Today is Veterans Day, and I thought it would be fun to write about one of the most trashed subjects ever: military mess hall food and rations. In truth, the food most mess halls put out was pretty good. It is just the monotony of a limited menu again and again that gets most GIs down.
The C and K rations of World War II likewise were pretty good, but if you had to live on them for any length of time, your opinion of them fell precipitously. Many people on the Gulf Coast had the same experience after Hurricane Katrina. Those first MREs were pretty welcomed, but after a few days, the novelty wore off and our respect for them declined. Few heaped praise on the veggie omelet or ham slice.
Be that as it may, has there ever been an American GI that didn't complain about the mess hall food? Did you ever hear a GI praise the delights of lima beans and ham? Chances are that there isn't, but chances are that most ex-GIs also have a repertoire of mess hall recipes that they love to make and hold dear. Maybe it is a love-hate relationship.
Undisputedly, creamed beef on toast is at the top of the hate list. In its simplest format, it is ground beef in a béchamel sauce. At its worst, it is fatty beef in a thin milk-like soup. Add lots of salt and pepper and you can get it down.
A close cousin is creamed chipped beef. This recipe most likely reared its head during the austere days of World War II, when strict rationing was in effect, but remained popular on civilian tables in America in the 1960s and 1970s. It must be an acquired taste that has, perhaps thankfully, faded into obscurity.
Spam, a brand of canned precooked meat, also is a product of World War II rationing and replaced fresh meat for many people. It was inflicted on the American GI in massive quantities, but also spread around the world. The origins of the name are a bit obscure, but many people think its kindest meaning was "shoulders of pork and ham." Span actually isn't half bad, if you know how to prepare it.
It should also be noted that the American GI was a master at taking a grim ration and somehow making something pretty good of it. The cheese spread, hot sauce and crumbled crackers could be put to surprising use.
CREAMED CHIPPED BEEF
3 cups dried sliced beef
6 cups milk
1/3 cup butter
1 cup flour
Salt and pepper
Bread for toast
Melt the butter in a pan, and whisk in the flour, make sure not to leave any lumps. Slowly whisk in the milk and heat to a simmer. Chop the beef into bite sizes, add to the sauce and simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and season as necessary. Toast the bread, plate and top with creamed beef.
This recipe may have been invented around the same time as the chipped beef recipe above, but I would guess it came along after the war, when ground beef was more available and affordable. If you grew up with it, perhaps you developed an affinity for this recipe, but chances are if you did not have it as a kid, you will find it less than appealing.
It is hearty and filling and can provide some comfort on a cold winter morning, but just to be sure, check with friends to whom you might serve it beforehand.
CREAMED GROUND BEEF
1 pound beef
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour
1 beef bouillon cube
Salt and pepper to taste
2- 1/2 cups whole milk
Optional Worcestershire sauce
Bread for toast
Sauté the beef in a large pan, along with a little oil, remove the liquid as it accumulates and make sure there are no large chunks. In a separate pan, melt the butter and whisk in the flour, again making sure there are no lumps. Simmer until you have a light brown roux. Add the bouillon cube and slowly whisk in the milk. Simmer until thick. Taste and season as necessary.
Make the toast, butter it if you like, top with the creamed beef and serve, if you are brave enough, at once.
The trick to making Spam palatable is to aggressively brown it. Right out of the can, it is pretty grim! Caramelizing the surface brings out the good porky flavor, and adds a bit of crunch for texture.
SPAM AND POTATOES
3 large potatoes cut into cubes
1 small chopped red onion
1 can Spam, cut into cubes
Salt and pepper
Cut the Spam into cubes, then sauté in oil until well browned. Remove and set aside. In the same pan, add the onions and potatoes, 2 tablespoons of butter and cook slowly until the potatoes are done and the onions are caramelized. Add the Spam, cook only to heat, taste and season as necessary.
This recipe has nothing to do with an Army mess hall, although many a GI did make a Spam sandwich for himself, but it is a surprisingly good adaptation of Spam and so is included anyway. A GI Spam sandwich was pretty grim: bread, Spam, and maybe a little cheese spread from the cracker and cheese ration.
SURPRISING SPAM REUBEN
1 can Spam cut into thick slices
1 can best quality sauerkraut
Thousand Island dressing
Sauté the Spam until it is well browned. If you are brave enough, or if your cardiologist allows it, deep fry the Spam. Toast the bread, add the Spam to the sandwich, add lots of sauerkraut and lots of cheese and cook like you would a grilled cheese sandwich until the cheese is melted. Add the dressing and serve at once.