Oppenheimer: How Manhattan Project Personnel Dined At Los Alamos
Image Credit: Oppenheimer's ID badge at the Los Alamos laboratory

AS Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer — a biopic on the life and times of America’s “father of the atomic bomb” — releases, attention will be focussed once again on the Manhattan Project, the top-secret mission to develop a nuclear weapon before Germany during World War II. J Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist extraordinaire, helmed the Project, which relocated an enormous workforce — scientists, military personnel, technicians and the likes, as well as their families — to Los Alamos, New Mexico. 

From 1942 onwards, the population at Los Alamos steadily grew, going as high as 6,000. How to feed and house the incoming staff was always a matter of concern. The main project site was housed on what used to be a ranch — a residential school for boys recovering from tuberculosis — and it was deemed suitable for the requirements of the Manhattan Project: secrecy, isolation, space. 

Grocery store at Los Alamos, New Mexico

If you’ve been keeping up with the press around Nolan’s film, you’ll know that Oppenheimer was quite emaciated. (Actor Cilian Murphy reportedly “ate just an almond a day” to emulate J Robert’s distinctive frame.) He seemingly survived on packs of cigarettes, his nervous energy and the intense martinis he concocted himself. This wasn’t a symptom solely of adulthood; in childhood too, Robert was “cornstalk thin”, eating mostly chocolate and artichokes. His go-to lunch was a peanut butter toast with chocolate syrup. Eschewing food then was par for the course when Oppeheimer was at Los Alamos.

Not that life at Los Alamos was bursting with possibilities for indulgences. Located in the middle of nowhere, services were added slowly and steadily: a postal exchange, a commissary. There was a full-fledged dry goods store, with cans and products stacked neatly on shelves, as customers milled around. During the war, once restrictions on using water for gardening were lifted, the scientists’ families began tending to “Victory Gardens” and growing their own fresh produce. 

Meanwhile, the Fuller Lodge — a graceful hall constructed of pine logs — served as the dining hall for the “citizens”. Incidentally, the nutritionist who had looked after the boys when Los Alamos was still a school, stayed back to oversee the diets of the new residents. It wasn’t an easy task: from providing adequate nutrition for a limited number of growing boys, she was suddenly saddled with planning proper meals for hundreds — anywhere between 200-400 at one time — of grown men. Photos of the Fuller Lodge’s interior would be difficult to differentiate from any other elegant, family-serving dining establishments of the era.

Trips into Santa Fe offered the Manhattan Project staffers the few opportunities to unwind over drinks and bonhomie. A local bar called “La Fonda” was one of their favourite watering holes. Here too, officials were stationed with the express purpose of preventing any of the gathered men from spilling one mission-related detail too many while in their cups. Another popular establishment was the Otowi Bridge House, where the owners — a woman called Edith Warren and her companion Atilano Montoya — hosted cosy dinners for groups of 10. 

A description of one of the meals served here lists “a stew with fresh herbs; posole, a Native American dish made with parched corn; poached fruit; and Warner’s magical chocolate cake”. In 1943, Oppenheimer requested Warner to have only the Los Alamos scientists and their families as guests, and she agreed. Clearly, even if he wasn’t a gourmand himself, Oppenheimer knew the value of good food, especially for those working in such stressful circumstances. 

Announcement about Victory Gardens at Los Alamos

Conditions at Los Alamos continued to improve. There was an “East Cafeteria” that could easily seat up to 400 people at a time. (The building has now been converted into a cultural performance hall.) And there was also a new local favourite: the Owl Bar & Cafe, a joint that served beer and a green chili cheeseburger that’s still considered one of America’s best.

Oppenheimer and his colleagues moved away from Los Alamos once the war ended. The building that served as his residence on the ranch is now someone else’s home, and as private property, isn’t included on the sightseeing circuit for visitors to the area. His life would take several unexpected turns, ending at the age of 62, due to throat cancer. But maybe traces of his genius still linger in Los Alamos — the unnerving intensity and burning ambition leaving its mark and settling like so much fine dust on one of the many mesas.