Food and drink on the Somme frontline: the soldier experience

The Somme was one of the deadliest clashes of the First World War, claiming the lives of more than 127,000 British soldiers. Yet, as Dr Rachel Duffett from the University of Essex explains, in spite of the widespread death and destruction, soldiers needed to eat, and even the fear induced by frontline service only dimmed that hunger temporarily. Here she explores the importance of food in the battle of the Somme…
BBC History Magazine
On the morning of Saturday 1 July 1916, Siegfried Sassoon sat on Crawley Ridge and watched the attack on Fricourt by the 10th West Yorks and 7th Green Howards taking place below, a scene he described as “a sunlit picture of Hell”. As he noted the noise and colour of the explosions, the men filing through the trenches in preparation for going “over the top”, he also added: “Have just eaten my last orange.” It is a subject to which he returned a few days later when he bemoaned the fact that his batman (personal servant), Private Flook, was not available to source further oranges because he had been called up to help carry ammunition boxes forward. The juxtaposition of eating with a battle that was to shape British culture and on a day when the British army lost more than 19,000 men seems incongruous, but men needed to eat, and even the fear induced by frontline service only dimmed that hunger temporarily.
In the summer of 1916, the British army faced a huge logistical challenge in the feeding of the tens of thousands of men massing in northern France. Lessons had been learned at the start of the war when supply lines had broken down in the 1914 Retreat from Mons and soldiers had to rely on whatever they could scrounge locally. Since then, the largely static nature of the conflict had facilitated the establishment of a complex provisioning system that began each day with trains packed with food leaving the base supply depots on the French coast and ended with the sacks of bully beef and biscuits carried on the back of the ration parties to those at the front.
A fighting man was supposed to receive 4,193 calories a day – a figure on a par with the current British army’s scale – and the official regulations described a varied daily diet. The core of the ration was one pound each of meat and bread, and to this was added a range of foodstuffs including bacon, cheese, vegetables, margarine, tea, sugar and condiments. On paper it read very well, but the reality was often very different: the variety was not available and the calories were all too frequently delivered in the form of the much despised tinned bully and hardtack biscuits.
What soldiers in the British army ate was determined by rank, and for the most part officers with more money, separate messes, batmen and cooks dined in superior style – Sassoon’s lack of oranges seems a world away from the worries of the rank and file soldiers where the shortages of fresh bread was a more fundamental concern. Enhanced food privileges were overwritten by operational matters, however, and the movement of tonnes of ordnance to the Somme front in June had disrupted the supply of provisions and the preparation for action limited the opportunities for batmen to source alternatives, as Sassoon had discovered.
The conditions of battle meant that even relatively senior officers like Major J L Jack were presented with a breakfast of just tea, bread and butter on the morning of 1 July, “the more solid of our mess rations having been lost during shelling on the way up the previous night”. The availability of food depended upon numerous factors, so some soldiers did better than Jack and received the traditional battle prelude of bacon and rum, although such largesse was always tinged with the unappetising realisation that the main act was looming on the horizon.
Rum was a much appreciated part of the frontline ration, certainly by the men, although some commanders refused to distribute it on the grounds that alcohol had no place in the rational, professional ethos of the British army. Problems of rum supply often had more to do with over-indulgence further up the distribution chain than they did logistical failures, and the ‘S.R.D.’ (Supply Reserve Depot) with which the jars were stamped was popularly interpreted as ‘Seldom Reaches Destination’ or ‘Soon Runs Dry’.
8 things you (probably) didn’t know about the battle of the Somme
Drink of any kind was a problem in the first few days of the battle as the weather – which had been wet and overcast in the last week of June, delaying the start of the offensive – warmed up and the soldiers became desperately thirsty in the heat. Water is heavy and difficult to transport, which meant that frontline supplies were rarely plentiful – a problem compounded by the use of petrol cans, which resulted in much of it being tainted with gasoline. Equally unpalatable was the chloride of lime, a bleaching substance used to purify water from suspect sources: it may have killed bacteria but it had the side effect of making it virtually undrinkable. Shortages of drink and food meant that men took what they could from the corpses around them; George Coppard, remembering his Somme experiences years later, wrote “it seems pretty low-down to plunder a dead man’s belongings, but needs must, and we soon got over the guilty feeling”.
Problems of supply persisted and AE Perriman recalled that on 7 July “For 52 of us I was allocated one and a half loaves of bread, a piece of boiled bacon weighing about 16 ounces after the mud had been removed, a small quantity of [hardtack] biscuits, some currants and sultanas, and a petrol tin of tea”. By August things had improved for Coppard, as he and his unit had taken up residence in ‘Whizz-Bang Villa’, which despite having lost its roof still had three usable bedrooms and a well-equipped kitchen. The men put the facilities to good use and produced hot meals – rissoles were popular: three big ones each “made of bully and potatoes fried in swimming bacon fat”. The orchard in which the house sat provided plenty of fruit to be eaten fresh or stewed, although care was required and even scrumping by night could be dangerous, as Coppard found when he was “caught in a tree red-handed. Jerry put up a flare and pasted the orchard”.
Whenever possible, the army tried to get hot food to its men, as the powerful impact that a bowl of decent stew had on morale was widely recognised. Travelling cookers, which could be pushed up closer to the frontline, had been developed to increase the range of supply, and their contents were usually appreciated. As it did throughout the theatre of war, eating and drinking on the Somme varied depending on a range of factors, and the skills of those charged with food preparation were key. A great deal of humour has been derived from the (limited) abilities of army cooks, but many of them took their responsibilities very seriously and their efforts were undermined by the limitations of the army’s own recipes, such as that for ‘fish cakes’, which began by mixing equal quantities of tinned herrings and bully beef.
Food was a constant in army life: wherever they were and whatever the battle conditions, men had to eat, even under the relentless barrages of the Somme and even among the bodies of the recently dead. Whether it was Sassoon’s lack of oranges or Coppard’s enthusiasm for his rissoles, life went on and the soldiers’ references to eating offer glimpses into a world where their individual needs collided with the extraordinary events of the First World War.
Dr Rachel Duffett from the University of Essex specialises in the military, social and cultural impact of warfare in the 20th century and is involved in the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre. She is the author of The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War (Manchester University Press, 2012).

