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What do starving people eat? The case of Greece through oral history


‘Famine foods’ seems a self-explanatory term but careful reading of the existing literature suggests otherwise. ‘Famine foods’ seem to suggest repulsive and unfamiliar foods consumed only in famine situations. This paper, using the Greek famine of 1941–43 as a case study, suggests that this is not the case. Starving people continue to use foods that they are familiar with or that other sections of the population are familiar with. The very poor sections of the population may well use fodder food, which nevertheless they are familiar with and which in most cases was also used by some of their members even in ‘normal’ times.

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1 Corbett, Jane, ‘Famine and household coping strategies’, World Development 16, 9 (1988), 10991112, especially 1104, 1108 and 1106.

2 For numerous references referring to ‘famine foods’, see footnote 26 in Dirks, R., ‘Social responses during severe food shortages and famine’, Current Anthropology 21, 1 (1980), 2144. In defining famine foods, a database of such foods indicates that these are ‘edible plants not normally considered as crops but historically consumed in times of famine’, available at (accessed 4 June 2008). See also K. Hitchcock, J. I. Ebert and R. G. Morgan, ‘Drought, drought relief and dependency among the Basarwa of the Botswana’, in R. Huss-Ashmore and S. H. Katz eds., African food systems in crisis. Part one: microperspectives (New York, 1989), 303–36; Joachim von Braun, Tesfaye Teklu and Patrick Webb, Famine in Africa. Causes, responses, and prevention (Baltimore, 1999), 14, 94, 116; Megan Vaughan refers to the use of wild foods ‘of which there seems to have been a communal knowledge’. These included, among others, wild fruits, wild yam, various types of grass, wild beans, bamboo roots and banana roots (Vaughan, Megan, ‘Famine analysis and family relations: 1949 in Nyasaland’, Past and Present 108 (1985), 177205, specifically 187). Some authors claim that ‘People will routinely eat carrion and decaying corpses’ (Speakman, J. R., ‘Thrifty genes for obesity, an attractive but flawed idea, and an alternative perspective: the “drifty gene” hypothesis’, International Journal of Obesity 32, 11 (2008), 1611–7, specifically 1613).

3 Yves Guinand and Dechassa Lemessa, ‘Wild food plants in Ethiopia’, available at (accessed 6 November 2008), 1. For the difficulty in defining ‘famine foods’ and the variety of definitions, see Irvine, F. R., ‘Supplementary and emergency food plants of West Africa’, Economic Botany 6 (1952), 23–5; and Frances M. A. Harris and Mohammed, Salisu, ‘Relying on nature: wild foods in Northern Nigeria’, AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 32 (2003), 26; Omar M. Salih, Nour, Abdelazim M. and Harper, David B., ‘Chemical and nutritional composition of two famine food sources used in Sudan, Mukheit (Boscia senegalensis) and Maikah (Dobera roxburghi)’, Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 57 (1991), 367–77. In most historical works a definition of famine foods is not provided.

4 Barnett, Anna, ‘Northern Ethiopia: what's on the menu?’, Nutrition and Food Science 31 (2001), 35.

5 Jocelyn Muller and Almedom, Astier M., ‘What is “famine food”? Distinguishing between traditional vegetables and special foods for times of hunger/scarcity (Boumba, Niger)’, Human Ecology 36 (2008), 599607. Muller and Almedon use the term ‘traditional vegetables’ and ‘wild plants’ interchangeably.

6 A notable exception is the chapter by Antonia-Leda Matalas, ‘The Mediterranean diet: historical background and dietary patterns in pre-World War II Greece’, in Antonia-Leda Matalas, Antonis Zampelas, Vassilis Stavrinos and Ira Wolinsky eds., The Mediterranean Diet: constituents and health promotion (Boca Raton, 2001), 35–40.

7 Violetta Hionidou, Famine and death in occupied Greece, 1941–1944 (Cambridge, 2006), 159–60.

8 Ibid., 32–107.

9 Ibid., 220–34.

10 Ibid., 190–219.

11 On Hios there were nine female and seven male informants as well as six couples. On Syros the corresponding figures were five, thirteen and four. In one case on Syros the interview included two adult males (cousins).

