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What Internment Did to the Japanese-American Diet

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It's been 75 years, nearly to the day, since President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which forcibly uprooted the West Coast's Japanese-Americans from their homes and sent them to live in camps. Roughly 120,000 people of Japanese descent fell victim to this order, distributed like cattle among ten facilities spread across the West Coast. They weren’t freed until 1946.

A grandfather and grandson at Manzanar Relocation Center in Manzanar, California.
A grandfather and grandson at Manzanar Relocation Center in Manzanar, California. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Internment robbed Japanese-Americans of many aspects of day-to-day life—one of the most crucial being, of course, food. Meals in most of the camps were highly regimented, and most were made of bland commodity foods—hot dogs, Spam, soggy potatoes.

Yesterday, I came across a 10-year-old old episode from the Kitchen Sisters, the radio producers behind NPR’s Hidden Kitchens series, that details what happened to the diet of those who were interned after they emerged from the camps. The episode speaks to a number of people who survived this incarceration, detailing how staples of the internment-era diet fused with what Japanese-Americans cooked at home. This period saw the genesis of sushi with hot dogs and Spam, along with such dishes as “Weenie Royale,” made of hot dog franks, eggs, and rice.

The episode is the most exhaustive document I've encountered on the subject of what people ate in this hideous chapter in America's past, and how it bled into what they cooked as they effectively rebuilt their lives from scratch. Give it a listen today.

Tags: Food History