How to feed an army in the 1950s


The best-laid plans of mice and columnists often lead to minor disappointment.

A colleague recently brought in a true treasure: a 1950 book of recipes for food served to servicemen in the Army and Air Force. Her father, who recently died, had served in the Army during the Korean War (he was stationed in Germany). In his effects she found the aging, yellowing book. Its simple title is Recipes, but it was undoubtedly known by its two official designations, Department of the Army Technical Manual 10-412 and Department of the Air Force Manual 146-3.

That might not be the right way to refer to it or the wrong way, but it is definitely the Army way (and presumably the Air Force way).

Needless to say, I did not even bother to restrain my delight. Army food is notoriously awful, and while certain aspects of the 1950s may have had their charms, the decade was not known for its great advances in the preparation of food. Plus, the colleague tantalized me by noting that the recipe for coffee is hilarious.

With fevered anticipation, I dove in. The very first recipe is for coffee, and it involves dunking a 50-pound sack of coffee into a vat of hot water, submerging it with a stick or paddle, and then pushing it up and down to force the water through the grounds. There is also an "emergency method" of making coffee that involves pouring three pounds of loose coffee into 30 quarts of boiling water, reducing the temperature, and then letting it steep.

"Oh, boy," I thought. "This is going to be good." So I delved further into the book.

Oh. This is good.

I was stunned, frankly, when I came upon a recipe for fried soft-shell crabs. Five pages later, there is a recipe for lobster Newburg. And don't forget the spicy apple fritters, the roast lamb, and the three different ways of making fried chicken (Maryland style, Southern-fried, and deep-fat fried).

Obviously, the servicemen of the 1950s were not dining on soft-shell crabs and lobster Newburg every night. But by and large, the book's hundreds of recipes are serviceable at worst and quite promising at best. Each recipe makes enough for 100 people, so the portions can seem outlandish (the lobster Newburg requires 48 egg yolks, a pound of butter, and two gallons of cream). But that's what it takes to feed 100 people.

The recipes for salmon loaf and tuna a la king probably got a lot more use than the ones for roast duck and spiced lamb pies. And yes, there is a recipe for the bane of every soldier's existence, creamed dried beef ("serve hot over toast"). But it is gratifying to know that, somewhere in the Army and Air Force, there were cooks who were whipping up fresh batches of mayonnaise, four quarts at a time.

The book is written with much less of the impenetrable military style than you would imagine, and it is easily understood and followed by cooks of all levels of experience. It even includes some information I did not know — fish tend to lose their shape while cooking because they have little connective tissue.

The book's failings are mostly due to the culinary shortcomings of the era — prune whip, stewed dried apricots, grapefruit nog — and the logistics of field and combat cooking. Recipes that call for milk, eggs or onions usually also suggest their equivalents in powdered or dehydrated forms. And one whole section is devoted to canned meats ("with some care and thought given to the preparation they can be made palatable").

I know I won't soon be making the Spanish corned beef and spaghetti (24 pounds of canned corned beef, one pound of American cheese, 10 pounds of spaghetti, all baked together with a tomato sauce that is heavy on onions, flour, and fat drippings). And as much as I love sweetbreads, I won't be trying the creamed sweetbreads and luncheon meat, which may qualify as the most disgusting combination of foods, ever.

But for what it is, TM 10-412/AFM 146-3, could be much, much worse.

They say an army travels on its stomach. In the 1950s, at least, the Army traveled fairly well.

Contact Daniel Neman at: or 419-724-6155.