12 For a full list of the Mykonos informants and their characteristics, see appendix in V. Hionidou, ‘Marriage, inheritance and household formation on a Greek island, Mykonos (mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century)’, in Anne-Lise Head-König, Péter Pozsgai and Jürgen Schlumbohm eds., Inheritance practices, marriage strategies and household formation in European rural societies (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming), Rural History in Europe, no. 12.

13 Pericles Kalogerou, Palaia kai sughrona provlemata tes diatrofes tes upaithrou (Thessalonike, 1950), 10.

14 Ioakeimoglou 138; Stathopoulos 138; Dontas 138; Dontas and Ioakeimoglou 56. All cited in Demosthenes Eleutheriades, E laike diatrofe en polemo kai en anagke (Athens, 1952); Ioakeimoglou 85 cited in Demosthenes Eleutheriades, Epimaha zetemata diatrofes (Athens, 1939). Also, Alivisatos, G. P. and Joustinianos, A., ‘Nutrition in rural districts in Greece’, Bulletin of the Health Organization of the League of Nations 12 (1945), 411 and 435.

15 Eleutheriades, E laike, 51; Anna Katsigra, Ellenika proionta kai ellenikos tropos diatrofes (Athens, 1940).

16 Much more has been written on the subject by archaeologists and ancient historians, who have used ethnographic approaches to their subject, providing some excellent accounts of consumption among ancient Greek populations. These include, among others, Thomas Gallant, Risk and survival in ancient Greece (Stanford, 1991) and Peter Garnsey, Food and society in classical antiquity (Cambridge, 1999).

17 Katsigra, Ellenika proionta, 125, 133, 147.

18 On middle-class perceptions of the mid-Victorian working-class diet and on the omission of reporting the consumption of significant quantities of cheap foods by the working-class respondents, see Clayton, Paul and Rowbotham, Judith, ‘An unsuitable and degraded diet? Part one: public health lessons from the mid-Victorian working class diet’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 101 (2008), 101, 284, 286. Clayton and Rowbotham attribute the omissions to the cheapness of these foods.

19 Kalogerou, Palaia, 10.

20 Interview number (hereafter No. or no.) 16, Mykonos, female, lived in rural Mykonos throughout her life.

21 No. 3, Mykonos, rural upbringing, female. For an almost identical description of the peasant diet in classical Greece, see Garnsey, Food, 15–17.

22 For example, in 1939–40 the olive oil production was 1,293,000 oke whereas the annual needs of the local population were estimated at 700,000 oke (Paghiake, 26 July 1941, 3481). In a ‘bad’ year the production of oil could be as low as 500,000 oke (Paghiake, 27 September 1941, 3489).

23 No. 3, Mykonos. On the pig-slaughtering feast in contemporary Mykonos, see Dimitris Rousounelos, Tastes of sacrifice: the pigfeast on Mykonos (Athens, 2004).

24 No. 22, Mykonos, female, lived in rural Mykonos throughout her life; similar answers from no. 7, rural Mykonos, male, and no. 15, female, rural Mykonos upbringing.

25 No. 5, Mykonos, female, upper class, urban; similar answer from no. 18, Mykonos, female, middle class; no. 25, Mykonos, upper class.

26 No. 24, Mykonos, female, town resident, father was an artisan; husband was a sailor.

27 For an identical sharing of the small fish–big fish between lower- and upper-class citizens in classical Greece, see Garnsey, Food, 116–7.