John Tuohy's MY WRITERS SITE: Cool

John Tuohy's MY WRITERS SITE: Cool: ABOUT THE AUTHOR John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washington DC. He holds an MFA in writing from Lindenwood Univers...

The restaurants where mobsters gathered, ate and got murdered

By Philip Messing
These guys went from the Big Apple’s fine dining institutions to the great eatery in the sky.
For more than 80 years, city mobsters have gathered at red sauce joints and steakhouses around town to do business — or simply hold court for their loyal subjects.
But sometimes they’ve met a fate far worse than downing a plate of bad clams.
Legendary restaurants like Sparks Steakhouse and Rao’s have been the sites of some of the city’s most famous mob murders.
These are some of the “greatest hits” of this grim genre, where victims were whacked in less time than it takes to uncork a chianti.

Sparks Steakhouse
Midtown — Dec. 15, 1985
Modal Trigger Sparks Steakhouse at 210 E. 46th St.Photo: Zandy Mangold
It was a sensational coup d’etat against the head of the Gambino crime family, the biggest and most powerful Cosa Nostra faction in the country.
Constantino Paul Castellano and his bodyguard Thomas Bilotti had just come from their lawyer’s office and the squat and powerfully built Bilotti pulled his Lincoln Continental into a “No Standing Zone,” directly in front of the restaurant, before he and his passenger found themselves trapped in a pincer attack.
Upon emerging from their vehicle, the pair were met by four men, wearing long white trench coats and black Russian-style fur hats, who unleashed a fusillade of gunfire. Castellano, 70, was hit half a dozen times; Bilotti, 45, took four bullets and collapsed on the sidewalk, next to the driver’s side door. Both were dead before cops arrived.
Upstart mobster John Gotti and his crony, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, had hatched the plot two weeks earlier. Gravano, who became a cooperating witness, named the four-member hit team as Vinnie Artuso, a Bronx-based heroin dealer; John Carneglia and Eddie Lino, a Gambino soldier and capo, respectively; and Salvatore “Fat Sally” Scala, Lino’s brother-in-law.
According to Gravano, Carneglia fired the shots that killed Castellano, while Lino and Scala blasted away at Bilotti. Artuso did not fire his weapon because it jammed, Gravano would claim.
Gotti went on to enjoy three straight court victories in a four-year span when he beat federal RICO and state charges of conspiracy, assault and robbery before his Brooklyn federal court conviction on April 2, 1992, on racketeering charges, including the Castellano hit.
Gotti died of cancer in prison in 1998.
Sparks continues to serve noteworthy steaks, although the site has emerged as a macabre tourist spot for dedicated mob buffs.

Joe and Mary’s Italian American Restaurant
Bushwick — July 12, 1979
Carmillo “Carmine” Galante was nicknamed “Lilo,” Italian slang for “cigar,” which was appropriate given his omnipresent stogie.
Suspected by the NYPD of more than 80 murders, Galante, 69, was a prodigious heroin peddler who rose to be head of the Bonanno crime family.
He became a mob target, sources say, because he was planning to knock off rivals in the hope he would be installed as capo di tutt’i capi — “boss of all bosses” — while refusing to share his dope profits with his cronies.
Galante had two Sicilian bodyguards with him — Baldassae Amato and Cesare Bonventre — when lunching with Leonard Coppola, a Bonanno capo, and restaurant owner/cousin Giuseppe Turano, a Bonanno soldier, in a patio area.
Three ski-masked men entered and opened fire with a shotgun and handguns, leaving Galante and his two companions dead, though Amato and Bonventre curiously emerged unscathed.
There was a grisly photograph of the death scene that spoke volumes about what had occurred — one showing Galante, with an eye shot out, lying crumpled on the ground, a cigar still stuck in his mouth.
The eatery now houses a Mexican restaurant, Taqueria La Asuncion.

Nuovoa Villa Tammaro Restaurant
Coney Island — April 15, 1933
Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria began his mob ascent soon after arriving in New York City from Sicily in 1902.
In August 1922, he escaped an assassination bid that spawned a nickname, “The Man Who Can Dodge Bullets,” after two slugs creased his straw hat. By the end of the 1920s, he had become “Joe The Boss,” head of the biggest Mafia borgota in the city.
A father of nine, his favorite restaurant was Nuovoa, renowned for its succulent seafood. Legend has it that after showing up in a steel-armored sedan, Masseria, 45, was joined by Charles “Lucky” Luciano for a session of cards, drinks and old-school dining.
Luciano excused himself to go to the bathroom — and at least two mob rivals began blasting away. As in the Galante case, a grisly photo — showing a slain Masseria lying on the ground, with a bloody ace of spades clenched in his right hand — is a frightening testament to what occurred.
The shooting ended a feud with rival mobster Salvatore Maranzano, who was himself rubbed out that August, an event that led to the creation of the five mob families of New York City.
The long-closed eatery is now the site of the Banner Smoked Fish Company.

