CHOW is a new blog and video series exploring the history behind U.S. Navy culinary traditions.
By Matthew T. Eng
Let’s face it: if you’ve served in the Navy during the twentieth century, chances are you’ve eaten sh*t. “Sh*t on a Shingle,” or creamed chipped beef on toast (S.O.S.), that is. The term derives from any brown creamed substance (sh*t) on top of toast (shingle).
The exact origin of S.O.S. is fuzzy. According to Wentworth and Flexner’s 1967 Dictionary of American Slang, no specific origin is known. The dish, which consists of sliced dried beef mixed in a thick creamy gravy, appeared in military cookbooks at the start of of the twentieth century. Some cooking sources, such as the online website “Seabee Cook,” claim the dish came from the Army. Steve Karoly, who authored an article on the subject, claims the “Army favorite” has become “the most popular version of SOS.” Some Navy veterans may disagree.
One of the original versions of chipped beef from the 1910 Manual for Army Cooks used beef stock, evaporated milk, and parsley added to flour, butter, and dried beef. According to Karoly, a creamier recipe using salty chipped beef was adopted during the Second World War. This style is clearly evident with Navy cookbooks as well. The 1944 Cook Book of the United States Navy recipe for “Creamed Sliced Dried Beef” includes a hefty amount of dried beef (7 lbs.) added to a paste-like roux and boiled milk.
Variations of the recipe exist. Navy cookbooks also used a similar recipe for minced beef on toast, which had a tomato-based sauce with ground beef and sautéed onions. Some recipes for minced beef used a can of tomato juice for the sauce. E. Jon Spear’s 1960s memoir Navy Days stated that most sailors on his ship referred to the dish with the dysphemism “Red S.O.S.”
The popularity of creamed chipped/sliced beef soon extended beyond the military. Like the explosion of popularity in pizza after WWII, sailors and servicemen craved the warm and filling dish when their time in the military ended. Home recipes of creamed chipped beef published in the later twentieth century included S.O.S. variations using other meats such as tuna and sausage in a white sauce. Stouffer’s still makes a “classic” creamed chipped beef frozen meal to this day.
And then there were the nicknames. Food is a social experience, so it makes sense that camaraderie would come from finding common ground in the like or dislike of certain meals. When looking through the memoirs, diaries, and personal reminisces of sailors, it is clear that creamed sliced beef has the title for having the most nicknames, ranging from humorous to unsavory. Some of the nicknames simply play on the S.O.S. alliteration and assonance: Stew on a Shingle,” “Same Old Stuff,” and “Save Our Stomachs.” Others, like “foreskins on toast,” emit feelings of anything but hunger. Robert A. Maher and James E. Wise’s memoir Sailors’ Journey Into War said it well (warning: language):
“Another food that was enjoyed by both the army and navy was chipped beef on toast. There has been, and still is, a constant battle about what it was called. My army friends say SOS or shit on a shingle. My navy friends and I say FSOT, which I won’t translate.”
The terms grew in popularity in chow halls and mess decks around the Navy and soon became part of the legend of the dish itself.
Whatever you called it, creamed chipped beef was a staple for many sailors throughout the twentieth century. Love it or not, most sailors had to at least tolerate its taste. As former sailor Michael Gring commented in a 2015 interview of Navy chow in general, “you ate well, whether you liked it or not.” Gring had a recent experience with S.O.S. that brings back memories of the “weird comfort food” of his past life:
“About three or four years ago, I had S.O.S. I hadn’t had it since I retired eleven years ago. I ate a little of it – that was it. It didn’t taste that good, or at least the same. I thought it tasted better when I was in the Navy. I remember it being warm and filling you up, even if they often had to improve on the standard recipe.”
No standard recipe for S.O.S. exists, unless you consider the recipe for “Chipped Beef on Toast” (Recipe No. L 052 00) included in the Armed Forces Recipe Service, or AFRS, in 1969. So the question then is, what does it really taste like?
I had to know. Not only did I want to taste it, I wanted to cook it exactly to the specifications that the Navy had in mind. And since I work for an organization specializing in naval history, I figured I better use a historic recipe.
I decided to go with the recipe for creamed sliced beef on toast found in the 1944 Cook Book of the United States Navy (shown above). Unfortunately, that specific recipe presented a LARGE problem: quantity. Like most Navy or Armed Forces cook books, the 1944 edition included recipes catered to large groups. The S.O.S. recipe was designed to feed 100 at a time. I didn’t plan to purchase seven pounds of dried beef for this specific experiment, so I had to scale down.
Thankfully, our STEM-H program came to the rescue. Several years ago, teacher Greg Felber of Ledyard Middle School in Ledyard, CT created a mathematics lesson plan titled “Cook For a Submarine Fleet.” The lesson plan helped students learn fractional proportions to find the right amount of ingredients needed to feed everything from an entire submarine crew to an individual family. The program was so successful it was tested in a 7th grade classroom. After a re-introduction to dimensional analysis with our STEM-H coordinator John Paulson, I was ready to do some math for the sake of history:
I had originally designed the recipe for 10 people, which was 1/10 the amount needed for the 1944 recipe. I decided to half that, making the full recipe I used as:
5 oz. dried beef (1 package)
4 cups milk
1/3 stick butter (fat)
½ cup flour
¼ tsp. pepper
5 slices of bread, toasted
Using a nonstick skillet, I proceeded to follow the directions based of the 1944 recipe. I first sliced the package of dried beef and set it aside for later. Next, I melted the butter on medium heat and added the flour to make a roux for the milk. In reality, the mixture (which was supposed to resemble a “thick paste”) came out more like a paste because of the high proportion of flour to butter. More butter would certainly lend a smoother consistency. The milk was then added and boiled, stirring constantly to thicken.
When the white sauce was thick and gravy-like, the dried sliced beef and pepper was added. The temperature was lowered to medium low, and the mixture was simmered for 10 minutes. Last, the mixture was finally spooned on top of white toast.
Bon appetit, Navy style.
The Taste Test
I smelled it before I took a bite. Somehow, it smelled salty. The dried beef poked through the white gravy in shallow peaks. The consistency was thick and rich. I could see why sailors wouldn’t mind something like S.O.S. on a cold morning at sea. I took my first bite. It tasted as salty as it smelled. In fact, it reminded me of a much saltier version of biscuits and gravy. It is certainly not for everyday consumption. The toast was a welcome addition to the meal to help cut the taste a little (but only a little). My wife, who also was on hand to taste test, referred to it as “Bisquick with salt.”
The full video and recipe is shown below.
If you have your own personal stories about S.O.S., please include your story in the comment section below or email Matthew T. Eng at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to include it in the ongoing narrative of the social history of the United States Navy.