1940s Archive

QMC Français

continued (page 2 of 4)

Most French combat troops, including the Colonials, had the lowest possible opinion of K rations (an opinion fully shared, I may add, by the majority of Americans), and in sectors where foraging was at all possible, most of the grim little waxed boxes issued to French troops went to the civilian population in exchange for something in the way of a less monotonous and less scientifically balanced diet.

The ubiquitous Vienna sausages, the sausage meat in cans, and the eternal Spam were not too unfavorably received by the French at the beginning, but even the resources of the French cuisine were exhausted at length, and the stuff began to pall on them as it did on us. Luckily they discovered, early in the game, that Spam makes a not unacceptable stuffing for choux farcis, that out of chopped fresh cabbage and Vienna sausages something could be produced that was fairly comparable to choucroute alsacienne, and that sausage meat, sliced thinly, dipped in a batter of powdered eggs, and fried, would get by at least once a week if served between adequate hors d'oeuvres and a fair salad. All of this information passed rapidly from one French popote to another, and made the life of the junior officer in each mess tolerable, if not always agreeable.

There are few things so completely French and so pleasant as a French officers' popote in a quiet sector, especially the regimental popotes of a crack division, when there is not too much action and the officers can take a couple of hours off with a clear conscience. I suppose much of the charm would be lost in peacetime—the meals would be more standardized, the regimental raconteur would have no fresh incidents to work with, and the toubib, as they call the doctor, would not be able to comment on the courage of the petits he had cared for that day. But such messes, in wartime, are about the most cheerful and amusing places one is likely to find—so amusing, in fact, that many American officers unfamiliar with French character and with the French army, regarded them as frivolous and unmilitary.

To begin with, whenever it was at all possible, there was at least one woman present in uniform. Her rank was of no importance whatsoever and an AFAT typist would be seated with the field grade officers if she was attractive. Frenchmen always talk best when there are women around, and the presence even of a middle-aged nurse would always produce a little additional sparkle in the conversation.

Traditionally, the junior officer in a popote is mess officer. Actually, as might be expected, sergeants do most of the work. But the youngest officer is required to read the menu aloud at the beginning of each meal, with such comments or apologies as he feels appropriate, and the menu gets, from everybody present, an outspoken and extremely critical going-over. Actually the fare, in the vast majority of cases was astonishingly good, and even allowing for such local products as the mess sergeants could find, almost unrecognizable as GI. French officers who have private means often give their entire pay to the regimental mess fund, with the result that the wines and brandies served in a good popote are generally better than you can get these days in a first-class restaurant.

In a few isolated instances, inter-Allied messes acquired a well-deserved reputation for excellence. One of the best of these, prior to the invasion of France, was at Elmas, just outside Cagliari, in southern Sardinia. This was an important base for medium bombers, but fifty or sixty Italian officers had stayed on, maintaining all their little local combinazioni for procurement, and the whole kitchen staff intact. The result was something like what one used to get in the best Italian-American restaurants before the war, with fresh pasta every day, good Italian bread, a little Marsala occasionally used in the cooking, and a quite passable Sardinian wine on the table. Both the Italians and the Americans were delighted with the arrangement, and after two or three weeks of it they became fast friends. I once sat, at this mess, between an American colonel and an Italian major, fighter pilots both, who, two months before, had engaged in a thirty-minute dog-fight, to a draw.

Another such pleasant spot, especially during last winter's bitter weather, was the famous old Hôtel de la Cloche, in Dijon. This was an outstanding example of Allied cooperation at its best—the Americans ran the heating and the plumbing, and the French ran the mess. As a result, the Cloche was about the only place in central France where a man could be perfectly certain of a hot bath, a decent apéritif, a really good dinner, and a sound bottle of fairly priced wine. As such it was what the army used to call a “silver foxhole.”

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