Umberto’s Clam House
Little Italy, Manhattan — April 7, 1972
Most people get wedding gifts when they marry and presents on their birthday. Joey “Crazy Joe” Gallo, who had just turned 43 and had been married only three weeks, received assassins’ bullets.
Modal Trigger NYPD detectives inspect the dining room inside Umberto’s following the murder of “Crazy Joe” Gallo.Photo: AP
He had been dining with his sister, Carmella Fiorello; his new wife, Sina Essary, and her 10-year-old daughter, Lisa, who had become Joey’s new stepdaughter; as well as his bodyguard, Peter “Pete The Greek” Diapoulas, and Pete’s companion, Edith Russo.
The group has just concluded a champagne-filled birthday at the Copacabana, with guests like comedian David Steinberg and actor Jerry Orbach.
Joey was making his way through a second helping of Umberto’s shrimp and scungilli salad while seated at one of two tables set aside for him and his entourage when four gunmen burst in and began firing.
The butcher block table where Gallo had been seated was overturned, offering a shield to his wife and daughter. Diapoulas, who was wounded, returned fire, but missed as the quartet fled.
A mortally wounded Gallo stumbled to the front door before collapsing on the street in a puddle of blood, but not before defiantly cursing the gunmen.
“It was very dramatic,” Essary recounted in a 2012 interview with The Post.
Modal Trigger Gallo had just turned 43 and had been married only three weeks when he was shot dead.Photo: AP
“This was the first time in history the Mafia had shot and killed someone in front of his sister, wife and child,” she noted, adding that she instructed her frightened daughter to “play dead” while the bullets were flying.
The colorful Gallo had charmed much of Manhattan’s glitterati with claims that he had developed a fondness for French existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus while imprisoned.
The word on the street, however, was that he had become a target after letting it be known than he’d had a more practical prison epiphany — he wanted to start a sixth mob family using black gangsters as crew members.
The old guard was not amused, so when Colombo loyalist Joseph Luparelli spotted Gallo dining, he limped off on his bum knee to a Greenwich Village restaurant and tipped his associates, sealing Gallo’s fate.
The site now houses Da Gennaro, another Italian restaurant.

Rao’s Restaurant
East Harlem — Dec. 29, 2003
This eponymous eatery, named for founder Charles Rao, opened its doors off Pleasant Avenue in 1896. It evolved into a social and gustatory phenomenon, a place where dinner reservations are about as hard to come by as a cheap one-bedroom with Central Park views.
Modal Trigger The scene outside Rao’s on Dec. 29, 2003.Photo: William Miller
On this night, the place was packed three deep while bartender Nicky The Vest was pouring drinks. Omnipresent part-owner Frank Pelligrini was queuing the jukebox for favored patron Rena Strober, 27, a Broadway actress and singer.
Strober was a guest of Sonny Grosso, a Rao’s regular and an ex-cop immortalized by his work on the “French Connection” case. Pelligrini urged her to tackle “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” a song made famous by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.”
Strober belted out the tune and sat down to applause, unaware that a newly elevated Lucchese soldier, Albert Circelli, had rudely dogged her performance — at least until bullets began to fly.
Modal Trigger Louis BaronePhoto: Robert Miller
“Ah, shut up. Get her off. She sucks,” Circelli had snarled, according to the confession in the case.
Another wiseguy, Lucchese associate Louis Barone, 67, was standing close enough to hear Circelli and shushed him, while holding his index finger to his mouth.
Circelli threatened Barone, saying, “I’ll open up your hole. I’ll f–k you in the a–.”
Enraged, Barone insisted he had no choice but to pull out a revolver and fire once into Circelli’s back, simultaneously ending both his career as a mobster and music critic. Another man was wounded in his foot.
Barone pleaded to reduced charges and accepted a 15-year prison term.
Rao’s remains as difficult a place to land a dinner reservation as ever.

