If you've read advance information on my new novel, The Care and Management of Lies, I won't be spoiling anything if I tell you that one of the themes in the novel is the importance of food in wartime. And if you think that food has nothing to do with war, let me tell you—it has everything to do with war, and has been on the minds of politicians and military men ever since Napoleon observed, "An army marches on its stomach."
The feeding of men and animals is one of the most crucial factors in the planning of any battle, and on the home front, wars have been lost due to lack of food. Even before the end of the Great War, German troops began to mutiny because they were starving, and on the home front, food riots in Germany were leading to a situation bordering on anarchy. But in The Care and Management of Lies, food takes on a different character—as a catalyst for the emotion of nostalgia.
Any member of the military will tell you how important food is for morale. At Thanksgiving and over the Holidays, politicians and celebrities are all too willing to welcome a photo-op in a war zone, showing them ladling the traditional turkey dinner to a line of troops—you'll see smiling soldiers in their desert khaki, dog-tags rattling around their necks, holding out their plates to receive a huge helping of turkey, sweet potato, lashings of gravy, followed by the best apple pie the army cooks can muster. There's no two ways about it—if you're away from home for any length of time, you miss that home cooking to the extent that you can almost taste it, whether your favorite dish is your mother's spaghetti with meatballs, or a heaping salad with fresh avocado, or even a dish of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. Missing food from home reminds you of the distance between you and everything you love—can you therefore imagine what that's like when you are fighting for your country far from home?
Years ago, at the time of WWI, the British military had never before conscripted so many civilians into the service, so many young men away from home to feed and clothe—and at a time when providing for an army meant only calories in and calories out. Army planners didn't so much care what food tasted like, what it looked like—they just wanted it on the plate and down the hatch. But boys missed the taste of food from home—which is why so many mothers, sisters and sweethearts baked cakes and breads to send to the trenches, or packed up favorite treats. Food became an expression of love—even of the love of an officer for his men; it was not unknown for an officer to buy good bread for the soldiers he commanded, so that morale was maintained.
In the trenches of WWI men often read out letters from their loved ones, especially if the letter held a description of food. It brought them together, it reminded them of their families at home. I've read such letters during my research at the Imperial War Museum, and I can see in my mind's eye the men gathered with closed eyes listening to the reader, imagining the kitchen at home, filled with the sweet smell of a fragrant meal, and for a moment transported from a mud and blood-filled trench.
In closing, let me share this with you. It was during the writing of The Care and Management of Lies, I was staying with one of my oldest, dearest friends for a few days. At the time her soldier son was on his third tour of duty in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. I was telling her about the book as we cooked dinner together, when the phone rang—it was her son, calling from his base. We talked for a while, the phone on speaker as the rest of the family gathered around the table. It was ironic that his first question was. "Tell me what you're cooking for dinner, Mum?" She looked at me and smiled, yet she was close to weeping. "You might be writing about WWI," she said. "But some things never change for a soldier."
I'll be telling you more about my background research for The Care and Management of Lies as publication approaches on July 1st.
Until next time,
The Care and Management of Lies will be published in the USA and Canada by Harper Collins, and by Allison and Busby in the UK and Commonwealth.
Publication date: July 1, 2014