The mess hall at Kapooka was an impressive building. It could feed 1,200 men at a single sitting on 30 tables of 40 men. Our first encounter with it, as recruits, was when we were marched in for the evening meal on our conscription day. There we were. 48 rag tag blokes, still with our long civilian hair. Some beards, even. We were given the traditional, raucous razzing that the old lags (even if they had only been there a week), welcomed the new intake with. Whistling, whooping, and banging of cutlery on the table. Quite memorable. In a week’s time, we would be among the welcomers.
Each long table had a huge array of bottles and jars of condiments and spreads. I guess, if you serve hungry men crappy tasting food, it’s wise to give them all manner of sauces to disguise the flavour. There were four rows of bottles and jars per table. Before each meal, it would be the job of two mess duty men to line these up perfectly across the entire mess hall. It was pleasing to my obsessive-compulsive personality. I still do it, at home.
Not all the condiments were the same on every table, however. Some of the more popular ones were hard to find. Men would roam the vast hall seeking out their favourite. In fact, the brand, Father’s Favourite Sauce was one of the rare, and highly sought items. It was universally known as Mum’s C**t. Young men, locked away together, far from normal civilisation, quickly become vulgar beasts. Another hard-to-find gem, and my favourite, was Kraft Cheese Spread. I tried some recently and could only surmise that our taste buds must have been severely dumbed down by our insatiable hunger, in those weeks.
A soldier in basic training burns in excess of 8,000 calories a day, which is more than three times the average adult male requirement. Whatever you might have said about the quality, you could not complain about the quantity available. You could eat as much as you liked. I don’t know what today’s soldier does, but in our day breakfast and evening meals were big, and lunch light. This even carried through to living out of ration packs in the bush.
Breakfast is hard to stuff up and was usually very passable. Apart from fried, poached and scrambled eggs, there were bacon, sausages, all manner of cereals, juices, and fruit. There stacks of loaves of sliced, white bread and an industrial sized, conveyor belt toaster. The bread was usually two days old and had to be toasted. I wondered why the purchasing people would buy stale bread. Mmmmm?? If fresh bread ever appeared it was leapt upon by the ravenous hordes. However it came, bread was one of the main staple foods of the recruit. I have seen men eat a full meal and then wolf down twelve slices of buttered toast and jam, or whatever. Carbs, carbs and more carbs.
The evening meal was filling, probably nutritious, but usually very mundane fare. You lined up to the servery with your dinner and dessert plates, and cutlery. The first offering was mashed potato served in one-kilogram portions. Then there were normally two main course meat-based stews, or casseroles available, and good array of horribly overcooked vegetables. Spag Bol or rissoles were also common. These were dolloped, dolefully on your plate by a recruit doing mess duty during their platoon’s week of general duties. General duties was a week off training, spent doing all sorts of jobs around the base.
Dessert was a huge selection of cake type things, and like the bread, always stale. These were made edible by lashings of Kapooka Custard, aka, Yellow Death. Yellow Death was made in huge vats of about 500 litres. A batch usually lasted three or four days. It started its life as a milk like yellow liquid, and ended it days as a thick, barely viscous, substance. Occasionally, a vat would not be emptied before the Yellow Death ceased to flow and some poor mess duty bloke had to climb in and shovel it out. It was sweet and moistened a piece of dry sponge cake to a point where it was edible. Along with mashed potatoes and sliced white bread, Yellow Death was also was one of the staples of a recruit’s diet.
Some of the men would not partake of the delights of Yellow Death, however. It was rumoured that it was laced with Bromide, whatever that was. Bromide was said to depress the male libido and hence introduced into the recruit’s diet to curb his base desires whilst he was bereft of female company. Bromide was also rumoured to be in the tea and coffee. Over 50 years later I still have not met anyone who could confirm or deny the rumour. I partook of Yellow Death and both beverages, and had three normal children, so Bromide, if it ever existed, would appear to have no lasting effect.
It was usual to see the Duty Officer, closely followed by the Duty Corporal, in the mess at evening mealtime. Occasionally, he would stop and ask the recruits how their food was. It was wise not to be too scathing or the Duty Officer might tell the Duty Corporal, who always carried a clipboard and pen, to take your name and invent some disciplinary charge, such as “Disparaging army catering in the company of other ranks”. I do recall one man telling the DO that the chicken fricassee had lots of chicken skin but no chicken. It elicited the comment “I don’t know why, when we send our purchasing people in to Wagga, to buy the best of food for our men, that should happen. Put that man on a charge, Corporal”.
Now, I am just thinking out loud here, and have no basis, but for my knowledge of human behaviour, for making this comment, but is it possible that some of the Kapooka purchasing men might have cosied up to the good merchants of Wagga Wagga? Wash out my mouth. However, I did read in a British food magazine, that “The purveyors of fresh produce, in every community in the world bar military base towns, must dispose of their out-of-date offerings”. Enough said.
Every base had its mess and, to be fair, most provided good, tasty, nutritious food. The quality got better after basic training and smaller bases could provide more variety on their menus. The cooks, like most men, took pride in their trade, and took umbrage at unfair criticism. An army cook was always known as a Tucker F***er, no matter how good he was at his trade. It was always advisable to be on their good side as they got to mess with your food before you did.