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Local High School Students Learn Military History in the Kitchen

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A group of San Diego students are learning about U.S. military history in the most unusual place -- their high school cooking class. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis has this report.

Local High School Students Learn Military History in the Kitchen

(Photo: San Diego High School's culinary arts teacher Linda Ross gives her class some cooking instructions as they prepare an old military recipe. Ana Tintocalis/KPBS.)

A group of San Diego students are learning about U.S. military history in the most unusual place -- their high school cooking class. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis has this report.

Welcome to the Blue Castle Café, a stainless steel restaurant-style kitchen at San Diego High School. Every week, a group of culinary arts students put on white chef hats and cook up all sorts of popular meals -- from club sandwiches to breakfast burritos. But, on this day, the teenage chefs are preparing recipes from a cookbook by Vietnam veteran Rudy Shapee.

Shapee: I can remember long, long hours and hard work. And the high point of my day was what I was eating. That's what all we had for our high point of our day. So what better way to tell part of the story than talk about what we were eating?

Shapee was so affected by his time in the mess hall that he wrote a book about the history of military cooking. He asked these students to prepare and test the meals. Some of the recipes date back to the Civil War. Others are from World War Two. The students say they quickly learned military food wasn't all that attractive or appetizing. And most meals had very peculiar nicknames. For example, have you ever devoured a bowl of Burgoo? Culinary Arts teacher Linda Ross says it was a kind of beef stew served during the Civil War. 

Ross: It’s supposed to have beef, pork, squirrel, possum…what ever meats they could find.

And she says it was common for soldiers and sailors to find shotgun pellets in the stew's meat scrap. In fact, servicemen believed finding those pellets brought them good luck. Students like 15-year-old Amanda Williams were a little surprised.  

Williams: Well, there's been some diverse comments from, yuck this is disgusting to wow!

Then there's something called Spotted Dog, which was a bread pudding, served during the War of 1812. And in World War Two there was "S-O-S," which was a piece of toast with a kind of beef cream spread on top.

Mrs. Ross’ students also prepared Hard Tack -- a tough and flavorless cracker that's credited with keeping troops going during the Civil War. Amanda and sophomore Richard Frias offered a sample.

Tintocalis: I don't find that very tasty.

It’s flour water and salt and you bake it until its hard. And most ships carried this as their last ditch scenario ratios. And if you leave it out long enough, it will break your teeth.

Richard: So the union and the confederate soldiers respectively had hard tack…that's all they had for weeks on end. This stuff might suck, but it will keep you alive.

Richard, who's also a teenage military buff, says the trickiest part about this culinary challenge was downsizing the recipes, which originally fed up to 2,500 hungry servicemen. The amateur chefs also had to go against their instincts and cut back on seasoning and spices. Military dishes are supposed to be bland because they're feeding the masses. Students say that was especially tough when they made clam chowder, something that was widely served during World War Two. But in the end, the teens made something most everyone was happy with. 

Students: It was delicious. Pretty good. It’s creamy. Came out just right.  I never had clam chowder before. It’s different. It’s good, its good.

Of course the toughest critic is cookbook author Rudy Shapee.

Shapee: I'm from the Pacific Northwest. And so I'm a clam chowder aficionado. And mamma didn't make chowder like this. So thumbs up! Yeah, two thumbs up!

San Diego High's culinary class is one of a few in San Diego County. Shapee plans to write a chapter in his cookbook about the student chefs and all the work they put into the project. Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.