On February 14, 1918, Grandpa was up at 3am, a typical start for an army cook. The temperature was below freezing, and chances are—it’s Kansas, after all—the winds were howling. On the schedule that day was battle training in the hills near camp. After he and his fellow cooks served breakfast in the mess hall, the men in Company C (around 150) set out on foot to drill. The cooks traveled with them, some walking the seven miles to the field, others riding in the wagon with the food and equipment. Grandpa’s job, that cold February day, was to provide dinner, the name used for the mid-day meal.
On the menu? Doughnuts. Five hundred doughnuts the cooks had made the day before.
Of all the details I found in my grandfather’s letters, this one about the doughnuts really caught my attention. Maybe because I grew up with doughnuts as a special treat, often on a Saturday morning with my father, I couldn’t imagine these sweet treats as soldier’s grub. I did a quick internet search to investigate doughnuts in World War 1. What I found was both fascinating and upsetting. Turns out, the story of the doughnuts stars Salvation Army women—young, smiling volunteers called Sallies (or Lassies)—serving the treats, along with a cup of coffee, to soldiers in France. (More on that when we land in France.)
What about Grandpa and those hundreds of doughnuts he and his fellow cooks made? And not just on that cold February day, but other times at Funston and on the battlefields of France? The only mention I found of army cooks and doughnuts was in the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks, which is available online (https://archive.org/details/manualforarmycoo1917unit). The Manual includes a recipe for crullers (synonymous with doughnuts in this manual). I’ve copied it below.
So, the army cooks knew about doughnuts long before the Salvation Army “Sallies” started making them in France. And, a bit unfairly I think, it is the Sallies who are remembered every year on National Donut Day, typically the first Friday in June. The Salvation Army established the event in 1938 to honor the service of these women during World War 1 (and to raise funds for Chicago’s poor). This year on National Donut Day, I’ll be remembering my grandfather’s service, too, as I enjoy a donut and a cup of coffee. Grandpa loved coffee.
What else did Grandpa and the Company C cooks serve for dinner that February day in the field? I’ll let him describe that “mess,” which starts at the bottom of the first page, “going to Smoky flat to drill.” For those of you still learning my grandfather’s handwriting, I’ve transcribed part of the letter below.
From the middle section: “All of the boys, they are still going to Smoky flat to drill. They are taking special training. They sure do work them hard. Key Ring and I went out to get dinner and it was so awfully windy and dusty we had some time. Every time we opened any of the vesels [sic] it would almost blow full of dirt and we tried to make a wind break out of our shelter halves and it would blow down about as fast as we could put it up. The fire burned good but we didn’t get the beef on in time, so it didn’t hardly get done, but we served it. We had plates and everything to serve in style also a great dinner, but the plates blew full of dirt and just handed them out a sandwich, cup of coffee and we ran off about five hundred doughnuts yesterday so that was the lunch as we brought all the rest back. I came in on the wagon sure was a rough and dirty ride. We loaded the wagon up, then we thought we would ride the street car as far as Riley, and then was a car off the track about half way up so we had to get off and catch a wagon the rest of the way after all. The company came in about three o’clock . . . . They left the field just after we did. They are sure training [?] them also the cooks. . . . I will turn in early tonight, as I have some headache and my eyes hurt me.”
And here’s the recipe for the doughnuts from the 1916 Manual for Army Cooks, 236-7.
Item 549. Crullers, 1-pound mixture. Makes about 19 crullers.
2 ounces butter.
4 ounces sugar.
1/16 ounce extract.
1 pound flour.
1/2 ounce baking powder.
1/4 pint water (good measure).
“Cream butter and sugar together and add the extract. Beat the eggs well and add them to the mixture. Thoroughly mix the baking powder with the flour and sift on top of mixture; then add the water and stir until smooth. Roll out the dough to a thickness of half an inch and cut with doughnut cutter. Fry to a golden brown in deep grease. Immediately upon their removal from the fat, place the crullers in a colander to drain, after which they may be rolled in granulated sugar or placed on a plate and dusted with powered sugar.
“The same rule applies to this as to other baking powder mixtures: to obtain good results handle as little as possible. The quantity of the liquid used depends upon the strength of the flour. Baking powder may be increased or decreased in this mixture according to its strength as determined by experience.”