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march/april 2008

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BY XANDE ANDERER
A good meal, first and foremost, must be served hot. And this meal is very hot. Rolling waves of steam sweep upward, filling the air with the aroma of garlic and paprika. Dinner tonight is sausage and spicy Cajun rice. There’s almond poppyseed pound cake for dessert and hot chai tea. Where, pray tell, is this meal is being served? Vietnam-era C-Ration Entrees
Beef Steak
Ham and Eggs, Chopped
Ham Slices
Turkey Loaf
Beans and Wieners
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Beefsteak, Potatoes and Gravy
Ham and Lima Beans
Meatballs and Beans
Boned Chicken
Chicken and Egg Noodles
Meat Loaf
Spiced Beef

2008 MRE Entrees
Chili w/Beans
Pork Rib
Beef Ravioli
Chicken Breast
Chicken w/Noodles
Beef Stew
Meatloaf w/Gravy
Beef Patty
Chili & Macaroni
Chicken Fajita
Vegetable Lasagna
Sloppy Joe Filling
Tuna in Pouch
Beef Enchilada
Spicy Penne Pasta
Cheese Tortellini
Meatballs w/Marinara
Chicken w/Salsa
Chicken w/Dumplings
Chicken Pesto & Pasta
Cheese & Veggie Omelet
Pot Roast w/Vegetables
Spaghetti w/Meat Sauce
Veggieburger w/BBQ Sauce

Would you believe on a remote mountain pass in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province?

The age-old maxim holds that an army moves on its stomach. But soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars to Vietnam were forced to eat essentially the same tins of meat and beans. That has all changed in recent years as scientists and nutritionists have joined forces to make extraordinary changes in what American soldiers eat in the field.

To see just how far battlefield rations have come in recent years, you only need to see how little it improved over its first 170 years.

The canning process was the answer to a 19th century military challenge from Napoleon himself. Concerned about rampant malnutrition plaguing his French forces, Napoleon longed for a means of preserving food for his planned campaign into Russia. He offered a prize of 12,000 francs to the person who could do it. After several years of experimentation, a Parisian confectioner, Nicolas Appert, submitted his solution and won the prize in 1810.

The causes of spoilage were not known at the time, but Appert had observed that wine sealed in airtight glass bottles did not spoil. He experimented with various glass bottles filled with foods such as beef, fowl, eggs, milk, and prepared entrées. (For publicity, he once prepared an entire mutton). Appert’s perfected process employed a vise to insert corks firmly into heavy, large-mouthed bottles, with an air space left at the top. The bottles were then wrapped in canvas for protection and dropped into boiling water until the contents were thoroughly cooked. A more “soldier-proof” tin can replaced glass shortly thereafter.

Appert’s method was both simple and practical, and it gained quick acceptance by French forces. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the armies and navies of both France and the opposing coalition forces were carrying canned food into combat.

From that point forward, “tinned” food became essential to military campaigns and explorations alike. Canned meat and stew were carried on expeditions to the Far East, Africa, and both Poles. The demands of the large-scale wars of the nineteenth century—the Crimean War, the American Civil War, and the Franco-Prussian War—fostered improvements in the mass production of military rations. But they did little to change the type and quality of the chow itself. Soldiers in the American Civil War told stories of waiting until dark so they wouldn’t have to see their rations while they ate them.

Despite the progress made in manufacturing rations, the soldiers ate the same “hog and hominy” as soldiers had before them.

During World War I, the demand for huge quantities of cheap, high-calorie food to feed millions of soldiers was immense. Armies struggled with the sheer logistics of securing food that could survive trench conditions and not spoil between the factory and the front lines. The soldiers generally subsisted on extremely low-quality tinned foods, such as the British “Bully Beef” (cheap corned beef) and something called Maconochies Irish Stew.

As the war reached a stalemate and troops bogged down into trench warfare, two armies attempted to improve morale with better-quality food: In 1917, the French Army attempted to issue a more “French” assortment of dishes, such as coq au vin, in their tins. The Italians experimented with canned ravioli and spaghetti with mediocre results. The British Army dealt with canned food shortages simply by issuing cigarettes to suppress appetites.

Latecomers to the action, American soldiers survived on hastily prepared “trench rations” consisting almost always of a one-pound can of corned beef, two tins of hard bread, a teaspoon each of sugar and salt, ground coffee, and cigarettes. Although this trench ration was intended to be prepared as a hot meal, it seldom was. Packed in unwieldly cylindrical cans, each meal weighed about two pounds and contained about 3,300 calories. Although durable and well-protected from poison gas, the cans were heavy and difficult to handle. And nutritionally they were completely inadequate.

