April 11, 2011
Judging from the responses we got to this month’s Inviting Writing query, “what was the most memorable meal of your life,” many people’s most memorable meals were memorably awful. The experiences may have been unpleasant at the time, but they make for good stories later.
Today’s essay comes from Erich Hugo, who is now a digital strategist and digital service designer living in Stockholm, Sweden. But in 1992, he was a soldier in South Africa. He explains the circumstances: “Military service in South Africa during apartheid years was mandatory for all white males over 18 to fight the supposed U.S.S.R. and Communist danger. I served for little more than a year before the democratic elections. But by that time, the illusion of apartheid was shattered and the army was nothing more than a mechanical institution of a dying political system. We were not motivated soldiers, just kids biding our time.”
The Joy of Cooking Dried Eggs
by Erich Hugo
When writing about food and the pleasure of eating, it is easy to get carried away in the culinary halls of thought where sweet smells and musty aromas bring Rome and Paris to mind. My story is a little different.
It was in the final days of apartheid South Africa, and I was one of the last of the white male military intakes. Just because apartheid was falling to pieces did not mean the military training was any less arduous or our young instructors any less brutal. I was selected to become an officer, which made the training even worse, because one had to stay sharp mentally as well as physically.
During the end game of our training, we had to go into the bush and spend a dozen days living off the land. We were given seven rations (seven days’ worth) of ratpacks [contents listed below, none of them fresh] to last us the 12 days, which meant that we would inevitably run out of food and really live off the land.
One might believe that South Africa is a warm country, but this was midwinter in the desert and the temperatures were often below freezing at night. It was so cold that five soldiers would crawl into a two-man tent just to keep warm. And in the mornings we would stand in front of the diesel generator’s exhaust stream, putting our hands and fingers out, just to get warm. I guess we shortened our lives considerably that way.
By day nine we had all run out of food and that, combined with marching between 15 and 20 kilometers during the day, made us hallucinate with hunger. Some intrepid chaps caught some snakes and scavenged some duck eggs—a meal for a king, I jest thee not. I had never thought that ingesting such foreign food would induce such gratifying pleasure.
Then, on day 12, one of the officers in charge took pity on us and we got an extra ratpack. The meal was a king’s feast, better than anything from the finest restaurants in Paris or New York, from the “Just Add Water Eggs” to the tinned food and the rum and raisin energy bars.
Contents of a typical ratpack:
2 tins of preserved food, usually fish in curry, bully beef, Vienna sausages (hot dogs for Americans) in tomato sauce, or beans in tomato sauce
2 packages of crackers
Instant porridge (malt)
2 energy bars of the highly artificial variety
Powdered soup (chicken broth, minestrone or beef)
Powdered cool drinks
1 roll of candy loaded with Vitamin C
2 cheese tubes
Coffee and tea
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