Kent Whitaker has an appetite for great food and the great stories that birthed the recipes.
His latest book, “Bullets and Bread, Feeding the Great to the Grunts in World War II,” is a culinary history of the best and worst that WWII had to offer as told through the soldiers who had to eat it.
“Bullets and Bread” collects memories and anecdotes about the best and worst chow served up from basic training to Europe, Africa and the Pacific, discusses Allied ration development and the modernization of America’s food production and the quality of chow on ships, subs, the trenches, PT Boats and bombers.
Nashville-native Whitaker is the author of a dozen food-related books including, “Smoke in the Mountains: The Art of Appalachian Barbecue” and “Checkered Flag Cooking: Tailgating Stock Car Racing.”
For the past 25 years, he’s lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee with his wife Ally, son Macee and three dogs.
By day, Whitaker works in graphics and advertising, but he has a separate life dedicated to the love of writing, cooking, and writing about cooking, a love that netted him an appearance on the Food Network television channel where he won the Emeril Live Barbecue Contest.
In Whitaker’s separate life, there’s a place that he desires to retire to and write for the remainder of his days: a little place known as Gulf County.
It was 20 years ago that the Whitakers went searching for a southern vacation spot that would have crystal waters, beautiful beaches and, most importantly, be dog-friendly.
After some searching, the Whitakers landed in Gulf County and now return several times a year.
“It’s full of friendly people,” said Whitaker. “Even as a visitor, you feel like you live there.”
The husband and wife enjoyed the community surrounding area so much that they got a condo on Cape San Blas and became involved with local events and charities.
It was while visiting his son at North Georgia College and State University that the idea for “Bullets and Bread” came together.
While browsing a local gift shop at the base, Whitaker spied a copy of one of his other cookbooks and offered to sign the copy for the clerk. Another store patron approached Whitaker and asked to purchase the inscribed book.
This started up some friendly conversation between the men and soon the veteran shared an anecdote about the challenges of barbecuing in Kuwait during the Gulf War.
Another veteran in the shop, having heard the conversation, stepped in and talked about the large celebrations of food his naval unit would have each time they crossed the equator.
Whitaker, entranced by the stories, immediately knew what his next book would be about.
Having already written numerous cookbooks, the author wanted to take a different approach with his exciting new idea.
As a contributor to the Chattanooga Free Press, Chattanooga Business Journal and Racing Milestones Magazine, he sought a way to combine his journalism background with the food-centric stories.
“I didn't want it to simply be a list of recipes,” said Whitaker. “I wanted it to be about the stories and the people.”
When he pitched the idea to his publisher, History Publishing Company, Whitaker’s plan was to share the stories of veterans from all of the wars. The publisher saw potential in the idea, but recommended that Whitaker focus on WWII veterans, noting that they were disappearing at a much quicker rate and there was history to be preserved.
From concept to finished product, “Bullets and Bread” took four years to reach completion. Whitaker spent countless hours locating veterans with fitting stories, traveling, meeting and running them through his extensive interview process.
Going in, he doubted that he’d find enough contributors, but to his surprise, each conversation led to additional recommendations of veterans to speak with. Museum historians, Memorial Day events and Fourth of July celebrations also provided valuable connections.
For those veterans that the author couldn’t meet with face-to-face, additional time was spent on correspondence via the telephone, email and old fashioned, handwritten letters.
Understanding that war time is never a popular conversation topic, Whitaker was happy that “bad food” often brought a smile to the faces of the 50 plus veterans he spoke with bringing up stories that contained more laughter than heartbreak.
“They didn’t get too emotional telling their stories, but I sure got tore up listening to them!” said Whitaker.
Topics ranged from soldiers who were fed up of eating mutton stew and searched out alternatives, to tales of fishing with dynamite, to stories of hungry soldiers who would try almost anything to avoid eating spam one more time.
Organization was the key to creating the content for the book and very little technology was used when it came to the interview process.
“I did everything the good old fashioned way,” said Whitaker, “I listened and took notes.”
In addition to the book, Whitaker has plans for a TV show called “Chow Line” (the book’s original title) that he envisions as a combination of the Food Network programming and military history. His ultimate goal for the show would be to feature a cook-off between the Coast Guard and the Navy, two military branches known for the quality of their chow.
Whitaker’s bibliography also includes two children’s books and an ongoing project to produce a book of “hometown recipes” for each of the 50 states.
He’s also a member of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary and serves on the National Staff as an AUXCHEF and National Branch Chief. He currently serves the USCG 8th Eastern.
“The book makes a perfect gift for a foodie or a history buff,” said the author. “It’s World War II history in a completely different light--History that should not get lost.”
For more information on “Bullets and Bread” or to purchase the book online, visit Whitaker’s website at www.thedeckchef.com.