28 No. 25, Mykonos, urban affluent; no. 23, Mykonos.

29 Pericles Kalogerou, E en Elladi diatrofe upo to prisma tes antikeimenikes ereunes. Diatrofe agroton (Athens, 1940).

30 Kalogerou, Palaia, 10.

31 Eleutheriades, E laike, 93.

32 No. 11, Mykonos, male, rural resident; similar answer from no. 7, Mykonos, male, rural resident.

33 The mixing of the two kinds of seeds, it was believed, offered a crop of significantly higher yield than either barley or wheat would offer on their own (no. 11, Mykonos). This mix was also extensively planted on Hios during the years of occupation, presumably for its high yield (Paghiake, 16 January 1942, 3503; P. Karouses, Mnemes apo ten Katohe sten Hio (Athens, 1985), 37). See also Robert Sallares, The ecology of the ancient Greek world (London, 1991), 305; Gallant, Risk, 41.

34 No. 2, Hios; Katsigra, Ellenika proionta, 133; Eleutheriades, E laike, 8–10. The flour used had an extraction rate of 95–98 per cent (Alivisatos and Joustinianos, Nutrition, 435).

35 Fruit, sugar, and salted cod were other Athenian delicacies brought to Mykonos (no. 23).

36 No. 9, Syros.

37 No. 2, Syros.

38 No. 2, Syros.

39 No. 9, Syros. The practice of rearing a pig was widespread in Greece and continued after the post-war period (Irwin T. Sanders, Rainbow in the Rock. The people of rural Greece (Cambridge, 1962), 143).

40 Pericles Kalogerou, Metapolemika provlemata diatrofes tou Ellenikou laou (Athens, 1944), 58–9; Eleutheriades, E laike, 8.

41 Antonia-Leda Matalas, ‘The Mediterranean diet: historical background and dietary patterns in pre-World War II Greece’, in Antonia-Leda Matalas, Antonis Zampelas, Vassilis Stavrinos and Ira Wolinsky eds., The Mediterranean Diet: constituents and health promotion (Boca Raton, 2001), 35–40; and Marion Nestle, ‘The history and culture of food and drink in Europe. The Mediterranean (diets and disease prevention)’, in Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conex Ornelas eds., The Cambridge World History of Food (Cambridge, 2000), 1196.

42 Matalas, ‘The Mediterranean Diet’, 40–3; Alivisatos and Joustinianos, Nutrition.

43 The low consumption of olive oil by the rural populations compared with the urban populations, especially in nineteenth-century Greece, is noted by Matalas, ‘The Mediterranean diet’, 43.

44 Matalas cites a number of sources indicating that this was the case through the nineteenth and the early twentieth century (‘The Mediterranean Diet’, 37). Alivisatos and Joustinianos, Nutrition, 446–7.

45 Gallant, Risk, 116 citing Clark, Mari, ‘The pursuit of wild edibles, present and past’, Expedition 19 (1976), 1218.

46 M. Leonti, S. Nebel, Rivera, D. and Heinrich, M., ‘Wild gathered food plants in the European Mediterranean: a comparative analysis’, Economic Botany 60 (2006), 134.

47 With the great importance attributed to the Mediterranean diet, in recent years numerous studies have attempted to assess the nutritional value of wild greens. See, among others, A. Trichopoulou, E. Vasilopoulou, P. Hollman, Ch. Chamalides, E. Foufa, Tr. Kaloudis, D. Kromhout, Ph. Miskaki, I. Petrochilou, E. Poulima, Stafilakis, K. and Theophilou, D., ‘Nutritional composition and flavonoid content of edible wild greens and green pies: a potential rich source of antioxidant nutrients in the Mediterranean diet’, Food Chemistry 70 (2000), 319–23; C. I. Vardanas, D. Majchrzac, K.-H. Wagner, Elmadfa, I. and Kafatos, A., ‘The antioxidant and phylloquinone content of wildly grown greens in Crete’, Food Chemistry 99 (2006), 813–21; C. I. Vardanas, D. Majchrzac, K.-H. Wagner, Elmadfa, I. and Kafatos, A., ‘Lipid concentrations of wild edible greens in Crete’, Food Chemistry 99 (2006), 822–34.

