In her upcoming book The American Plate HISTORY’s chief historian, Dr. Libby O’Connell, traces the history of the United States through a series of 100 iconic dishes and delicacies. In this excerpt, she examines the diet of American troops in Europe and shares a popular recipe for a well-preserved treat that loved ones could send to their boys “over there.”
World War I, “the war to end all wars”, was ignited by the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand and Grand Duchess Sophie in Serbia on June 28, 1914, followed by the declaration of war a month later by the European powers. By the time U.S. infantry men (doughboys) arrived at the Western Front in the summer of 1917, America had been supplying the British, French, and Belgian allies with food for two years. The U.S. troops were well-provisioned, startlingly so compared to their ally comrades.
That old military stand-by, hardtack, was replaced by fresh bread whenever possible, thanks to the development of field bakeries that could provide hot food at the front. Small, wagon-sized food carts, sent from field kitchens located several lines behind the front, even brought hot food into the trenches, where most of the fighting and casualties took place.
Infested with rats and other vermin, subject to poison-gas attacks and shelling, and filled with cold, greasy mud, the trenches presented a uniquely harrowing experience for the doughboys, many of them fresh off the farm in America. The arrival of cooked food, along with candy, dairy products, and soft baked bread, struck a much appreciated but incongruous note in the hell known as trench warfare. Of course, there remained the challenge of keeping the food dry, clean, and away from the rats.
Naturally, one big problem for feeding the troops on the front was the safety of the supply lines, which were targets for bombs and other sabotage. Every soldier in the trenches carried emergency rations of twelve ounces of canned meat or fresh bacon, ground coffee, sugar, and tobacco with rolling papers (and later, pre-rolled cigarettes). The Army purchased canned meat from the French, which was labeled “Madagascar” and promptly nicknamed “monkey meat” by the Americans in disgust.
In this environment, hardtack still made its appearance on the doughboy menu. These reserve rations were designed to sustain the troops when the supply lines broke down, or when they were too far from the supply depots. For a generation of men, the servicemen’s rations defined part of the wartime experience and the memory remained with them long after they shipped home.
In France, the soldiers were billeted in relative safety before and after their service in the trenches. Here they had dependable access to food and might even receive packages from home. Of course, food shipped from the United States had to remain edible without any extra care. Even when stale and crumbled, any food sent by loved ones was always particularly appreciated.
The American Red Cross, founded by Clara Barton in 1881, played a significant role in this multinational conflict. It not only provided medical care overseas, before there was an enlisted military nursing staff, but also helped on the home front by organizing volunteers and fighting the deadly Spanish influenza plague of 1918 that, worldwide, would kill more people than the war.
The Red Cross also communicated with families about helpful ways to support the troops. Here is a recipe they recommended for folks who wanted to send their soldier a shippable treat.
Red Cross War Cake
The American Red Cross promoted a sweet cake recipe, promising that the end product could reach the Western Front and retain its freshness. The dried fruit helps keep it moist if it has to be shipped across the Atlantic. Try soaking the raisins in rum for a few days or a week before you make the cake. Your doughboy will thank you.
The original recipe comes with a recommendation: “Cake keeps fresh for a long time and can be sent to men at the front.” Here is my version, with only a few alterations.
1 cup orange juice or rum for soaking raisins
8 ounces raisins (about one package), chopped, soaked in orange juice or rum, and drained before use
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups hot water
2 tablespoons lard (butter may be substituted today, but lard helped the cake stay fresher.)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
4 ounces pecans or walnuts, chopped.
Soak chopped raisins in orange juice or rum at least for a few hours, or up to one week. Drain.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Put sugar, hot water, lard, salt, cinnamon, cloves, and raisins, nuts, and grated zest in a large pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently, then reduce the heat to low and cook at a simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool in a large bowl. Sift or stir the flour and soda together, then add to liquid. Mix well. Generously grease 2 small loaf pans or one tube pan. Pour batter into the pans and bake for 45 minutes or until a knife blade comes out clean when poked into the cake. You may dust with confectioner’s sugar as desired before serving.