When I joined the Marine Corps in 1978, military food wasn’t that great. The field rations were atrocious and barely edible. The dining facility food was prepared by military cooks, many of whom followed recipes that were older than I am now. Service members spent a month at a time on “mess duty”, away from their regular jobs, assisting the cooks.
Military food is much better today. Dining facilities are run by civilians and the food is excellent for the price the service members have to pay. Even the field rations are quite decent.
The picture I chose for this article comes from “The Country Cook”. The Hamburger Gravy recipe is very close to the recipe used for the creamed beef I ate when I was single and living in the barracks. The cooks used leftover ground beef while I was in the service, but I understand chipped beef was used in earlier eras.
I asked my father about SOS (sh-t on a shingle) when he was in the Army in World War II, and he couldn’t remember anything about it. When I asked another distant relative who served in Vietnam, he couldn’t tell me anything about it either.
Most of the dining facility food was decent, after basic training (which I can barely remember). On some bases, I could even have eggs to order. I never had SOS - I preferred creamed beef on top of hash browns. I dined with people who did weird things with their food, like mixing everything in the plate and then topping it with ketchup. It all ends up the same in the stomach, they’d say.
In Yuma, Arizona, in 1981 and 1982, the menu included jackrabbit. I wonder if the cooks went out hunting for them on the weekends. The Arizona Sonoran Desert has always had plenty of jackrabbits.
Infantry training was part of basic training in 1978. I don’t know how they do it today. Anyway, I had to eat C-rations back then. I don’t remember what they tasted like, thank goodness. The MRE (“Meal, Ready-to-Eat”) didn’t show up until 1981 and I didn’t eat a single MRE until I was in Saudi Arabia in 1990 (the Gulf War). Unlike today, those MREs contained dehydrated food.
There weren’t as many MRE varieties back then as there are now. There was one meal where the entrée was potatoes au gratin. Most people called it “potatoes all rotten”. It was pretty bad. I wonder if it’s still one of the MRE choices today.
Hot food got served once a day in the field in the past, if an operation lasted long enough. It was okay, but I could easily live without it. Hot food still gets served in the field today, on occasion. It’s never any good, according to my sources. I’m glad I’ll never have to find out for myself.
I don’t know how the other military branches handled it, but we had meal cards in the Marine Corps. All we had to do was present our meal cards along with our military IDs and sign a check-in sheet, and we ate for free. We didn’t have any subsistence allowances added to our paychecks either. If we lived off-base (married or single) or in a place where dining facilities weren’t available, we received “commuted rations” (their name for subsistence).
I don’t know how any of the military branches handle it today. The meal card probably became a relic after all the dining facilities turned into civilian-operated diners. The Camp Lejeune dining facility close to where I worked (there were multiple dining facilities on that base) was already privatized in 1992. The Barstow dining facility didn’t become privatized until 1997.
Before everything started getting politically correct, dining facilities were called “chow halls” and “mess halls”. On Navy ships, they were called “mess decks”. They probably still call them that. Some things never change. Although mess duty doesn’t exist in most places today, it probably still exists somewhere. The Army used to call it “KP duty”, with the KP standing for “kitchen police” or “kitchen patrol”.
As far as I can remember, I only spent two months on mess duty, on separate occasions. The first time was while I was waiting for my first school at Camp Pendleton in 1979, which actually ended up being around 35 days. The second time was in 1982, shortly after I was stationed in Hawaii. Mess duty was boring and tedious, but it wasn’t difficult.