48 Kalogerou, E en Elladi, 220.

49 Mursine Lamprake, Ta horta (Athens, 1997), 19.

50 Katsigra, Ellenika proionta, 111, 119, 147, 156. The author was a medical doctor but not an academic. Another exception is Alivisatos and Joustinianos, Nutrition, 446–7.

51 Katsigra, Ellenika proionta, 111. For a similar statement concerning the Indian poor, see George Gammie, Alexander, ‘A note on plants used for food during famines and seasons of scarcity in the Bombay Presidency’, India Botanical Survey Records 2 (1902), 172.

52 No. 3, Hios, male, lived in rural Hios throughout his life.

53 No. 8, Hios. For a similar reaction of an informant remembering the first time bread was baked at her parental home after the end of the Second World War, see David E. Sutton, Remembrance of Repasts. An anthropology of food and memory (Oxford, 2001), 98.

54 No. 11, Hios. Corn-based bread was regularly consumed in parts of Greece where maize was the most significant locally produced crop.

55 Proodos, 14 July 1941, 3708; 8 August 1941, 3728; 9 August 1941, 3729; 18 August 1941, 3835.

56 Arnold, David, ‘Social crisis and epidemic disease in the famines of nineteenth-century India’, Social History of Medicine 6 (1993), 389; Dirks, ‘Social responses’, 23–8.

57 No. 3, Hios.

58 Ioanna Tsatsou, Fulla Katohes (Athens, 1987); Kalogerou, Metapolemika, 59.

59 No. 1, Hios; similar no. 3, Syros. In normal times in Greece, chickpeas are cooked in a stew rather than in a soup. A soup made of ‘water and some kind of greens’ was the only food consumed for three months by the family of the French Consul on Syros Marin Rigouzzo (Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Archives Diplomatiques, Nantes, Rigouzzo's diary, 20, September 1941).

60 No. 22, Syros.

61 No. 19, Hios.

62 Hionidou, Famine and death, 84–5.

63 No. 13, Hios.

64 Hionidou, Famine and death, 86–7.

65 Eleutheriades, E laike, 121; Pericles Kalogerou, ‘Tis e ektasis kai tina ta apotelesmata tou epikratountos upo tas parousas sunthekas upositismou’, Praktika Iatrikes Etaireias Athenon 28/3/1942, 215; Karouses, Mnemes, 40–1; Nitsa Koliou, Agnostes ptuhes katohes kai antistases 1941–44 (Volos, 1985), 53. Wild artichokes, capers and the water where greens were boiled were also consumed (all were consumed in non-famine times too). Various other wild greens were mentioned in the sources, for most of which I do not have a translation: skouloumpra, galatsida, karuda, poluvuzouda, kaukalethra (tordylium apulum) and melisies. All were and, to the best of my knowledge, are still consumed. Wild wheat was also mentioned (Proodos, 2 April 1942, 3834; 12 December 1942, 3932).

66 No. 7, Syros; similar responses from no. 6 and no. 22, Syros. All these wild greens are habitually consumed in normal times. Another commentator from Syros mentions that there were no wild greens available in autumn 1943 because of the lack of rain (Rigouzzo's diary, 54).

67 No. 16, Mykonos. Also see no. 3, Mykonos and Rigouzzo's diary, March 1944, 62.

68 Male born 1912, no. 73, Ionian island of Lefkada (Maria Thanopoulou, E proforike mneme tou polemou. Diereunese tes sullogikes mnemes tou B Pagkosmiou polemou stous epizontes enos horiou tes Lefkadas (Athens, 2000), 218).

69 No. 11, Hios; similar comments on the collection of snails and greens in Karouses, Mnemes, 41; no. 1, no. 6, no. 16, no. 18 Hios.

70 See, for example, the case of the island of Lesvos (Hionidou, Famine and death, 104–6).

71 Karouses, Mnemes, 40; no. 18, Hios; Proodos, 8 July 1941, 3708; no. 2, no. 10, Syros. It seems that collards were used as fodder food too.

