The American Plate

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Bite 66: Doughboy Rations during World War I 

World War I was the great watershed of this era, the “war to end all wars” that began with the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand and Grand Duchess Sophie in Serbia in 1914.  By the time the US infantry men (“doughboys”) arrived at the Western front in the summer of 1917, America had been supplying our British, French, and Belgian allies with food for two years.  The U.S. troops were well-provisioned, startlingly so compared to their ally comrades. That old military stand by, hard tack ( see BITE 42) was replaced by fresh bread whenever possible, thanks to the development of field bakeries that could provide hot food at the front. Small, wagon-sized food carts, sent from the field kitchens located behind the front lines,  even brought hot food into the trenches, where most of the fighting and casualties took place. Infested with rats and other vermin, subject to poison gas attacks and shelling, and filled with cold, greasy mud, the trenches presented a uniquely harrowing experience to the Doughboys, many of them fresh off the farm in America.  The arrival of cooked food, along with candy, dairy products, and soft baked bread struck a much appreciated but incongruous note in the hell known as trench warfare.  Of course, there remained the challenge of keeping the food dry, clean, and away from the rats. 

Red Cross workers and our World War I troops in France, 1918. Credit: National Archives.

Red Cross workers and our World War I troops in France, 1918. Credit: National Archives.

Naturally, one big problem for feeding the troops on the front was the safety of the supply lines, which were targets for bombs and other sabotage. Every soldier in the trenches carried emergency rations   containing twelve ounces of canned meat or fresh bacon, ground coffee, sugar, and tobacco with rolling papers (and later, pre-rolled cigarettes). The Army purchased canned meat from the French, which was labeled “Madagascar” and promptly nicknamed “monkey meat” by the Americans in disgust.  In this environment, hard tack still made its appearance on the Doughboy menu. These “Reserve Rations” were designed to sustain the troops when the supply lines broke down, or when they were too far from the supply depots. The servicemen’s rations defined part of the wartime experience for a generation of men that remained with them long after they shipped home. 

In France, the soldiers were billeted in relative safety before and after their service in the trenches. Here they had dependable access to food, and might even receive packages from home. Of course, food shipped from the United States had to remain edible without any extra care. Even when stale and crumbled, any food sent by loved ones was always particularly appreciated.

World War I Red Cross nurse's uniform taken at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City

World War I Red Cross nurse's uniform taken at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City

The American Red Cross, founded by Clara Barton in 1881,  played a significant  role in this multinational conflict. It not only provided medical care overseas, before there was an enlisted military nursing staff, it helped on the homefront by organizing volunteers and fighting the deadly “Spanish Influenza” plague of 1918 that, worldwide, would kill more people than the war .

The Red Cross also communicated with families about helpful ways to support the troops. Here is a recipe they recommended for folks who wanted to send their soldier a shippable treat. 


 The American Red Cross promoted this cake recipe, promising that the end product could reach the Western Front and retain its freshness. The dried fruit helps keep it moist if it has to be shipped across the Atlantic. Try soaking the raisins in rum for a few days or for a week before you make the cake. Your Doughboy will thank you.   


2 cups brown sugar

2 cups hot water 

2 Tbsp lard 

1 tsp each: salt, cinnamon, cloves

8 ounces raisins ( about one package), chopped

1 tsp baking soda

3 cups flour


Preheat oven to 350. 

Put all ingredients except the flour and the soda in a large pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a medium low and let it cook at a low boil for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Stir in flour and soda.  Mix well. 

Grease 2 mini-loaf pans. Pour batter into the pans and bake for 45 minutes. 

The original recipe comes with a recommendation: “Cake keeps fresh for a long time and can be sent to men at the front.”