For most veterans of the Korean War, "SOS" has nothing to do with saving a ship.
I've heard the stories from my grandparents about eating "S*** On a Shingle" during their military service. I don't recall whether my Grandma Mouton, an Air Force veteran, ever made it for me as a kid. If she did, I've blocked it out with fond memories of snickerdoodles, fried egg sandwiches, and late-night french toast.
I don't think my Grandpa Mouton can do the same. As a Korean War Army vet, SOS probably haunts him in his dreams.
From Baytown to Buson Bay
My grandfather, Larry Mouton, graduated from high school in 1950 and spent the following summer looking for work in Baytown, Texas. With no job by the end of summer, he decided to join the military. He tried the Navy and Air Force, but neither was taking recruits. So he enlisted in the Army. He was sent off to basic training at Fort Ord in Monterey, California with the 7th Infantry Division. Shortly thereafter, he was on his way to the front lines in Korea as a machine gunner under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.
"We started in Buson (also pronounced Puson) and went all the way to the top...clear up to the Manchurian border," he tells me, "We fought all through the middle of Korea." The weather was frigid and the troops lacked the proper winter clothing to stay warm. It was a long way from the steamy Houston summers in which he had been raised.
And the food on the front lines? Not exactly what the Cajun kid was used to, either. My great-grandparents were from Lafayette, Louisiana and had moved to Texas for work in the oil business.
"At the beginning it was rough because a lot of the equipment wasn’t there when we got started. We ate a lot of C-rations at the beginning. You would open a box and eat out of the box," he says.
"[The boxes] had crackers, beans and wieners, stews, some meat in the cans like potted meats. They had gum, candy and cigarettes for the smokers."
Eventually, the cooking equipment caught up with the infantry. The troops at the front now had breakfast oatmeal, stews, soups, and that tasty "SOS".
The North Korean Grenade That Changed Everything
A year after landing in Buson, my grandfather and his division were still fighting the North Koreans and another cold winter. One chilly morning, while circling around a mountain, the Americans were ambushed by North Korean troops from higher ground. The division was bombarded by hand grenades. One exploded near my grandfather, shooting shrapnel into his back and foot. His days as a machine gunner on the front lines were over.
While he was recovering from his injuries, the Army began looking for volunteers to drop their pistols and pick up paring knives.
Soon after, my grandfather began waiting tables in the mess. He was "promoted" to can-opening in the kitchen, and eventually, started working with food.
Could it be that it ran in the family? "I guess it was in me because my father cooked in WWI. He was a cook."
Bringing Cajun to Korea
There wasn't much creativity to be had in a war-time kitchen. Although the mess hall menu was determined by the general's desires, the cooks didn't have much leeway in how they made the meals.
My grandfather said the general, Major General Claude Birkett Ferenbaugh at that time, would request certain food, and then an order for ingredients would be made. A day or two later the rations would arrive from Japan and the cooks would start putting together the meals, as detailed in a cookbook issued to the kitchen staff by the Army.
"They would tell you what page to look on to see what to cook and how to cook it. They kind of expected you to follow the cookbook. That’s the way most of it was run. You stayed close to the cookbook," he recalls.
And while he mostly stuck to the Army's recipes, a little bit of his Cajun heritage came trickling out.
"We couldn’t make gumbo or anything like that because we didn’t have the stuff to make it. But when I started cooking in the States as a kid, I used a lot of the French roux, gravy. Roux is basically butter and flour. I could make it like they did in Louisiana," he explains. "If you cooked steak, you could make a brown gravy or make a meatball with brown gravy. I made a fricassee. It was a change and they all really liked it."
His brown gravy became a hot item. It ended up on steaks, meatballs, meatloaf, hot rolls, mashed potatoes, rice, and roasts. It was popular amongst the commanding officers, the medical staff, and even the likes of Jack Benny and Debbie Reynolds, when they visited the troops as part of the USO.
"We fed them all."
Nothing was left to waste in the kitchen. Whatever vegetables, meat, and canned goods initially went unused would eventually end up in a stew. There was never any waste. The Army wouldn't allow it.
The kitchen ran smooth among the four cooks. Three would cook, while the fourth would rest or help wait tables. My grandfather says they also had help from locals. For a couple of apples or candy bars, a young Korean boy would take the kitchen laundry out to be washed by an old woman on the side of the river.
"They brought the laundry back all folded and pressed. He really took care of us."
A Future Chef?
After two years in Korea, my grandfather returned to the California coast to wait for his next assignment. He was headed to San Antonio for cooking/baking school.
"One day, though, I was walking on the base and a colonel walked by," he remembers. "We saluted [one another]. He turned around and said, 'I think I know you.' We started talking and I told him that, 'Yes, I served you in Korea. I used to work in the general’s mess.' He said yes. He asked me why I was here. I told him I was reporting to baking school, but I wanted to go to California.'
Why did he want to stay in the Golden State? Well, during the war, he wrote letters on behalf of an illiterate Army buddy, to a woman the man fancied in the Air Force. Eventually, my grandfather asked that woman for a "lady friend" to correspond with himself. When my grandfather returned from Korea, the "lady friend" with whom he'd been connected had been transferred to California, and he wanted to be near her.
"When they called roll the next Monday, I fell out and they gave the next assignments. Everybody had a place to go but me," he recalls. "They told me to go back to the barracks and wait to find out where I was going. Evidently, [the colonel] changed my orders from baking school and sent me to the mess hall in San Luis Obispo, California."
I wish I could go back in time and thank that colonel. By changing those orders, my grandfather was able to stay close to that woman – the woman who became my grandmother.
My grandfather spent another year in the San Luis Obispo mess hall until he finished his service with the Army. My grandparents moved back to Texas and he eventually joined the oil business, just as his father before him had done. Eventually, my grandmother learned most of the family recipes and assumed the cooking duties. Her pork chop and brown gravy dish cannot be topped. She is the absolute best cook in our family (even including my younger brother, an executive chef in California).
But my grandfather sure knows his way around the kitchen, too. "I had a master sergeant who came to me and said, "Sergeant, they didn’t pin those stripes on you for nothing."
The brown gravy must have been that good.