72 Georgios Logaras, Mporoume na trafoume kalutera? (Athens, 1942), 8.

73 No. 11, Hios. Sayce refers to a similar practice taking place in 1817 in Tyrone, Ireland (R. Sayce, U., ‘Need years and need foods’, Montgomeryshire Collections 53 (1954), 66–7).

74 No. 6, Hios.

75 No. 18, Hios.

76 Kalogerou, ‘Tis e ektasis’, 215.

77 No. 11, no. 14, Hios; no. 22, Syros.

78 No. 4, Hios.

79 Proodos, 27 November 1941, 3782; 18 April 1942, 3840; 14 July 1941, 3708. Obtaining wood was as difficult as obtaining food during the occupation in Greece, with the goods being sold in the black market and trees being cut without impunity. The environmental impact was immense, although not yet studied (Koliou, Agnostes ptuhes, 91; Hrestos Hrestides, Hronia katohes, 1941–1944. Marturies emerologiou (Athens, 1971), 102–3; Maria Manolakou, Apo to emerologio enos paidiou tes katohes (Athens, 1985), 176).

80 Kalogerou, Metapolemika, 66.

81 No. 2, Hios; Lamprake, Ta horta, 32. Lambrake mentions that shepherds, peasants and children consumed these in normal times while in the fields.

82 No. 7, no. 22 Syros; no. 11, no. 14, no. 16, Hios; Georgios Theotokas, Tetradia emerologiou (1939–53) (Athens, 1982); Eleutheriades, E laike, 122; Lamprake, Ta horta, 260; Dem. Gatopoulos, Istoria tes Katohes, 2nd ed. (Athens, n.d.), 188–9.

83 No. 16, Hios, female.

84 Proodos, 23 July 1942, 3874; 1 September 1942, 3889.

85 No. 22, Syros; Kuklades, 14 January 1942, 4; General State Archives on Syros, Italian Archive, folder 69, 15172, Al Comando Superiore delle Forze Armate dell'Egeo, Ufficio servizi, 1 October 1941.

86 Kairofyllas, E Athena, 189; Koliou, Agnostes ptuhes, 74, citing a diary of a nurse at the hospital of Volos, 15 September 1943.

87 Kalogerou, Metapolemika, 60–2; Stulianos Stafuleras, Ta Thumiana ston polemo kai ten Germanike Katohe (Hios, 1979), 16; Giannis Kairofullas, E Athena tou '40 kai tes Katohes (Athens of the 1940s and the occupation) (Athens, 1985), 175.

88 Koliou, Agnostes ptuhes, 53.

89 Proodos, 2 April 1942, 3834; 28 April 3843; 28 July 1942, 3876. Both foods are mentioned as being purchased for human consumption in November 1941 at the Hian village of Kallimasia (Koraes Library, diary of teacher Georgios Kokkodis, entry 24 November 1941); Stafuleras, Ta Thumiana, 17; Mihael Theotokas archive, Koraes library, Hios (hereafter MTA), folder 7, ‘Distributions to the population in July 1942’; Demosthenes Eleutheriades, H laike, 122.

90 Eleutheriades, E laike, 121; Stafuleras, Ta Thumiana, 17. Acorns were not used on Hios during the famine because they were neither produced on, nor imported into Hios in normal times (MTA, folder 7, ‘Production on Hios in 1940–41’). Using specific crops for either human or animal consumption is a well-established strategy among populations aiming to avert risk (Gallant, Risk, 58 citing Subrata Ghatak and Ken Ingersent, Agriculture and economic development (Baltimore, 1984), 6).

91 Proodos, 18 December 1941, 3792; 2 April 1942, 3834; 28 July 1942, 3876; 1 September 1942, 3889; 4 November 1942, 3915; 19 December 1942, 3932. Cottonseed was habitually imported by Hios during normal times, as was dari (MTA, folder 7).

92 No. 8, no. 9, no. 11, no. 16, Hios.

93 No. 16, Hios.

94 No. 13, Syros.

95 No. 18, no. 19, Hios. One of the informants used the word koumara to describe the spoilt olives. However, the word seems to also refer to the arbutus berry.

