What do archivists do when they’re not in the archives? Last summer, in addition to making digital collections available to researchers all over the world, National Air and Space Museum archivists Elizabeth Borja and Melissa Keiser experimented with historical recipes found in the Benjamin O. Davis Jr. Collection. Davis was the son of Army general Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the first Black American to rise to the rank of general in the United States armed forces, and in 1936, Davis Jr. was just the fourth Black American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Davis’s first posting out of West Point was as a newly commissioned second lieutenant in Company F, 24th Infantry Regiment, at Fort Benning, Georgia. He saved a September 1936 “Special Recipes” book containing 72 recipes, which became part of his personal papers.
Melissa set out to prepare the Chicken Salad recipe, but quickly discovered that the ingredient proportions were quite large—the recipe was written to feed 100 men! She adapted the recipe to feed just herself and found it quite tasty.
Elizabeth tried to modify the porcupine beef balls recipe that was also designed for 100 men. Do you know how big a "#10" can of tomato sauce is? It’s approximately three quarts! The recipe suffered from the smaller proportions, so the rice should have been precooked to avoid crunchiness. The addition of parmesan and fresh basil helped a little, but this recipe was not a hit.
In 1937, Benjamin Davis married Agatha Scott, who travelled with him from Fort Benning to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where Davis was first a professor of military science and then a member of the first class of what would later be known as the Tuskegee Airmen. He was selected to lead the new 99th Pursuit Squadron, the Army Air Corps' first all-Black air unit, and later the 332d Fighter Group in Europe during World War II. Agatha remained in Alabama, where she noted in a May 17, 1944 letter that “there have been a few incidents with the townspeople and tempers are short on both ends,” but she also related a story in which a young pilot “wanted us to know that he’d never met a better escort squadron than the 99th.”
After the war, Davis spent time in the United States at various postings, including the Pentagon. He returned overseas to Korea in 1953. Agatha later joined him for tours of duty in Japan, Taiwan, Germany, and the Philippines.
For dessert, Elizabeth timed her attempt at Agatha Davis’s “Five Minute Fudge,” from Agatha's time as a member of the Taipei Air Force Officers' Wives' Club from 1955 to 1957. It definitely took longer than five minutes, but was very easy and fudgy!
Who’s up for trying the Taipei Air Force Officers' Wives' Club's "Wacky Cake" recipe in their own home? It's "wacky" because there are no butter, eggs, or milk in the recipe. Let us know in the comments how it turns out.
Start heating oven at 350 degrees F. Sift together in an ungreased square 8”x8”x2” pan 1½ cups flour, ½ tsp. salt, 3 T cocoa, 1 tsp. soda and 1 cup sugar. Make three holes in dry ingredients. In first hold, put 1 tsp. vinegar; 2nd hole t tsp vanilla; 3rd hole 5 T oil. Over the whole thing pour 1 cup water. Mix well right in the pan. Bake 25 to 30 minutes. It tasts [sic] just like regular ole Devils’ Food cake.