Armistice Day

An army moves on its stomach; though it is hard to find in the historical record an army that enjoyed this much. The culinary standards among officers is usually low; those imposed upon their men often lower. It must be sufficient in bulk and nutrition to carry them along; it must not, at least not intentionally, inspire mutiny. Something between prison and monastic will pass among men who are genuinely hungry (I’m not sure which is lower); the presentation is, traditionally, in metal bowls.

For it must be served in less than Michelin-star environments. War is not a picnic, it has been said. I have had the experience of trying to cook in the presence of squalling children; I can imagine that incoming mortars provide their own distraction from le haute cuisine.

But the circumstances of a field kitchen are not necessarily grim. Dried herbs and spices are light to transport, and wherever one happens to be on campaign, there are the natural fresh stocks of that country. These, by convention, may be appropriated. (Wellington, when told that Napoleon’s men did not pay for what they took from their own French peasants, gallantly said, he was sure they would have paid had they thought of it.)

Moreover, as old soldiers will recall, and the readers of their diaries and memoirs in their absence, most days are not that exciting. There is plenty of time to think about food. There are long, seemingly interminable periods of boredom and waiting with nothing to look at except the sky; interspersed with short periods of pant-shitting terror.

Suppose, for a moment, a little imagination on the part of quartermasters and cooks; and semi-intelligent commanders, bent on showing a bit of style. There could be rivalry between regimental kitchens, or between galleys in Her Majesty’s fleets. Food could be made an inducement for recruiting, and raise morale, incrementally, at the front.

The idea is not original to me.

In the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale — that extraordinary nurse and angel, who haunts my dreams, walking with her lamp — procured the help of an adoring Alexis Soyer. (At the time he was London’s leading hotel chef, and kitchen god of the Reform Club.) She wanted him to advise her on the organization of field hospital kitchens. On his own dime, he travelled to the front. They made sick bays the place to eat: almost worth getting wounded for. Soyer applied his broad mind to analyzing the limitations of field cookery, under enemy fire, then turning each limitation into a strength. (See his, Culinary Campaign in the Crimea, 1857; reissued 1995).

Soyer is among my maximal culinary heroes. The portable field stove he invented was (with minor modifications) still in use during the Gulf War. So, to this day, are some of the logistic principles he had developed previously in his private campaign to deliver food to the poor Irish, during their Great Hunger. He was, to my mind, quite possibly a saint; though with his little foibles, like all the other ones. (See also his biography, Relish, by Ruth Cowen, 2007.)

Morale is, after all, not a small thing in the conduct of a war, or any other large, destructive venture. A hot meal served in defiance of the cold wet conditions in the hideous trench is more than welcome in itself. It tells the soldier there are others, risking their lives for him, as he risks his life for them: Solidarity! And the Psalmist, too, may be invoked, for, “Thou preparest a table before me, in the presence of mine enemies.”

Alas, the background tradition of food service, at least in British armies, has been that of the Scots — those bold, hardy warriors sweeping down through Northumberland in the fourteenth century, on horses and ponies, without baggage carts. In Froissart’s Chronicles we read of their diet: underdone meat from rustled local cattle, oatmeal cakes, and river water. To be fair, the provisions for the Khan’s Mongols was less luxurious than that.

Perhaps that is the way it has to be. I can still remember my grandfather grumbling about the dinners, half a century after the Great War. (My father, flying Spitfires in the Second, was less of a complainer.)

So in remembering the men, and women who served, we might adjust our eating today, by deferring breakfast. Lunch could be delivered in a tin can: a little tough stewing beef and a lot of barley, in a thin broth with a slab of stale bread, sans beurre. Especially in commemoration of those for whom this meal was their last — this side of paradise.

It is a day for platitudes, and old platitudes are best:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.