Neopolitan Noodle Restaurant
Upper East Side — Aug. 11, 1972
It was a case of mistaken identity, revenge for the sensational rubout of Joey Gallo at Umberto’s four months earlier, only this one led to two innocent meat wholesalers being gunned down in front of their horrified wives and friends.
Sheldon Epstein, 40, of New Rochelle, and Max Tekelch, 48, of Woodmere, LI, had taken up spots at the restaurant’s bar, along with their spouses and two pals.
Unfortunately, the seats the party had taken had just been vacated by four Colombo crime family gangsters — each of whom had been marked for retribution by Gallo loyalists.
Shortly after the new arrivals took over the vacated seats, a mysterious hitman purportedly hired from Las Vegas entered, thereby setting the stage for the bungled hit.
Described as “bulky” and middle-aged, he wore a shoulder-length black wig, slapped $10 on the bar and ordered a scotch and water. He spent five minutes coolly sipping his cocktail before he rose to his feet, pulled out twin .38-caliber revolvers and blasted away — at the wrong targets.
Three of the intended victims, who had taken seats in the back of the restaurant, were later identified by police as Alphonse “Allie Boy” Persico, brother of Carmine “Junior” Persico, then the imprisoned de facto leader of the Colombo crime family; Carmine’s son, Alphonse T. Persico (known as “Little Allie Boy” Persico); and Gennaro “Jerry Lang” Langella, Allie Boy’s bodyguard. A fourth intended target was later identified as Charles “Charlie The Moose” Panarella, a Colombo soldier.
The site now houses the Albanian mission.

Maligned for decades, MSG comes back

The flavor enhancer was discovered more than a century ago
A letter to the editor in 1968 started the anti-MSG backlash
Some modern chefs have begun to sing its praises

