My mother-in-law’s wartime experience with potatoes

When I was young I read many a diet book and tried many a diet. For years I avoided potatoes, pasta and breads, believing a real weight-loss diet had to be high-protein, low-carbohydrate. Anyway, that’s what they used to tell us.

Nature's gift -- potatoes

Nature’s gift — potatoes

My late mother-in-law, Annette, knew better. On one of her visits from Paris, as our family sat down to dinner, she asked why I was not having any potatoes, which I had served to everyone else. I explained I was trying (as usual) to lose weight. Annette suggested that by excluding potatoes, I was making a mistake.

She told me about her experience with potatoes during WWII. As a French citizen who happened to be Jewish, she had been arrested by a French policeman for not wearing her yellow star while she chatted with a neighbor outside her apartment building. (She lived in the Maurais district in Paris, which I have since learned was a Jewish neighborhood at the time.)

Subsequently, Annette was interned in a German concentration camp where she, as well as all the other inmates were starving. When the Americans liberated the camp, she said they were shocked at and didn’t know how to deal with the horror they encountered. They also, apparently, didn’t have enough food with them to provide for the emaciated prisoners they had to deal with. (Nor did they have enough doctors or medicines to immediately care fo the sick and dying.) The Americans could not bring themselves to allow the miserable survivors to remain in the camp where the conditions were far from suitable for human habitation. So it was that Annette was one of nine weak, hungry women who were billeted in a small nearby cabin, which belonged to local Germans who fled as the Americans advanced.

Naturally, the first thing these women did was search for food. In the cellar, they discovered potatoes and onions. A cabinet held some oil. There was nothing else to be found. Still, they were delirious with joy. Annette’s eyes lit up years later when she remembered how excited they had been.

“We boiled them, we fried them, we baked them, and oh, I shall never forget how wonderful those potatoes tasted!”

The womens’ legs had been swollen, their stomachs were distended. All nine were suffering from severe malnutrion.

“Within a few days,” Annette continued, “Just from the vitamins in those potatoes, the swelling in my legs started to subside. We all began to feel better, even though we had nothing else to eat. The potatoes and onions did wonders for us all. Potatoes are very healthy. You should never eliminate them from your diet, they are very good for you.

Even now, I think of Annette whenever I bite into a potato….and I no longer do so with any guilt.

The late beloved Canadian singer Stompin’ Tom Connors also knew a thing or two about potatoes. He praised them in his song “Bud the Spud”.

“It’s Bud the Spud from the bright red mud

Rollin’ down the Highway smiling

The Spuds are big on the back of Bud’s rig

And they’re from Prince Edward Island

They’re from Prince Edward Island.”


12 thoughts on “My mother-in-law’s wartime experience with potatoes

  1. Riggies, as potatoes are known in the foothills of Mount Everest are a staple of the Sherpa diet and are responsible for the survival of many in the Himalaya.Our family, even the youngest who, until our trip to Nepal, avoided spuds, certainly gained a new appreciation for this calorie-source ‘complete’ food and its importance to survival. Ask any Irishman about the effect of the failure of the potatoe crop! Thought-provoking topic. Cheers, Graham

  2. Potatoes are good when they are boiled, broiled, baked, mashed, fried. They don’t make you fat if you cut down on chocolate consumption. Your mother-in-law was very wise, as you are also.

  3. Muriel- hope these spuds may help vertigo!! I know an elderly lady who survived WWII in eastern Europe scraping up potato peelings for her family meal ( Vitamin C in raw spuds )
    Osteoporosis lectures said for last 2 meetings that vitamin D (Canadians lack) is effective to decrease balance problems-actual < fracture rate in elderly women by 20 % Hope that you are enjoying Tai Chi! — Claire

  4. Something we Irish have known since potatoes washed ashore from the wrecks of the Spanish Armada. We sure took to them! Ireland is the only place I’ve seen up to four different potato dishes on the table at once …. mashed, boiled, fired, and baked!

    Thanks for the piece Muriel

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