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Not Forgetting Food!

Photo of a Civilian Conservation Camp dining hall decorated for a holiday dinner
This 1933 photo of the CCC’s Camp Temecula is one of many available from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Museum and Library. The library’s Franklin database of public domain images is a great resource for someone wanting a look at the 1930s and more.

Food. Fuel, pleasure, and sometimes one more key helpful in unlocking a character’s life.

Writing Hitch, I’d have missed something important if I hadn’t considered it. This is a story set during the hungry years of the Great Depression, and for young men signing up for hitches in the Civilian Conservation Corps, food–the three regular meals a day that were a staple of CCC life—was a big deal.

In a folder at the National Archives regional facility in Seattle I found a 1933 Christmas dinner menu from a California CCC camp. The main course was turkey. Dessert was mince and apple pie pie. And there, penciled onto a hand-drawn, decorative menu, were the signatures of some two dozen guys. This was an occasion worth remembering.

I wasn’t really surprise at how many CCC’ers, recalling experiences together, went into detail about mealtimes. I do have a husband, a grown son, and two bottomless-pit grandsons. But, still, I found in those seventy and eighty year-old accounts a sense of wonder that I knew needed to be conveyed. I tried to do that in this scene. It’s when Hitch’s main character, Moss Trawnley, and his new friends sit down to their first dinner as enrollees, along with a group leader who’d been assigned to them:

The mess hall was a large, open-raftered barn of a place, steamy warm with food smells, jammed with guys at long rows of tables. Reese led my group to some tables in one corner, and as soon as we sat down, other CCC’ers began bringing us food: pitchers of milk; vast platters of meat loaf and sliced bread; bowls of green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy; dishes with butter and jam. Talk rose at other tables, jokes and laughter, but we sat in stunned silence.

So much food!

A thin guy seated opposite me wore an expression like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Holy moley! I didn’t know anybody ate like this outside of the movies.”

“You don’t need permission to eat,” Reese said. “Serve yourselves some of whatever’s in front of you and pass it along.”

The thin guy carefully put a small spoonful of potatoes on his plate and then, with a quick glance like he was afraid somebody would stop him, took a second, larger serving. And then up and down the table, others were doing the same thing. In minutes every one of us enrollees was digging into a plateful of food.Hitch

Photo of sign at entrance to the National Archives and Records Administration regional facility in Seattle.
Visiting NARA in Seattle I not only found primary source materials for my research into the Civilian Conservation Corps, but also the subject of my next book, PAPER DAUGHTER! But that’s a story for another time.

For the toolbox:

Fascinating public-domain photos from several decades, but especially from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, are available from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Museum and Library’s Franklin database.

At the National Archives and Records Administration you can see—online or in a visit to one of its several regional facilities—items like that Christmas menu, that your characters might have handled.  Information about research at the National Archives is available at http://www.archives.gov/research/.

—Jeanette Ingold