Densho Digital Archive
Friends of Manzanar Collection
Title: Mas Okui Interview
Narrator: Mas Okui
Interviewer: Martha Nakagawa
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: April 25, 2012
Densho ID: denshovh-omas-01-0013

<Begin Segment 13>

MN: Can you share with us, like when you were still in Block 17 in the earlier years, like in the mess hall, what kind of plates were you issued?

MO: We weren't issued plates, we were issued army mess kits, two-part aluminum things. And if you fixed it just right, the handle would work, if you didn't fix it just right, the food would fall on the ground. And then they would give us a mess cup, an aluminum mess cup, and we'd get water or tea in that. You could always tell the people who had the cup that was undesirable, 'cause they always had a blister on their bottom lip. 'Cause there was one cup that had a heavy lip around it, and when you put tea in it, it got really hot, whereas one just had kind of a pressed edge. And when you drank from the one that had the heavy lip around it, it would burn the bottom of your lip. People were always trying to get rid of those and get something better that wouldn't do that. But the food was uniformly bad, because cooks didn't know how to cook it. They didn't know what we liked. Things like boiled cabbage, boiled potatoes, that's not stuff that we were accustomed to eating. And they had mutton -- god, I hate mutton. Can't even eat lamb anymore. Well, I never could eat lamb.

MN: What about the... can you share with us what kind of fish they served at Manzanar?

MO: The fish was what's called dried cod. It's caught in the North Atlantic and it's cut into squares about, oh, maybe four inches by four inches, and it's salted and dried. Basically it's used to feed the poor people of Southern Europe and North Africa. And for us, they thought we were fish eaters, they'll serve it to us, but they're dried. So what they would do in the mess hall is they would hydrate them. And when you hydrate dried fish, it's got this horrible smell to it. And at first we couldn't eat it because of the smell, but after a while you get used to eating it. It wasn't that bad, but the smell was bad. And because when you smell real fishy fish... real fish doesn't smell. Fresh fish doesn't smell, or I think it doesn't. It's only when it gets old or when you cook it, and say you put it in a frying pan, you'll get the smell, it's that oil.

MN: Was rice served from the very beginning?

MO: No, no. We got potatoes and cabbage instead. I don't know when they started serving rice. California was a big rice-producing state, so there was no reason we didn't have it.

MN: How often did they serve meat?

MO: I really couldn't say, 'cause I don't remember.

MN: Now if you were served eggs, what kind of eggs were you served?

MO: Initially we got powdered eggs, and they were awful. There's no way you can make them taste good. And they were usually served with potatoes, what we might call home fries today. But they didn't fry them, they just stick 'em in the oven and baked 'em.

MN: You shared the story about why you didn't eat the potatoes, too much potatoes in Manzanar?

MO: Oh, initially. One day I was in the mess hall and this cook was bringing out this tray of potatoes, and there was a dead cockroach that had been cooked in there. Now, I don't know how they stored those potatoes, but they all had to be cut up and placed in there before they stuck 'em in the oven, and the cockroach might have gotten there before. Anyway, I still remember that cockroach, a big black ugly thing. And there weren't a lot of cockroaches there... or maybe it was a stinkbug, but I don't know, it was a big black bug. Because we had a lot of stinkbugs around. And I had difficulty eating potatoes for a while. And then hunger takes the place of distaste.

MN: Do you want to share with us what you... you ate a lot of boiled potatoes and cabbages in the beginning and it gave you a lot of bodily functions?

MO: Yeah, it used to give us gas.

MN: You did something with the --

MO: Oh, yeah. The older guys would tell us if you put a match there, it'll burn with a blue flame. So my partners and I took this littler kid and we made him eat a lot of cabbage. And then when it came time to pass gas, we put a match there to find out whether it actually burned, and it does. It does. It's rather interesting. But you know, you always persecute some little kid. I don't think any of my friends wanted to volunteer.

MN: What about milk? Did you kids, were you given powdered milk or fresh milk?

MO: We got powdered milk, but it was god-awful. The fresh milk was reserved for the infants, maybe some of the mothers, I'm not quite sure, but we never got fresh milk.

MN: How about like, things like pancakes?

MO: Yeah, we had pancakes. I remember the pancakes, because what they did is they had molasses. And what they did was they diluted the molasses and used that as syrup. And it doesn't taste the same as maple syrup, but that's what they had. And then they had margarine, they had margarine with that. I don't think we ever got butter. I know the Caucasian mess hall served butter, but I don't think we ever got butter.

MN: I know after the war a lot of Japanese American families ate Spam. Was that something that was served in camp?

MO: You know, I got that call, and I don't recall. Because you got to remember, Spam was a Hawaiian thing. You figure the highest per capita consumption of Spam is where the U.S. Navy presence was. So Guam has the highest per capita consumption of Spam, but also Hawaii, which is second. And they become very creative with this Spam, they have Spam musubi and they season it with teriyaki sauce or whatever you season it with. And I remember she asked me, "Do you have Spam musubi?" and I said, "No, that's a Hawaii thing.

MN: So you don't recall eating Spam in camp?

MO: We might have, but I don't recall. We might have... I know we had Vienna sausage, which was bad. I don't care what you do with it, it's bad. Especially if you're used to good hot dogs.

MN: Now did the quality of the food change once the Manzanar farm started?

MO: Yeah, we got more produce, and we got fresh tomatoes. I remember they had salads. Yeah, we just had more produce.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 2012 Densho. All Rights Reserved.