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SOS: Military Comfort Food

By Steve Karoly

Like most veterans, letters and packages kept me going during the early weeks of my naval career. Care packages, stuffed with candy and cookies, played an important role in keeping me connected to home. Sweets, sent to me by my sisters, liberated me from the drill and constant work details of boot camp -- if only for a moment.

It only took two dozen chocolate chip cookies and a few minutes of solitude to comfort me. The cookies reminded me growing up with four brothers and sisters. As I ate my sisters’ cookies, I saw mom cooking hamburger stroganoff for dinner. Dad would be sitting at the dining room table helping Anne struggle through her math homework, while David, off in the back yard, played soldiers with his medals proudly displayed over his heart.

Just as a few dozen chocolate cookies reminded me of home, one unique culinary concoction of beef and cream gravy reminds veterans of the camaraderie they had with each other -- even though their military service ended decades ago.

Veteran's groups touring the Army Quartermaster Museum in Fort Lee, Va., often ask for the recipe by name, according to Luther Hanson, curator of the Army Quartermaster Museum in Fort Lee, Va. Many tell Hanson that SOS was one of their most favored meals.

"SOS is so closely connected with Army service that almost every veteran has memories of it -- some fond, some not so fond," said Maj. Kevin Born, an Army Quartermaster officer and volunteer at the museum. "It has been in every dinning facility since I entered the Army in 1981."

Born’s father introduced SOS to him at an early age. Born said his father fell in love with creamed beef on toast while serving as an artillery mechanic in Germany in the 1950s. SOS graced their family table whenever the senior Born could talk his wife into cooking it.

SOS is so popular with many veterans that they continue to seek the dish wherever they can find it. After taking an informal poll of veterans, many told me that they still enjoy a good dish of SOS. Some servicemen, like a retired Air Force chief master sergeant who lives near Sacramento, Calif., still has it made with ground beef, although he occasionally likes it made with thin slices of ham in a cream sauce.

SOS is so popular that many soldiers would eat it every morning. As military menus evolved in the 1960s and 1970s, many mess halls started serving it every day, along with other popular breakfast foods like bacon, sausage, French toast and pancakes. Breakfast became a smorgasbord where one could focus on the same comfort foods every day, if desired.

"Most soldiers thought they had not had breakfast without SOS," said Fred Kennedy, a retired chief warrant officer. "All liked it regardless of age." Kennedy, a former Army food advisor to several generals, including the Army chief of staff, said that veterans who visit Fort Lee’s dining facilities always ask for SOS.

It’s so popular at Fort Lee that SOS often takes top billing over culinary delights like lobster tail, according to Hanson. He said that veteran’s groups who tour the base are taken to a mess hall and served creamed beef on toast made using the recipe in the 1944 Army recipe book, TM 10-412. Again, many veterans tell Hanson it their favorite meal while in the Army.

And SOS remains popular among soldiers today. While deployed to Haiti during Operation Restore Democracy, Born said the cooks of his unit served creamed beef on toast. Later, when he deployed to Bosnia, the cooks again served creamed beef.

It's so popular that Army Center for Excellence, Subsistence, located on the Fort Lee post, recently said that creamed beef will be offered every day to soldiers in Army dining halls. The new menu standards are designed to promote uniformity among the Army's dining facilities, according to a July 1999 Article in Government Food Service..

Although soldier does not have to take it, creamed beef will be on the serving line each morning along side other daily requirements, such as bacon, potatoes, doughnuts and muffins, orange juice and bananas, whole-grain cereals, low-fat yogurt, and a hot fruit topping for pancakes and french toast.

To soldiers like Born and the veterans who visit Fort Lee, SOS is that one food that constantly reminds them of Army life. To Born, SOS is an inseparable part of Army life.

"It's an institution as closely linked with the Army as parades, pressed uniforms or highly shined boots," said Born.

August 1999

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