Notizie da Elena: Treats from Home in World War I

Note from the Archivist: This is the second post by Elena Abou Mrad, the Fondazione CRT Intern in the AFS Archives.  Elena will shared her perspective on her internship, AFS, and the archival collections through these "Notizie da Elena" ("News from Elena") posts.

An army marches on its stomach is a quote commonly attributed to Napoleon. Food is a very important component in the life of a soldier, because its quality (or sometimes the lack of it) heavily influences the morale of the troops. During World War I the armies had to face an additional significant problem affecting the food: the gas attacks, which could contaminate the food prepared in the field kitchens. Moreover, the trenches were full of rats and other vermin. To help combat some of these difficulties, the armies used canned food, such as corned beef, salmon, and sardines.  The cans could be easily transported and used in harsh trench conditions. In addition to these rations, the U.S. Army soldiers had two cans of hard bread or hardtack biscuits, and packets of pre-ground coffee, sugar and salt. Although the U.S. troops were better fed than their Allies, their diet was monotonous, and, due to the prohibition of lighting fires in the trenches, cooking was extremely difficult and most of the food was eaten cold.
Some American soldiers, however, could count on the packages sent by their families. During my internship in the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs, I was lucky to run across WWI AFS Driver Edward H. Pattison’s correspondence, which shows the importance of these packages during World War I. Pattison was a Cornell University student who served with AFS as a camion (truck) driver and then became a soldier with the American Expeditionary Forces. Contrary to the experience of many soldiers, Pattison claimed the AFS Drivers had “splendid things to eat. All the soup we can hold, some meat, and lots of vegetables”(June 10, 1917.) He often received packages from home, and the other volunteers were nearly as excited about Pattison’s packages as he was: “At present I have probably the largest reputation for packages in camp. As soon as one comes in for me, fellows come from both barracks to tell me about it and help me carry them up to my trunk” (July 14, 1917.)
But what was in those packages? From his letters, it seems clear that Pattison had a sweet-tooth: he received boxes of nut fudge and guava jelly prepared by his sister Meddy, maple sugar from his father, raisin & spice bread and fruit cakes made by his mother. His friends, instead, sent him chocolate, mint candy and penuche. He defines “red-letter days”( October 16, 1917) as the ones when the packages from home arrived, and we can imagine what a thrill it was for him and for his friends to open them and have a taste of the United States.

One of the most descriptive meals narrated in Edward Pattison’s letters was written on November 30, 1917, after the AFS Reserve Mallet was taken over the by the U.S. military:
We had our Thanksgiving dinner today. Of course yesterday really was Thanksgiving, but the turkey and other extra food had not arrived, so we celebrated today. We had far and away the best dinner I have eaten in France, and it would be counted a first class dinner anywhere. We had celery and tomato soup and pickles and salmon with egg sauce and then goose and turkey with dressing and French fried potatoes and boiled figs and fruit salad and pumpkin pie and doughnuts and chocolate cake.
That was only four hours ago now, and the effect shows in the camp. No-one is even thinking of supper, almost everyone is asleep, and when someone walks it is very slowly and carefully.

This funny account of the Thanksgiving dinner, with its overflow of food, aroused a simple, powerful reflection in me: when you are thousands of miles away from home, food is the fundamental thing that connects you to your beloved ones. Now, as an Italian person living in America, cooking a dish of pasta in the evening has a whole new meaning to me!

If you are curious to read about the food “experience” of other AFSers during their year abroad as exchange students click here!

--Elena Abou Mrad, Fondazione CRT Intern in the AFS Archives

Photograph Caption: Two AFS Drivers share a meal in 1917. Found in RG1/004, Edward H. Pattison Collection. This image cannot be reproduced outside the guidelines of United States Fair Use (17 U.S.C., Section 107) without advance permission from the AFS Archives.

Posted November 24, 2014, by Nicole Milano