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Weenie Royale: Food and the Japanese Internment

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.

"Weenie Royale?"

"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.

The Archives

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.
--Davia Nelson

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The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) are producers of the duPont-Columbia Award-winning, NPR series, Hidden Kitchens, and two Peabody Award-winning NPR series, Lost & Found Sound and The Sonic Memorial Project. Hidden Kitchens, heard on Morning Edition, explores the world of secret, unexpected, below-the-radar cooking across America—how communities come together through food. The series inspired Hidden Kitchens: Stories, Recipes, and More from NPR's The Kitchen Sisters, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year that was also nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food. The Hidden Kitchens audio book, narrated by Academy Award winner, Frances McDormand, received a 2006 Audie Award.