Japanese

What Internment Did to the Japanese-American Diet

February 20, 2017

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. 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.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.

11 Comments

Rjammy April 29, 2018
Many were released well before 1946. My father got out in August of 1943.
 
Kelley B. February 23, 2017
Thanks for this, Mayukh.
 
EMR February 21, 2017
Wonderful piece. It serves as a poignant reminder of the courage and dignity of the Japanese-Americans during this terrible time in our history.
 
Whiteantlers February 21, 2017
Thank you for this article. It does not matter how long ago the Kitchen Sisters information came out. It's important to know about or be reminded of this kind of dehumanization and how people handled it.
 
dailywaffle February 20, 2017
In light of your commitment to diversity, is googling Food and Internment and reporting on it really the best you can do? The Kitchen Sisters story is 10 years old. I would have like to have seen a story building on that foundation. There are plenty of people and organizations to talk to, including the Densho Project and Japanese American National Museum in LA.
 
Whiteantlers February 24, 2017
Brava to you, Kim J.!
 
Moshee February 28, 2017
Thanks for this comment Kim J. My friend's mom was interned and I think this episode in our history should remain top of mind right now. I didn't know about the Kitchen Sisters, either. Totally appreciate Mayukh's contributions to what is otherwise a standard recipe/commerce blog (though always have been a fan of Amanda's writing - not enough of it here and nothing like Mayukh's).
 
sunick February 20, 2017
Both of my parents and their families were interned during WWII: my dad in Rohwer and my mom in Minidoka. My mom never made us Weenie Royale but we would often get scrambled eggs with fried hot dogs or bologna for breakfast, fried rice with bologna for lunch, and teriyaki hot dogs (one of my favorites!) for dinner when we were kids. When I got older I just figured that was her way of stretching a dollar to feed a family of 6. Now I guess that it was something more camp-related. I suppose those types of dishes could be considered Japanese-American soul food. Thank you for posting this. It reminded me of how brave my quiet, unassuming parents were in what must have been a terrifying period of their lives.
 
Author Comment
Mayukh S. February 24, 2017
Thank you for sharing this, sunick.
 
melissa February 20, 2017
This is amazing! Thanks so much for digging this up. I teach Asian American Studies and hadn't come across the food aspect of the internment before.
 
CookOnTheFly February 20, 2017
Their legacy, albeit a painful one, lives on in what I sometimes turn to now for "comfort food". After living in Hawaii for 15 years (on the Mainland now for 12), I still turn to Spam Musubi and Japanese-style omelets (with no vegetables) when I'm sad or cold. I often think of the sacrifices these brave people made, and often wonder how many times they had to say to themselves "gambaranakerebanarinakata", which roughly translates to "there was no other choice than to try." Thank you for sharing this.