A slightly more nutritionally balanced combat ration was adopted by the U.S. military just before World War II. This was when the “Meal, Combat Individual,” or “C-Ration,” arrived on the scene: 4,500-calorie meals of meat and beans, meat-and-vegetable hash, or meat-and-vegetable stew, packed into six 12-ounce cans. While C-Rations were designed for only a few days’ use, the reality of warfare meant soldiers often ate them for days or weeks on end. Complaints naturally ensued, though the military was pleased with the combination of portability and economy.

At the height of the war in 1944, over 105 million C-Rations had been produced. This measure of success ensured the C-Ration would live a long life—remaining fundamentally unchanged through the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

By the time of Vietnam, C-Rations had been expanded to twelve standard Combat Meals and included canned fruit, candy, and crackers. The meals still were designed without regard for nutrition or variety. The C-Ration was never intended to lift a soldier’s spirit or delight his palette. It was the most basic form of nourishment, intended solely to keep a soldier from starving in the field.

One Vietnam veteran recalled: “It seemed like the military had the same philosophy as my mother—‘You’ll eat whatever I cook.’ The only difference is my mother never fixed anything as bad as Ham and Muthas.”

Each individual C-Ration was made up of six cans: three M-Units containing a canned entrée, three B-units containing cheese, crackers, and candy, and a canned dessert. A foil accessory pack with drink mix, salt, sugar packets, a plastic spoon, a pack of four cigarettes, and several sheets of toilet paper also was included. Three or four of the venerable P-38 can openers—purportedly named for the 38 punches required to open a can—were packed loose in each case of 12 meals. Most ended up worn around GIs’ necks on their dog tag chains.

The sheer inconvenience of a meal that required 38 punches to open and a separate heat source to prepare would almost certainly seem absurd to any soldier in today’s military.

There was, however, a hint of what was on the horizon: Lurpfood.
First issued in 1964, the LRRP ration, or Lurpfood, was a surprisingly lightweight, compact ration that did away with the cans. The meals had been designed specifically for Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs) who found the standard C-Ration far too heavy. The packets weighed eleven ounces—approximately a third of the weight of a C-Ration.

They were built around one of eight precooked, freeze-dried entrées in a vacuum-sealed “reconstitution package,” which became a hot meal with the addition of hot water. Though the meals were intended to be hydrated, they could be eaten dry if necessary. Menus included much more appetizing fare: chili, chicken stew, and even freeze-dried ice cream. They were very well received in the field.

LRRP patrols passing though rear areas brought the rations with them, sharing them with the amazed GIs stationed there.

To a regular GI accustomed to eating beans and dicks from a hot tin, Lurpfood seemed like a futuristic wonder. “You have to understand,” explained one veteran, “at that time we hadn’t seen anything like it. There was no such thing as freeze-dried ice cream or cup o’ ramen yet. This was spaceman stuff.”

Upon their return to the world, many of the men who had lived on these rations for up to ten days at a time wrote to the Army Quartermaster. They wanted to purchase some for use on hunting and camping trips. It was this “highly acceptable” response to the LRRP ration that prompted the military to consider overhauling its menu and led to a completely different approach to field rations.

After several key breakthroughs in food preparation and packaging developed under the DoD Combat Feeding Directorate, the U.S. military unveiled “Meals Ready to Eat,” or MREs, in 1980, and began to phase out the C-Ration.

“In the beginning, we called them ‘three lies for the price of one,’” said one senior Army NCO who served in both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. “It wasn’t a meal. It wasn’t ready, and you sure couldn’t eat it.”

The twelve entrées offered in the original version of the MRE left much to be desired. But they did spawn a renaissance of clever nicknames: Meals Rejected by Everyone, Meals Rarely Edible, Morsels Rejected in Ethiopia. Several early entrées earned their own nicknames. Perhaps most famous were the sealed packets of four hot dogs in gelatin, which quickly became known as “the four fingers of death.”

“Nasty things like tuna casserole and ham log just didn’t do it for us. We were better off chucking them and saving ourselves the weight,” said one Desert Storm veteran.

But steady improvements over the next ten years fine-tuned the meals to correspond to the tastes of an ethnically diverse fast-food generation raised on Tex-Mex, Asian, and Cajun food. And along the way, the military made important realizations about the positive impact of better chow on morale in the field.

“In hindsight it seems obvious, but prior to the Combat Feeding Directorate, no one had bothered to study the correlation between the variety of ration foods and troop morale,” said dietitian Judy Aylward, senior food technologist and MRE Project Team Leader.

Since 1954, the job of determining what a GI will eat in the field has fallen on the food technologists of the Combat Feeding Program at the U.S. Army Soldier Support Center in Natick, Massachusetts. Today, Natick food scientists don’t just test the food in the lab. They field-test them, sending potential new MRE selections out with units conducting field exercises. The troops in the field have final say about which meals make the cut.

