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How My Dad Mastered Italian Cooking in the 10th Mountain Division

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(Gerry Furth-Sides) Admittedly my dad’s short-lived career with Italian cuisine catering was more ” front of the house” than chef.  And Lee  (Zoli) Furth’s  inspiration was to keep himself himself in his beloved Tenth Mountain division,  the best of both worlds after his escape from Europe:   revenge against the Germans – and on skis.  And his officer’s catering project to the officers did keep him in.  It was one of his  “funny times” war stories, plenty of irony and no one dying in this one.

The men, exuberant after they secured Mt. Belvedere, January 10, 1945 to open the industrial Po Valley secured by the Germans, in a rout that stunned both the Germans and the Americans proved their mettle after three years of winter mountain training in Colorado.  The troops were gearing up for the campaign north to Lago de Garda  and there was no snow in the forecast.

During the final summer training at Camp Swift in Texas, Captain Fricke needed “a couple of smart guys” in the career army aide station unit, replacing the long-time director with Zoli,  adding college graduates Hal Jackson, Jim Snook and Lew Lange.

The cantankerous career army Oklahoma aide station crew hated the new order and requested Sgt. Furth transferred out.  Their reason:  “he worked them too hard.”

Zoli would do anything to stay in the Tenth.  He had narrowly escaped from Europe (securing a seat on the last civilian plane out of Italy was only the beginning of the last leg of this story) and had almost as much of a struggle with his Austrian “enemy alien” status to get into the Tenth, then become a ski and mountain climbing instructor/supervisor.

Stunned at the request, Zoli remembered  Colonel Ernst N. Cory admiring General Rolfe’s catering tent set-up at Mount Rainier when the colonel took him there to teach mountain climbing – and lose his European accent.

Colonel Ernst N. Cory took Zoli to teach the college boys and get rid of his Austrian accent. Instead the boys loved it, and imitated him.

So Zoli offered to cater in return for being allowed to stay.  As he tells it,  “I told Captain Fricke and Colonel Cory, ‘why don’t you get a ten-man cooking set and draw rations, and I gonna do the cooking.  You won’t have to walk down the road for meals.'”  They agreed.

The whole idea was preposterous.  Zoli grew up with fine dining in five major cities, home and restaurants, where he “knew the menus forward and backward.”

Lee’s opulent family dining room in Vienna. I had the 16×18 oriental rug; I have four paintings. The table had a pedal under it to summon servers.

But he had never cooked a day in his life.  The ash on his cigarette burned to the very end the first time he carefully studied the label on a box of jello for the first time.

First, Lee rounded up the college guys – Hal Jackson, Jim Snook and Lew Lange.  He collected their ration slips for cigarettes and chocolate bars, powdered eggs and alcohol. He traded them to the local Italian villagers for fresh eggs, milk, cheese and vegetables.

“We stored the food in a little cave across the road.  And I told the guys to put sandbags there in case the Germans started firing on us. We were firing guns then but we weren’t seeing any Germans.

“We had one of those triangle pots holding the canvas water container on a tripod, and we had to dig a hole and put some rocks underneath.

“After a while I didn’t like the insecure (tri-pod) position we dug so I moved  it over a little bit to the right side.  The artillery officers used to come over late afternoon and have cocktails from the alcohol we got at the station for ‘medical purposes’.   When Colonel Cory would leave and trip on the open old tri-pod hole he’d swear the same thing, “’goddamn these shell holes. One of these days I’m gonna break my leg.”

“The ‘dining room’ happened to be in a bombed-out house. The first room was blown away entirely.  The kitchen had a big window that we used as a pass-through for the food I cooked outside in a small two-man tent.

“Once we got set up, we even had a couple of the villagers come over and shave the guys and do laundry. One of the them even tailored my dress uniform.

“Naturally I varied the food and it wasn’t as dull as the mess cook. I made jello with fruit in it.  We had wine. I set the table in the morning for breakfast and I put a candle in the middle of the table for lunchtime and suppertime.

“One night Colonel Cory invited a high ranking officer from the 616th artillery, and I made steaks.  When I was taking over the steaks, I tripped and the meat fell into the gravel. It was the last one. I had to scrape the gravel off with a knife and serve it to him!

“Alongside it, I  made fresh spinach with bread crumbs and scrambled eggs.   The officer asked me, ‘what is this?’ and I told him spinach.  He said he never liked spinach, but this really tasted good.  He asked, ‘what did you put in this spinach?’  I told him breadcrumbs and eggs and bacon.   He just looked at me for awhile.  And then he asked, ‘So why the Hell did you have to put the spinach in there then?’

“After dinner he told us he liked it very much.  He liked it so much he wanted to transfer me to the general’s headquarters over there to be a cook.

“But I didn’t want to be a cook.  Lucky, Captain Fricke and Colonel Cory needed me.  Besides, I didn’t know how to cook anything else.

“We stayed there about two weeks until we got our equipment. We didn’t see snow again.  But it was only the beginning of the warfare for us.

” The infantry used to pass by in jeeps and say, ‘look at those goddamn medics.  Nice life.’

“It was a nice life. Only minor injuries coming in then. By the next major combat  it became  like a butcher shop. ”

Hal Jackson at the 10th Mountain Reunion

For me the rest of this astonishing story came when I met up with retired Dupont chemical engineer, Hal Jackson.  It was on the stage of the Florence Cemetery at the only  Tenth Mountain Division reunion trip each of were to take.

His face  lit up at the recognition of my name.   And the very same “college boy, and gentleman,” Hal Jackson, as my dad described him, recalled the catering tent exactly the same way as my dad, including the candles on the table for lunch and supper.

Our group of veterans and descendants during the hill country trip was treated as ceremoniously as though the war ended yesterday.  
I had the fresh eggs (with deep orange yolks) and the cheese, the pasta and wine.  And they were every bit as good as my dad described.

A server at Lago do Garda carefully fillets a whole fish table side at the last reunion meal

 


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Author
Gerry Furth-Sides

Gerry Furth-Sides

Content Editor/Columnist

Photo-journalist Gerry Furth-Sides has been covering the ethnic and American culinary scene in California since it first came into prominence 25 years ago.