Chow, c-rations, MREs—no matter the form it takes or the name given to it, food is important in military life. Materials within the Veterans History Project (VHP) collections are peppered with culinary references: the monotony of military rations, the ache of hunger when food was scarce, and often the longing and anticipation for home-cooked meals and favorite dishes.
One particular type of manuscript in our collection provides specific insights to food’s role: the commemorative menu created to mark occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. The fact that these menus were kept by service members as souvenirs is, by itself, quite telling. Often printed on special paper and bearing illustrations, they were frequently formatted as booklets. In addition to listing the elements of the dinner from soup to nuts, each menu usually included a message from the commander as well the names of the members of the units taking part in the meal and the officers in charge of the mess.
Taken as a group, these menus provide a fascinating glimpse into the experience of servicemen and women as well as into military culture. Holidays, and the dishes that accompanied them, provided a brief respite from life during wartime. From these menus, we see the military’s attempt to provide comfort and boost morale by serving up the traditional flavors of familiar holiday food to men and women who were far away from their homes and families. Commemorative menus tell us not only what service members ate, but how the occasion was marked as different from other days.
A veteran of World War I, Corporal Forbes Allan served in the Army from 1917 to 1919. His collection includes a commemorative menu from December 25, 1918, during the time he was stationed at Vosges, France. This menu offers both unfamiliar items (mayonnaise salad, anyone?) as well as staples of today’s holiday table, such as turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Also notable to modern eyes is the inclusion of cigars as a menu item; cigarettes and cigars were regularly listed on holiday menus through World War II.
Menus from later conflicts are more descriptive in their presentation of dishes. During his training with the Army at Camp Kohler in 1943, Sergeant First Class Roland Walker dined on cream of tomatoes with a bread crust, snowflake potatoes with giblet gravy, and escalloped corn for Thanksgiving dinner. For her Christmas dinner that same year, Navy nurse Charlotte Ione Bailey Temerario received the dubiously named “fresh frozen asparagus tips” and “buttered fresh frozen lima beans” while serving at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Shoemaker, California. (While it may sound like a contradiction in terms, “fresh frozen” refers to flash-frozen vegetables, preferable to canned or slow-frozen veggies.)
Stationed in Germany during the Korean War, Francis Elmer Hayes served as a mess sergeant for the 379th Evacuation Hospital. His Veterans History Project collection includes not only menus from Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in 1951 and 1952, but original photographs of the events, which provide a further sense of the festivities and ambience that characterized these dinners. In the photo at right, mess staff serve Christmas dinner, 1951. Note the commemorative menu perched on the wreath in the foreground of the photo.
In addition to original letters and photographs, Sergeant Vincent Simonelli’s VHP collection includes a commemorative menu from Christmas 1966, the first of two holiday seasons that he spent in Vietnam. Entitled “Silent Night,” the menu contains a note from General Westmoreland and a Christmas prayer.
Of course, not every holiday meal during wartime was marked by delicacies and a commemorative menu. In his oral history, Albert L. Allen, Jr., recounts how he missed out on a turkey dinner with all of the trimmings: landing in the Philippines on Thanksgiving Day 1941, he wound up eating beans for supper that night. Later taken prisoner by the Japanese, Allen would go on to face deprivation on a far greater scale: he survived the Bataan Death March and imprisonment in Manchuria. For all of these menus’ tempting descriptions of mouth-watering options, many servicemen and women spent their holidays eating whatever was available.
Buttered fresh frozen lima beans may not have accompanied your Thanksgiving turkey this year, but for many servicemen and women, special foods such as these played a key role in their experience serving with the military during the holidays. As Napoleon’s maxim goes, “an army marches on its stomach”–a sentiment reflected in these commemorative menus.