It might have been a place of fond memories of songs and skits were it a summer camp dining hall. It might have been a place of stability were it a military Mess Hall. The first would have been part of a voluntary experience. The second would have been part of a patriotic choice to serve the nation in the context of WW II.
But, it was neither of these things. There was no choice in the matter of eating in a Manzanar Mess Hall. Rather, it was a place where people were compelled to eat food that was mediocre (especially in the beginning), in a setting which was utterly lacking the intimacy of a family meal together.
There was a wide range of reactions to eating in a Mess Hall. It was disruptive and unsettling for families, because it took them out of their routines of eating together. It was liberating for some and enervating for others. Some children found it to be a great adventure, seeking out friends in Mess Halls far away from their own barracks. Some young adults made new friendships or found new love in the Mess Halls. Whatever the reaction, there was the simple reality that the Mess Halls were yet another expression of the absence of choice and the lack of a real home for each person who was taken to Manzanar.
A bit of perspective. There were 10,046 people inside the Manzanar prison Camp. They ate three meals a day, roughly 30,138 meals a day served in 36 Mess Halls…365 days a year. That is about 11,000,370 meals each year, in 36 Mess Halls…about 305,500 each year for each Mess Hall. The Mess Halls were meal factories and distribution centers.
The following pictures are of a reconstructed Mess Hall at the NPS Manzanar site.
The first four pictures are of the kitchen.
Standing in line, waiting to be served, this was the view of what lay ahead.
A fuller view of the kitchen itself.
One of the preparation tables.
A central preparation table.
The next photos show the Mess Hall itself.
The view of the Mess Hall from the serving line.
An NPS exhibit photo, showing apparently unrelated men eating a meal.
An NPS exhibit photo, showing a family eating a meal.
A photo capturing the density of one half of the eating area. The NPS exhibit photo in the background shows that young people occasionally had dances in the Mess Halls.
There were widely varying accounts of the Mess Hall experience. Two impressions are shared below by people who were taken to Manzanar…
“Thursday was always ‘slop-suey’ and Wednesday was always fish (smelt). Smelt is what we used for bait, not for eating.”
Mary Suzuki, Manzanar, Densho Digital Archives (DDA)
(Did you eat together as a family?) “As far as I remember, no. We were always running around to the other mess halls. We never ate together as a family.”
(Did the food get better?) “Yes, when they recruited former chefs from camp people and they taught other camp people how to cook.”
(What was your favorite meal?) “Fried rice with an egg on top.”
George Kiyo, Child at Manzanar, DDA
I hope my photos and reflections, and especially the commentary of people who lived there, will bring Manzanar to life for you.
THANKS for joining me! If you’d like to follow this blog, just scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and click the “Follow” button. I invite you to share this blog with others as well in order to spread awareness and knowledge.
Grace and peace,