Plenty about monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG, is puzzling and peculiar. Indeed, many would argue that the ongoing assault on this ubiquitous flavor enhancer is just wacky.
MSG has its defenders, including some of Sacramento’s top mainstream chefs, but unless you’re a hardcore foodie or culinary insider, probably everything you’ve heard about MSG is wrong.
Is it possible that many of us have expended far too much time and energy through the years awkwardly asking about it at Chinese restaurants, avoiding it whenever possible and repeating claims about it that have long since been debunked?
To this day, a popular and widely respected restaurant like Chinois City Cafe in the Arden-Arcade area of Sacramento notes in small print on its menus that it does not cook with MSG.
“It’s something that goes way back,” said co-owner Terry SooHoo. “We really just assumed also that it was bad, without any scientific facts. But our guests are the ones who perpetuate it. We just have it in fine print on the menu that we don’t use it. We don’t actively promote it as being bad for you.”
When SooHoo ventures out to eat at other Chinese restaurants, “I don’t avoid it. I don’t even ask,” he said. “It’s not us. It’s our guests who are concerned.”
Despite its link to the so-called “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” MSG can be found in nearly every culture and cuisine. MSG is what makes the flavors in your bag of Doritos pop. It’s lurking in all kinds of fast food. It’s found naturally in Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and tomatoes. Canned soup and packages of crackers? More than likely, MSG is the unheralded flavor star in both, sometimes disguised on labels as flavor enhancer E621.
“Working in restaurants for so long, you just keep on looking for other things,” said Michael Thiemann, owner/chef of two acclaimed Sacramento restaurants, Empress Tavern and Mother. “There was a light bulb moment when I was in L.A. at a hipster Mexican restaurant, of all things, had this simple Brussels sprouts dish. I couldn’t figure out why it was so good. Then it hit me – it’s MSG. It couldn’t have been anything else.”
Thiemann began dabbling with MSG and has used it to bring out flavors in certain vegetable dishes, though it’s not something he advertises.
“To me, it’s just another tool, another spice,” he said. “I find nearly all brassicas vegetables – broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages – taste incredible with the smallest dash of MSG. You don’t have to add as much salt and it’s freakishly good.”
Chefs have been using MSG for more than a century and its origins can be traced to Japan, not China. This ubiquitous and much-maligned seasoning salt was discovered by a Japanese chemist, Kidunae Ikeda, who noticed that his wife seasoned her soup with a type of seaweed called kombu.
In 1908, Ikeda named the so-called fifth flavor umami (beyond salty, sweet, sour and bitter) after a chemical analysis showed that the savory note from kombu was from glutamic acid. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid and one of the building blocks of protein.
For 60 years, MSG flourished throughout the world. Simply put, it elevated the flavors of nearly everything in its path, from grains and vegetables to meats and sauces.
Then something went awry. As renowned chef David Chang has put it, MSG became the most vilified ingredient in America, and wrongly so.
“The purpose of using MSG has always been commercial,” said David SooHoo, Terry’s brother and a longtime restaurateur and chef who stopped using MSG in the 1980s. “You can taste the beef flavor of chow mein or chop suey and it tastes like it has twice as much beef when you use MSG. It tricks the taste buds because of the way the brain is wired. Customers leave feeling very happy even though they didn’t eat as much meat.
“It’s not just in Chinese restaurants. Look closely on the labels, and you’ll find it in almost everything.”
