National Archives; Densho Project
Children eat hot dogs in a dining hall at Idaho's Minidoka Internment Camp in 1944.
Children eat hot dogs in a dining hall at Idaho's Minidoka Internment Camp in 1944. National Archives; Densho Project
The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Dave K. Yoshida, formerly a chef for the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Seattle, prepares lunch at Minidoka in 1942. The menu: Baked macaroni with Spanish sauce, spinach, pickled beets, bread-pudding, tea, and bread and butter.
Dave K. Yoshida, formerly a chef for the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Seattle, prepares lunch at Minidoka in 1942. The menu: Baked macaroni with Spanish sauce, spinach, pickled beets, bread-pudding, tea, and bread and butter. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
We received this recipe for Weenie Royale from A.C., a resident of Sacramento, Calif. "A weenie royal is a simple dish to make," A.C. wrote. "This was something I discovered in college when my friend and I went to June's Cafe in Sacramento, Calif. After time, I figured out how June made this dish."
1/2 white or yellow onions, chopped
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 hot dogs
Cooked white rice
Saute the chopped onions with a tablespoon of soy sauce and cook at medium to high heat until they are caramelized. While you wait for the onions to caramelize, cut the hot dogs in julienne slices and beat the eggs. After the onions are caramelized, add the hot dogs and cook for 2-3 minutes. Then add the beaten eggs to the onions and hot dogs until the eggs are done. Serve on top of cooked white rice.
Spam sushi from Japantown in San Francisco.
Spam sushi from Japantown in San Francisco. Kalman Muller
Jackie Yamashita, secretary of the Watsonville Buddhist Temple in California, describes recipes for:
Dorothea Lange/National Archives
Famed photographer Dorothea Lange, who was hired by the government, captured this 1942 mealtime scene in one of the mess halls at the Manzanar Internment Camp in California.
Famed photographer Dorothea Lange, who was hired by the government, captured this 1942 mealtime scene in one of the mess halls at the Manzanar Internment Camp in California. Dorothea Lange/National Archives
Author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston was 7 years old when her father, a fisherman in Ocean Park, Calif., was taken away without explanation by the FBI immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Several months later, his family learned he was imprisoned in a federal prison in Fort Lincoln, N.D. Jeanne, the youngest of 10 children, was interned with her family in Manzanar, a bleak, barren camp of tar paper shacks in California's Owen Valley Desert.
Artist Howard Ikemoto's "Tower 4, Tule Lake Internment Center" (1995).
Artist Howard Ikemoto's "Tower 4, Tule Lake Internment Center" (1995). Howard Ikemoto
Audio Courtesy of the Densho Project
Video Courtesy Densho Project
In 1965, Walter Cronkite hosted a CBS documentary called The Nisei: The Pride and the Shame, which took a sympathetic look at the Japanese-American experience during World War II. In this 2005 oral history video from the Densho Project, Eiichi Edward Sakauye, a former internee, talks about the gloomy side of life in the camps not often seen in the documentary and the many photographs documenting the internment.
Manzanar National Historic Site Interpretive Center
During World War II, about 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were relocated to 10 federal camps across the country.
During World War II, about 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were relocated to 10 federal camps across the country. Manzanar National Historic Site Interpretive Center
The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Dinnertime in the baggage car where transferees were fed by the U.S. Army in 1943 while traveling between the Topaz and Tule Lake internment camps.
Dinnertime in the baggage car where transferees were fed by the U.S. Army in 1943 while traveling between the Topaz and Tule Lake internment camps. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
I was getting my hair cut by Akemi Tamaribuchi. Imagine Audrey Hepburn if she had a Japanese-American father. That's Akemi. It was the first time we met, and we were in the midst of getting-to-know-you questions. She asked what I did, what I was working on. I told her about The Kitchen Sisters and the "Hidden Kitchens" series — secret, underground, below-the-radar cooking in America, contemporary and historic.
She kept cutting, but didn't miss a beat. "Weenie Royale," she said.
"We eat Weenie Royale because of the internment."
She began to tell me the story of her grandparents' four-year incarceration in the camp at Tule Lake during World War II. In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, about 120,000 Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry were forcibly evacuated from the West Coast, their homes and land taken from them, and put into one of 10 remote and desolate locations until the war's end.
They lived in barrack-like conditions, standing in long lines for little food, eating off tin pie plates in big mess halls. They were fed government commodity foods and castoff meat from Army surplus — hot dogs, ketchup, kidneys, Spam and potatoes. The Japanese diet and family table were erased.
