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Dutch creative with food during World War II

During the Dutch famine of 1944–45, people were much more creative in finding food than we thought. Biology student Tom Vorstenbosch discovered that people did not only eat flower bulbs at that time, but also radish leaves and wild plants such as sorrel and chickweed.

How far did they go?

A lot of research has been done into the Second World War. Therefore, we know from documentation and pictures that the Dutch ate flower bulbs and sugar beets during the famine of 1944-45. But how far did people actually go in finding food at that time? Hunting for the answer, Extraordinary professor of History of botany and gardens Tinde van Andel decided to call in a student.

38 plant species

‘I immediately thought it was a very interesting research’, Tom Vorstenbosch says. ‘History is, apart from biology, my biggest interest and cooking is my biggest hobby.’ Eventually, Vorstenbosch discovered that during the famine a staggering 38 plant species were eaten, of which some were cultivated, such as tulip bulbs. ‘The knowledge on which plants you could or couldn’t eat was better than we expected’, says Vorstenbosch. In addition, the shortage seemed to improve the creativity in cooking: ‘Someone told me that she made “fried rice” with spices and grated sugar beet.’  

Openness and a great memory

In order to collect data, Vorstenbosch searched for people that experienced the Dutch famine. ‘I’ve mailed a couple of nursing homes, but I also arranged a lot via my own network. I received surveys by regular mail, but I also received many online, which I think was special. What struck me was how open these people actually were. I only heard from two persons: “I rather not talk about that”. In addition, I was really surprised about how much they still knew from that time.’

Media attention

Vorstenbosch’s research gained a lot of media attention, for instance from de Volkskrant and recently from de Telegraaf. ‘It is a subject that is more approachable than an average biology research’, says Vorstenbosch. ‘For that reason I expected some attention, but I didn’t expect that it would generate this much attention. Only after de Volkskrant called, I realised that this research is relevant to many people. I’m happy with all the attention, because I think it is important that people know this.

Cooking book

Vorstenbosch is currently playing with the idea to write a cooking book, that is inspired by this research. ‘In the past I already wrote a cooking book. I think it would be nice to tell something about a product from the famine on one page, such as nettle. So how was it used back then, how nutritious is it? And on the other page a recipe I made up with information about what ingredients were present in that time. Radio 2 already promised to discuss a possible cooking book, so who knows!’

Tom Vorstenbosch currently lives in Vienna, to do research for his Masters on invasive plants in the mountains.        

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