SOS, Down East!
One of the livelier points of the drive along coastal U.S. 1, at least until a couple years back, was an old farm in the town of Warren that appeared to be the forward operations post for a platoon of Marines. Actually there was only one guy in there, with three generations of his family, but he made a pretty good show of it.
Out front sat a huge builder inset with the USMC emblem in brass. Nearby, three flags fluttered on tall staffs, proclaiming allegiance to the Corps, the State of Maine, and the USA. But the real eye-catcher was unfurled only in certain weeks of summer: a large and quite professional banner declaring:
"MARINES! SOS BREAKFAST — SATURDAY 0800 HOURS"
If you've served in the nation's armed forces, you know all about SOS. If fact if you're a careerist, I'd estimate that 32% of your body mass derives from this quintessential military delicacy — which, for the uninitiated, might politely be characterized as creamed beef on toast. Though no one in my hearing has ever referred to it by anything other than its scatological acronym.
Nostalgia is a weird and dangerous thing. The Marine Corps, vis-a-vis myself, might as well exist on a different planet. But each time I drove past that banner, I really wanted to tuck in to a sloppy, brimming platter of SOS.
You might wonder why I didn't just speed home and cook it up. For some reason that never remotely occurred to me. SOS is a communal dining experience. The recipe, which seems to vary from one service to another, is a high-level secret. Making it at home, unsupervised, is probably against regulations.
Years passed, as years do. And then, what do you know — one fine spring morning, I found myself working in a classroom shoulder-to-shoulder with the daughter of the selfsame Marine. In Maine, this kind of thing happens all the time. We don't even regard it as coincidence. We wonder why it took so long.
"Oh my God," I said. "This is great. I've always wanted to go to one of those SOS breakfasts."
The lady, whose name was Allison, looked at me appraisingly, up and down. "I don't know," she said. "They're real Marines."
Smack. I got what she meant, though. My own military days are long behind me, and they were spent in the U.S. Coast Guard, a branch not noted for biting the necks off beer bottles.
Jump forward five or six years. I was sitting last week with my young friend Jay watching an episode of Band of Brothers. Jay has a brother in the Marines and is thinking himself of doing a stint in the military after graduation. Anyway, there on screen a soldier was trudging through the chow line with a piece of toast on a plate. From behind, we see an arm extend with a ladle of pale brown slop, which is dumped unceremoniously on the toast.
"SOS!" I exclaimed.
"What?" said Jay.
"S--- on a shingle," I explained. And then, discerning that this hadn't made things abundantly clear, I said, "Wait, you're going into the service, and you've never heard of SOS?"
Great Thing #47 about the iPad: you can search the Internet without shifting your comfy position on the sofa. I googled, loosely speaking — in point of fact, since Google has turned evil, I binged — and soon found myself in possession of half a dozen SOS recipes, which turn out not to be secret after all, though their authenticity is open to question.
We've been working our way through these systematically (gaining, I fear, substantial body mass in the process), and this morning, April Fool's Day, while a whimsical nor'easter batters the cottage, I believe I have hit upon the right one. At any rate, the results are pretty close to what I remember from my Coast Guard days. I tweaked a couple things for the refined Maine palette, and I present the following for your inspection.
DOWN EAST SOS
3/4 lb. lean ground beef
6 breakfast biscuits or slices of toast
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, diced
1-1/2 Tbs. butter, oil or bacon fat
3 Tbs. flour
2 cups whole milk
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
Salt, pepper(s), hot sauce to taste
Brown and crumble the beef. Drain. Add onions, garlic, oil, and seasonings; fry until tender. Cover, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Start cooking biscuits or break out the bread for toasting. Warm plates.
Return beef mixture to the burner, spread flour evenly on top, add milk & Worcestershire sauce. Stir while bringing slowly to boil. Boil at least 3 minutes (sauce will be thicker with longer boiling time). Arrange toast or biscuits on warm plates.
Shout at diners to report to mess hall. Require them to hold plates while you slop SOS mixture in a seemingly careless fashion with old-fashioned metal ladle. Allow some mix to spill off edge of plate. Shout at diners to chow down.
Serves 3-4, or 2 hungry teenagers.