In the early years of the incarceration, grizzled old Army cooks, used to feeding armies of men, now fed women and children. It was wartime, with strict rationing for everyone. At the Topaz Internment Camp in central Utah, it was decided that no one except children under 12 would receive milk — 6 ounces a day. Pregnant women, because their children were unborn, were not allowed any milk. Tami Tomoye Takahashi, who gave birth to two babies at Topaz, found a Sears, Roebuck catalog and ordered calcium tablets to benefit her unborn babies.
In the chaos of the dining hall, families no longer ate together. Teenagers wanted to be with other teenagers. Old people, who had once sat at the extended family table, were isolated. Grandparents, parents and children broke apart in the face of mess hall dining. Mothers no longer could cook for their children. The family table, with its traditions and conversations, began to fade.
Tamaribuchi said that during this time her grandparents and parents — her father was a little boy then — began to acquire the taste for hot dogs. Weenies began to make their way into their postwar cooking. Weenies in eggs (the aforementioned "Weenie Royale"), hot dog sushi, Spam sushi. Ketchup crept into the cooking.
Tamaribuchi's story sparked this Hidden Kitchen story. It made us ask — What was the food in the camps? How did it impact the culture and cooking of Japanese Americans in the following years?
Millions of people live in refugee camps around the world now, being fed commodities and surplus. It made us think about the impact on so many cultures within so many nations when they are denied their own food and traditions, when they are forcibly displaced and their land and homes taken from them.
Jimi Yamaichi, director and curator of the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, says the internment camps became a world unto themselves. Tule Lake, a camp in northern California, had chickens and a slaughterhouse where hogs were butchered for meat and rendered to make soap. About 3,800 acres were farmed by the internees. And the food grown there was sent to many of the other camps across California and the West.
Artist Howard Ikemoto said his father had owned grocery stores before the war and lost them all when the family was interned in Tule Lake. After the war, his father (whose given name was Ito and who later took the name Ed) became a gardener in the Sacramento area as did many of the other men who returned from the camps. At lunchtime, the men would meet to eat together either in a park or on a lawn they had just mowed. They would eat rice with a plum in the middle, a slice of Spam and corned beef hash in a tin.
Hot Dogs for Days
Yamaichi, a retired contractor, recently returned to Tule Lake with a group of former prisoners. It was their first visit since their incarceration during the war.
"Here's where the slaughterhouse was where we rendered the hogs. Here's the chicken coops," Yamaichi said. "They would bring carloads of hot dogs in by the tons — we'd eat hot dogs for days."
Takahashi, 92, grew up in San Francisco and attended U.C. Berkeley in the depth of the Depression. As World War II broke out, she worked at the Sheraton Palace Hotel, helping translate Japanese radio messages for the U.S. Army. Takahashi, along with her husband and parents, spent six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor interned in San Francisco at the hastily converted "Tanforan Race Track Assembly Center," living in a stable that held a horse. Then they spent four years incarcerated at Topaz Internment Camp in the Utah desert, where temperatures averaged about 125 degrees. After the war, Takahashi and her husband, Henri, went on to form the Takahashi Co., which sold furniture, home design items, and arts and crafts to major department stores and fine art museums.
Shousei Hanayama, the priest at the Buddhist Temple in Watsonville, Calif., remembered that after the war, American soldiers in Okinawa brought hot dogs and introduced them into the island culture.
Hanayama noted that hot dogs are still a part of the Japanese culture, pointing to the story of Takeru Kobayashi, who can eat 63 hot dogs in under 12 minutes. The winner of six consecutive Nathan's Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contests, Kobayashi revolutionized and popularized competitive eating with a technique called "Japanesing," separating hot dog from bun as he crams to victory.
Rice, the Soul Food of Japanese Americans
Within this hidden world of internment camp cooking was another hidden-kitchen tradition: the clandestine making of sake from leftover rice from the mess halls. Tamaribuchi's great-grandmother would dig a hole in the dirt floor of the barracks where they lived and bury rice in a pot and let it ferment. Old, burnt rice was saved and brought to ferment in any number of contraptions — keeping the forbidden tradition of sake alive in places like Tule Lake, Yamaichi said.
In the early years of the internment, prisoners were fed potatoes instead of rice. People in the camps rebelled, and slowly rice was added to the mess hall menus, though it was often prepared badly, served nearly raw or burnt. Ikemoto said his parents ate rice every day of their lives. He calls rice the soul food of Japanese Americans.
In putting together this story we drew on an astonishing collection of archives, oral histories and images of the internment. Some were gathered by historians, anthropologists and remarkable photographers, like the legendary Dorothea Lange. Others were collected by the internees themselves. We hope you will explore some of the links we've gathered below and learn more about this under-chronicled aspect of our nation's history.