96 No. 3, Syros.

97 No. 6, Syros.

98 The reference to the consumption of tortoises comes exclusively from Antonia-Leda Matalas and Louis E. Grivetti, ‘Non-food food during famine. The Athens famine survivor project’, in Jeremy MacClancy, Jeya Henry and Helen Macbeth eds., Consuming the inedible: neglected dimensions of food choice (New York, 2007), 136.

99 No. 9, Syros. Another informant made the general comment that ‘we ate horses, donkeys, mules’ (no. 21, Syros).

100 No. 2, Syros; Rigouzzo's diary, 21.

101 Georgios Maroudes, To emerologio tes peinas (Athens, 1976), 27, referring to Athens in November 1941.

102 Logaras, Mporoume, 18.

103 Ibid., 16.

104 There are two cases of death from food poisoning registered on Mykonos, two in Hios towns and eight on Syros in the years 1941–4. This compares with only two deaths from poisoning in the period 1938–9 on Syros and no deaths either on Mykonos or in Hios towns (civil registration death certificates, available in the local municipal offices). Interestingly, in the patients' hospital register of Syros eight admissions due to food poisoning are mentioned for the 1941–4 period with two corresponding deaths. For three patients it is indicated that it was ‘boiled greens’ that were responsible for the poisoning while for three others it was the consumption of decayed food (18 Nosokomeio, Metroo noseleuomenon asthenon Pathologikou, 1935–1955; 36 and 41 Nosokomeio, Metroo noseleuomenon asthenon, 1.1.1941–30.8.1945 and 29.8.1945–31.12.1953, General State Archives, Syros).

105 For a sharply opposing interpretation of consumption during the Greek famine, see Matalas and Grivetti, where what was consumed in Athens during the famine is termed ‘non-food’ (‘Non-food food’, 131–9).

106 Kalogerou, Metapolemika, 8.

107 No. 13, Hios.

108 Clearly depicted in the consumption patterns of the four Athenian groups as described by Kalogerou (‘Tis e ektasis’, 215–8). Also, for the changing patterns of consumption of the upper and middle classes during the famine, see Kalogerou, Metapolemika, 59.

109 Eleutheriades, E laike, 81.

110 Dodgshon, Robert A., ‘Coping with risk: subsistence crises in the Scottish highlands and islands, 1600–1800’, Rural History 15 (2004), 125; Sayce, ‘Need years’, 55–80 but especially 76–78; Wilkes, Garrison, ‘Nature crops and wild food plants’, Ecologist 7 (1977), 312–7; Harris and Salisu, ‘Relying on nature’.

111 Arnold, ‘Social crisis’, 390. For similar observations, see Subrahmanyan, V. and Srinavasan, M., ‘Unfamiliar food resources – the Agave’, Central Food Technological Research Institute Bulletin (Mysore, India) 3 (1953), 137–9; George Gammie, Alexander, ‘A note on plants used for food during famines and seasons of scarcity in the Bombay Presidency’, India Botanical Survey Records 2 (1902), 172; Hooper, David, ‘Analyses of Indian pot-herbs of the natural orders Amarantaceae, Chenopodiaceae, and Polygonaceae’, Agricultural Ledger (Calcutta) 6 (1904), 423–34; Shortt, James, ‘List of wild plants and vegetables used as food by people in famine times’, Indian Forester 3 (1887–1888), 232–8.

112 Bhandari, M. M., ‘Famine foods in the Rajasthan Desert’, Economic Botany 28 (1974), 7381; Sayce, ‘Need years’, 77; Damodaran, Vinita, ‘Famine in a forest tract: ecological change and the causes of the 1897 famine in Chotanagpur, Northern India’, Environment and History 1 (1995), 129–58.

113 Irvine, ‘Supplementary’, 29–40.

114 Muller and Almedom, ‘What is “famine food”?’, 604.

115 On the absence of a consensus among the members of the group studied by Muller and Almedom on what famine foods are, see ‘What is “famine food”?’, 602.

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