Rationing During the Cold War

Shortly after arriving at Field Station Berlin in August of 1983 I was issued a ration card. With this anachronism in hand I was able, if I so desired, to buy American cigarettes (real Marlboros, not the dread "Hermboros" as the local imitations were derisively called) and American liquor. I didn't smoke and I wasn't a hard liquor sort of guy. I still don't smoke and frankly I still feel a bit awkward spending a bunch of money on a bottle of booze. I think my resistance to stocking up on various bottles of hard liquor is due in part to the ugly history some of my family members have with alcohol. At any rate, I was issued a ration card along with a fairly tepid warning that I was not to use it to purchase items for anyone other than myself. I obeyed the warning, for the most part, straying off the legal path only rarely over the next three years. The fact is that I made little use of the card, but I liked having it. The card prompted me to feel an admittedly tenuous connection to World War II and Europe's post-war deprivations that were largely gone by the time I'd arrived. I can remember my parents talking about state-side rationing during World War II, and here it was nearly 40 years after the fact and rationing was still a small fact of life in occupied Berlin. 

Some items that were not subject to rationing were apparently still difficult for Americans who did not have access to the Commissary at Truman Plaza to acquire. American peanut butter was one of those items. The way I found out that bit of news involved a disappointing encounter that actually started out well enough. I was on the U-Bahn heading for the Ku'damm one evening about a month after getting to Berlin. It must have been after rush hour because the train was not crowded. I was standing near the door rather than sitting and an attractive young woman approached me. She was an American college student studying for a semester in Berlin and she spotted me as a fellow countryman. The evening was starting to look up. We chatted about this and that as the train made its way to the heart of the city. At some point she asked me, "You know what I really miss?" A few possibilities of where she might be heading with this went through my mind, most of which are not fit for print, but I have to confess I never guessed what was coming next. "What's that?" I responded hopefully. "Peanut butter!" I don't remember what I said next, but soon she was asking me if I could score some peanut butter for her. Instead of saying, "Sure, I can score some for you. The really good stuff, too. Top grade," or something along those lines, I must have fumbled the whole deal. She got off the train in short order without our having finalized any sort of plan for the clandestine peanut butter exchange. It's probably just as well. It might have been embarrassing to have to explain at some point to the battalion S-2 why I was buying so much peanut butter. Besides, we all know that peanut butter is a gateway sandwich spread; she'd have probably moved on to more extravagant demands such a real mayo before long at which point I'd have been forced to draw a line and the whole affair would have come to a messy, maddening end. As I've noted before, life in Berlin was full of small surprises.