Grenades and gravy – cooking in the Korean War
November 11th, 2011
09:00 AM ET
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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.

"Oh yeah, a lot of that. Chipped beef on toast with white gravy, made with the grind meat," explains my grandpa – affectionately known as "Papa". "There was not too many times they made it with roast beef – mostly the grind meat." Makes your mouth water, doesn't it? He tells me he didn't mind. Sure, it probably tasted pretty good to an 18-year old infantryman on the front lines. But to a Major General? I'm guessing it didn't make the daily menu. And, ironically enough, that 18-year old infantryman was responsible for making sure it never did.

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.
"They decided to open up a General's mess hall. It sounded like a good deal to work in the mess hall and serve the officers. I just volunteered to do something different, I guess," he tells me.

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.

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Filed under: Cook • Food History • History • Military • Veterans Day

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Inri Porter

    Oh, great piece. Thanks. SOS is often great stuff; for years, it was rumored that the "last" real SOS cook was the Mess Sgt at Ft Ben Harrison, IN; as late as the early 1980s it was not unusual to see long lines of senior NCOs and officers waiting to get into his consolidated mess hall – unusual because almost all of them were on 'sep rats' and didn't have to eat there. Good chow! ...and a shout-out to McIlheney's Tabasco sauce and their "Charlie Ration Cook Book" that changed C-rats from tolerable to – often – very good. A little marble-sized ball of C4 'plastique' for fire/stove, some tabasco sauce and a quiet moment or two to cook, and even 'Ham and Lima Beans' (as mentioned, a formal and seldom used name) could be good. But SOS...that was the best, and makes my mouth water thinking about it, more than a quarter-century later. Must be getting old, eh? ...but thanks again.

    November 15, 2011 at 5:58 am |
  2. ZOE

    I joined the army in 92.First time I was ever away from home.Coming from an island background.never heard of sos before.first morning in the chow line.(17 yo still scared-looking for some comfort in the familiar) I ask the lady in the chow line ' can I have some oatmeal'..she gave it to me.but it was not oatmeal.
    As a cook in the Army I learned to make it, and made it well but that first taste was my last.

    November 14, 2011 at 4:52 am |
  3. dom

    My grandpa was there and he made me sh1t on a shingle before I actually thought it was pretty good lol

    November 13, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  4. Terry

    My dad was lucky in that he was stationed stateside during the Korean War. He loved that SOS and we had that a lot growing up. The one food he hated was the powdered eggs they served for breakfast. He invented his own breakfast consisting of bacon on toast with jelly. He ate that every day. Even though people think it's weird, all of us kids eat it to this day.

    November 13, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  5. JCCK

    Enough Tobasco Sauce could make almost any "C" taste pretty decent especially when the nearest McDonalds was 12,000 miles away.

    November 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm |

    Looks good

    November 12, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
  7. IsItaCult

    Sounds tasty

    November 12, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
  8. Capercorn

    My grandfather was stationed in Korea shortly after the ceasefire while he was in the Army. Originally, he was trained as a RADAR operator, but due to some effects from working around the equipment, he started having vision issues. Since he still had a year and a half to go in Korea, he was reassigned as a cook. Steep learning curve he said, but they were able to make do with what they had.

    However, he was quick to point out that no matter what, Navy wins at culinary combat each and every time.

    November 12, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  9. Mark S.

    Cute story. Army cooks have been laughed at over the years but they worked hard for a regular place to sleep at night. Most of their efforts were at least edible but the 'spoons" also could show flashes of brilliance on certain occasions like Thanksgiving. As for SOS, I liked it especially if the cook had a heavy hand with the onions. I also liked ham and limas which also had it's affectionate, pet name amongst the troops. I'm not going to mention it because it won't get past the censors. (Remember, it's not the generals and colonels who run the Army. It's the supply sergeants, cooks and finance clerks who hold the real power!).

    November 12, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  10. littleoldlutherangirlscout

    My Dad fought in combat in Korea. When he and his men would come back from patrol to the encampment, he'd have Army food in the mess tent. It didn't taste great, so he got in the habit of putting ketchup on everything to mask the taste. When he was discharged he continued putting ketchup on hash and in white bean soup because he'd gotten into the habit of it. I grew up thinking everybody did. I loved my Mom's bean soup, so when I worked in a restaurant I dished some up for myself on a lunch break with other waitress. When I squeezed some ketchup into it they all said "Aagh, WHAT are you DOING!" I didn't have a clue what their problem was.

    Dad never cooked in the Army, but being on KP happened regularly to everyone. One day it saved Dad's life. On that day he left the mess tent with a couple of his buddies. An MP singled him out at random and said "You - you're on KP." Dad trudged back to the mess tent and his buddies walked on towards their tents. Before they got there the North Koreans lobbed a shell into the camp and it went right into his buddies, both of whom were killed instantly. If he wasn't on KP that could have been my Dad.

    November 12, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  11. Bob

    My Dad (a former army cook) use to make SOS for us kids when we were much younger. It was a good laugh when it was first introduced to us, but it was good, real good. Man, I miss my Dad.