“God only knows why the DoD thought a modern army could move on ham loaf and weenies,” Aylward said. “With the modern MREs, we actually asked our men and women in uniform what they wanted to eat and had them taste-test the products until acceptable versions were created.”
Clearly the days of “you’ll eat what I serve you” were coming to an end.

However, the researchers at Natick found the task of overhauling the MRE a major challenge: develop a tasty, well-balanced meal in a compact, air- and watertight package, which can survive up to three years stored at 80 degrees, resist vermin, bacteria, and the shock of a 10,000-foot airdrop, plus remain as fresh as the day it was prepared three years later. It was no small feat.

Then there was the new-found emphasis on nutrition. These nutritional demands, outlined in the eight-page Nutritional Standards for Operational Ratios, stipulate that each meal contain about 1,250 calories, with enough carbohydrate, fat, protein, and vitamins to satisfy the Office of the Surgeon General’s nutritional requirements. Three meals a day gives each military man or women about 3,750 calories a day—nearly twice the 2,000 calories most of us should eat to stay fit.

Each tan plastic MRE bag now contains an eight-ounce main course (packaged in a four-layer plastic and foil laminate retort pouch), eight hard military crackers, some form of spread (cheese, peanut butter, or jelly), a fruit-based beverage powder, some form of dessert (cake, candy, cookies, or fruit), and an accessory packet containing coffee or tea, creamer, sugar, salt, matches, a plastic spoon, and toilet paper.

A P-38 is no longer required.

This new, improved brand of MREs doubles the number of meals offered from twelve to twenty-four, with new items rotated in every year for variety. Four vegetarian options, including cheese tortellini and pasta Alfredo, are available. Kosher and Halal menus also are available.

When finally asked what they’d really like to eat, soldiers said resoundingly they wanted spicier, ethnic foods. So now some MREs feature Thai chicken, Jamaican pork chops, or Mexican macaroni. Tiny Tabasco bottles are included in every meal.

“It’s a never-ending process here to develop and field the very best combat rations possible,” said Janice Rosado, a food technologist at Natick. “We listen closely now to what the warfighters tell us they want, and we do our best to give it to them.”

Powdered cappuccino and chai tea are replacing freeze-dried coffee. A powdered Gatorade-type drink is included for quick energy. The military even has developed its own power bar, called the HooAH! Some rations contain dried versions of milk shakes in chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla.

Another change is the military’s deeply entrenched belief that it could create its own suitable substitutes for familiar foods. Such familiar products as Oreos, Twizzlers, and Cheez-Its are now included in MREs whenever possible. “Name-brand recognition provides a little bit of home to the warfighter, which especially helps to improve morale,” Aylward said.

And the cigarettes have been gone since 1975.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough brought about by the MRE is the manner in which soldiers heat their food in the field. Meals no longer have to be eaten cold or soaked in tubs of hot water. Since 1993, cooking has been done via the FRH, or flameless ration heater. An ingenious flameless chemical heating sheet inside a plastic sheath, it is activated by simply pouring in an ounce of water. In less than ten minutes, the food inside has been heated to 212°.

Most soldiers understand the significance of this development. “It makes a huge difference to have piping hot food so fast,” one new veteran said.
As in any war, certain myths persist. Just as soldiers in Vietnam felt eating canned apricots was bad luck, soldiers in the current war circulate their own mythology. The Army insists MREs do not contain saltpeter to suppress a soldier’s libido. The gum in the MRE is a not a laxative, and the nutritionists at Natick deny that the meal has been designed to cause constipation among soldiers in the field (although there is some evidence that an MRE’s low-moisture content may have such an effect on those already suffering from dehydration.)

Despite the great strides made in military cuisine in the last dozen years, the work of the scientists at Natick is far from complete. New dishes generally take two-and-a-half years to develop, test, and approve. With new dishes rotated into the lineup every year, the technicians already are at work on 2010’s menu.

Exploration is also under way to study the use of probiotics (the beneficial bacteria found in items such as yogurt) or nutraceuticals (small nutritional organic molecules). The addition of these microscopic additives may improve nutrition and enhance soldiers’ cognitive and physical performance.

Perhaps the best measure of the success of the DoD Combat Feeding Directorate is the recent rash of MREs appearing for sale on online auction sites. Although each MRE is stamped with the warning “U.S. Government Property: Commercial Resale is Unlawful,” a carton of MREs can fetch as much as $65 on line.

The much-maligned MRE, which spawned so many pernicious nicknames, may actually now stand for “Meals Resold on eBay.”

 

 

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