Feeding the Troops: A History of Wartime Food
In celebration of Veterans Day we looked into some food stories that originated from wartime experiences.
My father, Robert MacLaren, entered the Army as an 18-year-old Army infantry man. Here are some of his most vivid memories of food when stationed in San Francisco towards the end of WWII.
I was a very finicky eater, and never touched vegetables before entering the service. During basic training they would have us hiking 20 miles a day. After those hikes I would eat anything they put in front of me! One food I never could stomach, however, was the canned peas they served. They tasted fuzzy to me.
On my 19th birthday my Mom sent me an orange cake. I put the uneaten portion under my bunk in the barracks. The next day it was covered with ants! So of course I brushed off the ants and ate the rest of it! Best memory of food in the army!
My father in-law, Lawrence Riordan, told how he was desperate to become a pilot in WWII, but didn’t meet the weight requirements. He filled his pockets with some weights for the initial medical checkup. Once accepted and in flight training, they discovered what he had done. Did he get kicked out? No, they gave him unlimited access to the mess hall! His favorite meal was creamed beef on toast, which they all lovingly referred to as Sh*t on a Shingle.
One popular food innovation from WWII was M & M’s. During the Spanish Civil War Forrest Mars, of the Mars candy company, met soldiers eating small chocolate beads covered in a hard sugar shells. Mars jumped on the idea of making chocolate heat-resistant and easy to transport. The chocolate candies were covered with a brown, red, orange, yellow, green or violet coating. Once the United States entered WWII, M&M were only sold to the military for the duration of the war. Perfect for taking out in the field, and they did not leave chocolate residue on the soldiers’ equipment.
On the home front in the 1940s, wartime-food shortages changed meals. New recipes were developed around food readily available on rations. One popular food that was developed due to war time shortages is the Hostess Twinkie. Originally the sponge cake was filled with strawberries, but due to limited seasonal availability, replaced by bananas. Once the war started bananas, an unnecessary import, were strictly rationed. Hostess then filled the sponge cake with vanilla cream filling. People loved it, sales exploded, and the iconic Twinkie was born.
An industry veteran, Don Edwards, was with the military police in the Korean War securing railroads that transported troops and supplies between Seoul and Busan. He had the night detail and was fed C-Rations. Don said it was surprising how good and creative meals in a can were. He particularly remembers the cold hamburgers! He preferred them over the Korean national food – Kimchi which most of his service mates couldn’t stomach.
My brother-in-law, John, had the opposite reaction during the Vietnam War. They traded their C-Rations with the Koreans for their kimchi. “We really liked the Kimchi - it was something different for us. The meals in the mess halls were pretty good. They put on a great spread over Thanksgiving and Christmas with turkey and all the fixings. You really remembered those meals! Most of our time was spent out in the field, however, and it was C-Rations. We would dive in to the 24 case to get to the Franks and Beans. Those were the best!”
Today’s military food is more nutritionally conscious. The easy-to-transport M&Ms have been replaced by the HOOAH! Bar (commonly called Soldier Fuel.) It is a dairy-based calcium-enriched performance bar created by the United States military. These bars are now available to the everyday consumer as well.
My nephew, Rob, who was with the Army Rangers, said the Army rations in Iraq and Afghanistan were very delicious, but food from home was always welcome. He said in particular the Iraqi chocolate milk was great, very different from what we get here. At Christmas we sent him 24 Maple Ridge Farms wooden collectors’ boxes imprinted with the army logo, filled with mixed nuts as gifts for his army-mates at Christmastime. They were a big hit!
We would love to hear about any stories you may have about wartime food in the comment section.