
It took another war, another blockade, another round of ersatz for the word to break into the English speaking world. This time around, there were POW camps full of downed British and American fliers learning about kaffee ersatz first hand and they brought the word home with them. But do you ever get the feeling that more than just the word made the trip?
Take a stroll around the aisles of your grocery store. If it’s average, there are 45,000 products lining its shelves, most of the display space taken up by boxes and bags with charming names and evocative illustrations. To the eye, it seems an overwhelming display of diversity. But it’s not, because fully half of them are delivery systems for the world’s largest crop, American corn.
Baby food, breakfast cereal, gravy, salad dressing, pie, pet food, cooking oil, margarine, sauce, soup, alcohol, cough syrup, chewing gum, frozen seafood, peanut butter, cheese spread, cake mix, sodas, meat, baked goods, custard, ketchup, mustard and mayo and, oh yes, corn itself. The list goes on to encompass fully half of those 45,000 products. Our catchall term is “processed foods,” but, honestly, isn’t that just rebranding ersatz?
Now, true, some processed foods aren’t ersatz. Cheez puffs, for instance, are virtually pure corn, but there’s nothing edible which a cheez puff is attempting to substitute for. But bypass the chips and snacks and what you find is a bewildering variety of food-like substances working very hard to convince you that they’re food.
In retrospect, the ersatz foods of last century’s Germany are almost quaint. Leaving aside the coal tar — and mind you, we haven’t because the colors and flavors that Wilhelmine Germany mined from coal, we now distill from petroleum — the original ersatz foods were mostly made from food. The American corn that dominates world agricultural production isn’t that stuff you’ll find at the farmstand. The vast majority of it is fundamentally inedible, an industrial feedstock that just happens to be produced by photosynthesis.
Sneaking adulterants into food isn’t a 20th Century invention — it’s been going on as long as food’s been sold to anyone out of sight and out of mind. But ersatz represented something fundamentally different. Here the adulteration was not only politically sanctioned, but framed as an act of good citizenship; as the boys on the front sacrifice, so should you in your own way. The first fully industrialized war bred the first fully industrialized foods which, perhaps unsurprisingly, turned out to have a longer shelf life that the war itself.
The fundamental obfuscation, the officially sanctioned half truths and outright lies, all these things are with us more then they ever were in the last years of the Kaiser’s Germany. A hausfrau might have come to accept jam as a legitimate food, but at least her jam wasn’t a puree of damaged fruit in a suspension of corn-gel colored with petroleum. In comparison, we have completely normalized and institutionalized the manufacture, sale and consumption of simulated food.
Take, for example, the “Nutrition Facts” label that we are encouraged to read. This label, a genuine improvement on the arcane lists of ingredients it replaced, is nevertheless a pretty curious item. The purpose of the label, and of our reading it, is to allow us to identify and evaluate the kinds, types and amounts of adulterants within each food. And why not? Information is power, right?
Well, sort of. Because sometimes information is ersatz power, especially when it’s applied to ersatz food. The unchanging face of the Nutrition Facts label transmits another, bigger message than just the percentage of recommended daily intake of transfats. When you see the exact same design with the exact same wording on thousands of products, some part of you knows that you’re looking at the fingerprints of the powers that be, the agencies and departments in charge of protecting the food supply. And though Nutrition Facts may say that the recommended daily intake of transfats is, in fact, zero percent, Nutrition Facts is also saying “I know this stuff is in here, and I’m okay with that.”
That’s a problem, because the “author” of Nutrition Facts is the Food and Drug Administration which enforces the boundary between food/not food. So when FDA stamps on every single package of ersatz/processed product “this is what’s in this food,” the key message is that this is food, thus setting the stage for our individual acts of nutritional make-believe around tidy little packages of calories and colors. Personally, I’m a big believer in the power of imagination. But when I conjure up an ersatzmensch, I find that he reminds me of something I already knew — you are what you eat.