    November 12, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  12. Tipafew

    the first thing my Honey made for me that was delicious. after i showed her how to make gravy and what corned beef was

    November 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  13. Tom K

    Aaaaaaah, but the author could not be further from the truth. My very first assignment was in Frankfurt, Germany back in 1963. Our consolidated mess used real sausage in its SOS............and it was a FAVORITE with the guys. SOS, eggs and toast, coffee and juice. Every now and again I make up batch for Saturday breakfasts. Even my kids love it. Sometime in 66, while in RVN the Army changed over to ground beef........and that pretty much ruined it for me. What ruined messhall fare for alot of us was when our mess sargeant got caught boiling his shorts in one of the huge stew pots. That cost him his job and a stripe! Aaaaah the Army life...........and memories of good folks and some good and bad times.

    November 12, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  14. mustangchef

    and then there was Nam.......

    November 12, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  15. PPJ

    I like the smell of napalm in my gravy.

    November 11, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  16. HotStilletos

    Support our Veterans by going to The National Veterans Art Museum website to adopt a dog tag of one of our fallen service men and women. It supports art therapy for veterans from all campaigns. It is art by veterans from all campaigns. The museum is at 1801 South Indiana in Chicago.

    I am a Marine Corp veteran and I am proud to be standing next to everyone who served or is serving in the Armed Forces. No matter what your religious, political or orientation is, I still would gladly take a bullet for you.

    November 11, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • EyeSee

      I've combed The National Veterans Art Museum website and cannot locate where to adopt a dog tag. Do you have any further info on this? Thank You for your service!

      November 11, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  17. SkekLach

    Very heart warming. My grandfather was a cook with the Air Force and having lost him earlier this year, this article really brought a smile to my face.

    November 11, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  18. JO

    My grandfather also served in the kitchens in the Korean war and he used to tell us stories about finding wild hot peppers and making a great salsa to go with the unappetizing food being served–it was also a much requested item! His family was from Lubbock, TX. He eventually opened up a Tex-Mex food restaurant in Dallas. I wish I had more details, but he passed away when I was still young.

    November 11, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  19. Erica

    C-Ration, not sea ration. Definition:
    "The C-Ration, or Type C ration, was an individual canned, pre-cooked, or prepared wet ration intended to be issued to U.S. military land forces when fresh food (A-ration) or packaged unprepared food (B-Ration) prepared in mess halls or field kitchens was impractical or not available, and when a survival ration (K-ration or D-ration) was insufficient. Development began in 1938 with the first rations being field tested in 1940 and wide-scale adoption following soon after. Following World War II, cost concerns later caused the C-ration to be standardized for field issue regardless of environmental suitability or weight limitations."
    They've changed names over the years. Nowadays you hear about MRE's "Meals Ready to Eat."

    November 11, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Jeremy Harlan

      Thank you for the correction. I realized it early this morning, but have been on assignment all day and just now could correct it.

      November 11, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
  20. Charles Francis

    Great story to read on Veterans Day. My dad was a cook in the Army Air Corps/USAF and would tell us stories about how he would get in trouble for making instant mashed potatoes too good (he was accused of stealing real potaoes). From him my brother and I learned how to cook. Reading the story brought back some great memories of my dad on this day.

    November 11, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  21. alimonyjones

    My grandfather was a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy and man, did I eat beans growing up. Still love 'em no matter how they're cooked.

    November 11, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  22. AleeD

    Why is my comment awaiting moderation? I've been thru it with a fine-toothed comb and can find nothing even PG-rated about it. And they were posted 30 minutes apart, so I know it's not the "too fast" issue.

    November 11, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • katydid@AleeD

      My little 5 foot tall Mom was a Marine who married my Dad on 6/24/50...the next day the Korean war was declared and my Dad was immediately shipped to Korea. May have known your Dad as he was also Army Corp of Engineers ...Dad's entire platoon was wiped out that day, including the priest that married them!

      Mom now 82 years old is still the toughest little Marine left!

      My Dad survived that attack and went on to achieve great acclaim in later life.

      Semper Fi...

      November 13, 2011 at 2:12 am |
  23. AleeD

    Great story! My dad spent 2 years with the Army Corps of Engineers during the Korean War. He doesn't talk much about that part of his life. But, as kids, when we had the opportunity to have a C-rations picnic in the garage, Daddy jumped at the chance. It gave him the opportunity to share a not-so-painful part of his military experience with us kids. We soaked it up like sponges. We even got to use his P-38 to open the cans! I carry one with me today. You just never know when you'll need one. ;)

    I remember alot about that day. That some of the meals, like the spaghetti, weren't bad. That others, like a white gravy pork stew, were kinda gross. That the thick, hearty crackers & rich, sweet jelly were the best! That the peanut butter and the chocolate bars had a weird aftertaste. That daddy kept the perspective for us while we were eating. THIS was the kind of food soldiers like him lived on.

    Thank you to Jeremy and all the Eatocracy folks for offering people the chance to tell stories about our most valuable and sometimes least appreciated resources: our veterans. Last but definitely not least, thanks to my favorite veteran, Dad.

    November 11, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • Jerv

      Hear, hear! Great comment, AleeD. And wonderful story!

      November 11, 2011 at 9:15 am |
    • AleeD@Jerv & alimonyjones

      Thank you. ^_^

      To this day, he won't eat SOS. He's ok with just chipped beef mom has put in other dishes. But nooooo Sheet Onna Shingle for him. HA! Can't say as I blame him. I can't stand biscuits & gravy. I love sausage and I love biscuits, but that white gravy (trying to think of a polite phrase) isn't something I can palate. Guess I come by that aversion honestly. :D

      November 11, 2011 at 9:48 am |
      • The Witty One@AleeD

        Biscuits and gravy = southern stoner food :)

        November 11, 2011 at 10:07 am |
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