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“Things were fine. Then things weren’t.” Donuts and Coffee, 1862 and 1968

“Things were fine. Then things weren’t.” Donuts and Coffee, 1862 and 1968

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Published by John U. Rees
Soldiers have few pleasures they can count on, particularly when campaigning, but despite the fact that army rations are notoriously bland, and sometimes downright atrocious, food can remind one of home, satisfy a sweet tooth, or boost a fatigued mind and body. Here are two incidents, a hundred years apart, telling of soldiers, coffee, and donuts.
Soldiers have few pleasures they can count on, particularly when campaigning, but despite the fact that army rations are notoriously bland, and sometimes downright atrocious, food can remind one of home, satisfy a sweet tooth, or boost a fatigued mind and body. Here are two incidents, a hundred years apart, telling of soldiers, coffee, and donuts.

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Published by: John U. Rees on Sep 16, 2013
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05/15/2014

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“Things were fine. Then things weren’t.” 
 Donuts and Coffee, 1862 and 1968 
John U. Rees
 Dedicated to William D. Ehrhart, poet, chronicler, teacher, soldier.
 
(Originally published in
 Food History News
, vol. XI, no. 3 (43), 2.)
Soldiers have few pleasures they can count on, particularly when campaigning, butdespite the fact that army rations are notoriously bland, and sometimes downrightatrocious, food can remind one of home, satisfy a sweet tooth, or boost a fatigued mindand body. Here are two incidents, a hundred years apart, telling of soldiers, coffee, anddonuts.
The Zouave’s Donuts.
Union soldier Alfred Davenport, 5
th
New York (Duryee Zouaves),Virginia Peninsula, 2 June 1862 (day after the Battle of Fair Oaks):
… the weather was very warm, a
nd the sound of battle was almost entirely subdued,
very little firing being heard during the day … Captain Warren supplied the men with
a quantity of flour, and bread-baking was the order of the day. Those who had tin plates were the favored ones; the rest were obliged to wait and borrow them fromtheir comrades. The flour was simply mixed with water and made into unleavenedcakes and baked; but the men relished them with great satisfaction, as it was anacceptable change in the diet to which they had been accustomed
… at times … someepicure … could not restrain from giving vent to his satisfaction … “ain’t this bully.”
 
Two of the boys … procured about a bushel of flour, and some sugar and saleratus,
 borrowed a sheet-
iron kettle of one of the officer’s
servants, obtained a lot of salt pork,and went into business. They first washed all the salt from the pork, tried it out, mixedtheir flour with sugar and saleratus [baking soda], let it rise, and then made some of thefinest donuts, as they supposed, th
at were ever served up; at all events they were “done brown.” When they had a great pile of them, they opened shop, and never before was
there such a rush to procure some of those elegant donuts. The pile was soon gone at fivefor twenty-five cents, and the demand far exceeded the supply. Occasionally a man wasfound who had the temerity to express an opinion that they were rather tough, and weregood specimens of home-
made India rubber; but he was frowned upon as a barbarian …
 by night the batter was almos
t exhausted … the firm closed up their business for the day… and talked over their plans for the future. But they were in a quandary. The batter was
nearly gone, and no more could be obtained within range of their guns.
Suddenly [“H.,” one of the entrepreneurs] … struck an idea … They still had on hand aquantity of saleratus, which up to this time was looked upon as dead stock … “What ideahave you struck, pards?” asked H.’s colleague. “Why you noodlehead, its very plain – 
put
in more saleratus!” … Th
e saleratus was added in generous quantity, and they turned in
and went to sleep, probably dreaming of light donuts for the million … In the morning
the firm was roused from their dreams of wealth by the reveille, and jumped up in ahurry. But what a sight met their eyes! Dough, dough, dough everywhere! The fact of itwas, their stock had risen about one hundred and fifty percent, above par, and kept onrising. The floor of their tent, blankets, rifles, cartridge-boxes, and everything else, werecovered with a layer of dough, and they could be traced out to the line for roll call by a
string of dough … They, however, did well in business that day, and added saleratus, as
 
their batter decreased, until the compound was so sour that all the sugar they could beg, borrow, or steal was not sufficient to sweeten it enough to suit the most depraved taste.
Accordingly one night, after a very dull day’s trade, they buried what remained of their 
stock in a hole outside of their tent, in the company street. But their astonishment wasgreat in the morning at finding that the stuff refused to remain buried, and had burstthrough the crust of earth over it, and like a fountain, was sending out its streams,whereupon they were obliged to heap several bushels of dirt over the spot to prevent its
resurrection … thus ends the long, but true story of the “Zouave” doughnuts.
1
“The Briarwood Pipe” by Winslow Homer pictures
two soldiers of the 5th New York 
Regiment (Duryee’s Zouaves).
A Cup of Coffee in the Tet Offensive.
During the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive inJanuary 1968, Marine Corporal William Ehrhart was fighting in Hue City. He starts hismemoir 
Vietnam-Perkasie
with this account of his wounding by an antitank rocket, which
occurred at the end of his tour of duty. “A
ll I wanted was a cup of coffee. I was justsitting there, waiting for the water to boil, taking an occasional potshot out the window
 – 
 and suddenly the world was in pieces. I never heard the explosion. Only the impact
registered.” He later matter 
-of-factly explained the G.I. method of brewing up:
 
Every C-ration meal comes with a lot of things, but five of those things you get are a packet of coffee, a can-opener, a plastic spoon, a big can (maybe with crackers and jamand cocoa inside), and a little can (maybe bread or date pudding). To make coffee, you
empty the big can (eat the contents if you’re hungry, or put them in your pocket for later),
 bend the lid back into a handle, and fill it with water from your canteen. Then you takeyour can opener and make a few air holes around the bottom of the little can, which
you’ve also emptied. You bend the little can slightly at the open top end so the big canwill sit on it, and that’s your stove. You’re supposed to get a heat tab with each meal, but
usually y
ou don’t, so you take a little piece of C
-4 plastic explosive
 – 
 
it won’t blow up if it’s not under pressure – 
put that in your stove instead, and light it. You get upwind of itso the fumes from the C-
4 won’t kill half your brain cells, put the big can on
top of thelittle can, and when the water boils, you pour in the packet of coffee and give it a goodstir with your plastic spoon. I was just ready to pour in the coffee when the world came
apart. Things were fine. Then things weren’t. Just like that.
2
 
Cpl. William D. Ehrhart, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, Con Thien, Vietnam,November 1967. W. D. Ehrhart,
Ordinary Lives: Platoon 1005 and the Vietnam War 
 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 90.

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