In the 1970s, cooking at the family-owned Ming Tree restaurant, David SooHoo said, the kitchen “pioneered cooking with no MSG. Everybody freaked out. Chinese people said, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’ But I knew that if you used fresh ingredients and more ingredients, you didn’t need MSG.”
Given the food science era in which we live, it is worth noting that the anti-MSG brigade was inspired by an eminently non-scientific letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968. It was penned by a Chinese American doctor, Robert Kwok, who noted he felt numbness in his arms and neck for two hours after dining at a Chinese restaurant.
The anecdotal contents of that letter took on a life of their own. Other letter writers weighed in, concurring with Kwok, and the subsequent letters were published together under the headline, “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”
A year later, two researchers published a study blaming MSG for Chinese restaurant syndrome. But when their methodology was challenged and they did subsequent blind studies to eliminate biases, MSG, it turned out, was off the hook. No adverse health problems could be detected when measured against a placebo.
But it was too late.
The American dining public made it the villain of the food world and began insisting en masse that Chinese restaurants cook without MSG or at least warn them about which dishes included it. Chinese restaurants had little choice if they wanted to attract a non-Chinese clientele.
But there are signs these days that MSG is on the upswing and the message has begun trickling out that it’s no longer something to fear. Scores of progressive chefs outside of Chinese cuisine have embraced it, albeit in a mostly underground, hush-hush way.
Chang, the owner/chef of the acclaimed Momofuku restaurant group, gave a speech at a food symposium in 2012 he dubbed “MSG: Delicious or Evil?” in which he sought to recast the notorious flavor enhancer as an innocent victim of pseudo-science, innuendo and cultural bias.
Justin Lower, the executive chef at Taylor’s Kitchen in Land Park, has been known to cook with MSG for the staff meal, known in the industry as “family meal.” He likes how it makes the flavors really sing in that coveted “umami” way. He likes the positive reactions he gets from hungry restaurant staffers.
“I always use it for family meal, but it will probably never make it onto the menu because of the stigma,” said Lower, who previously worked in such highly regarded kitchens as Hawks and Enotria.
“I’d like to see it kind of rehabilitated. One of the issues is it doesn’t have a catchy name. If they called it ‘umami salt’ it might have a better chance.”
Bill Ngo, the chef/owner of Kru, uses a type of MSG to cure fish and make stocks at his Japanese restaurant and sushi bar.
“My family is Chinese-Vietnamese and my parents had a Chinese restaurant when I was growing up. I remember seeing them use MSG. It was in the kitchen, so it was a normal thing for me. It’s just another flavoring agent, like salt and sugar.”
Ngo often uses a version of MSG derived from kombu for curing fish at Kru.
“It firms up the fish and adds a certain flavor,” he explained.
When he’s not working, Ngo enjoys going out to eat, especially at hole-in-the-wall Chinese and Vietnamese eateries. One of his favorite places, which we won’t name because of the ongoing stigma, has a deep-fried chicken dish “and they serve it with a side of MSG and white pepper mixed together. They just tell you it’s salt and pepper,” Ngo said.
Ngo says MSG’s reputation is ready to be rehabilitated and he suggests home cooks simply try it for themselves. Though it is available by the bucket at restaurant supply stores, the most common grocery version is Accent seasoning.
“You can just add it to anything to make it taste better,” he said.
After all this time and a stigma that won’t go away, MSG – or, better yet, umami salt – may be ready to come out of hiding.
Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob