Military Chow

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A truly hilarious video from 1943, Food For Fighters, detailing the dedication of the Army to quality rations for the troops.  I imagine a room full of GI’s watching this video and laughing their heads off.  Virtually every veteran of World War II I have encountered has complained about the quality of the rations.  My late father-in-law was a Navy cook during the War.  He developed a life long detestation  of mutton when he was forced to prepare it for six months aboard ship because it was the only meat they were supplied.  He did his imaginative best, and he was a very good cook, but the sailors were ready to mutiny by the time the ship received a different type of meat.

Veterans of more recent conflicts have been slightly more complimentary as to the quality of military food, although I would note that when servicemen and women are given a choice they usually choose to not eat in mess halls, although the food is free for most enlisted personnel, and a common nickname for MREs, Meals Ready to Eat, is Meals Rejected by the Enemy.  Never fear however, something new is on the horizon:

The Army has developed a sandwich that purportedly stays fresh for two years.

But this sandwich is spectacularly resilient to threats (or hurdles, in Army speak) that would turn it into a dry, moldy mess if they could. Unlike probably any other sandwich out there, this one keeps the microbial forces of nature at bay for up to two years.

How on earth could a BBQ chicken sandwich stay fresh for two years, you ask? And is it even edible? (Yes, according to soldiers interviewed by the BBC. One said, “I’m a big fan.”) We were still puzzled, but fortunately senior food technologist Michelle Richardson was happy to explain.

According to Richardson, who concocts food for the armed forces as part of the Combat Feeding Directorate at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center in Natick, Mass., the trick to extending shelf life is figuring out how to control pH, water activity, moisture content, and oxygen inside the packaging.   “If you think about bacteria as sprinters in a food system, what we’re trying to do is put enough hurdles in so they can’t survive,” Richardson tells The Salt. She says the hurdles include lowering the pH, binding the water to something the bacteria can’t use it, and adding a packet of “oxygen scavengers,” or iron filings, to absorb the oxygen so that it’s not available to bacteria, yeast and mold. “All this keeps the bread, meat and filling from going rancid,” she says.


Two year old sandwiches?  Yummy!  Alas, I suspect  this old Jerry Lewis song still rings true:



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  1. The Army has always suspected that the Navy gets better rations Paul. That is why it is a tradition in the Army to steal Navy rations. As I understand it, it is also a tradition in the Marine Corps to steal all supplies from the Army that are not nailed down! 🙂 Ah, midnight requisitions!

  2. My grandmother was a nurse in the army in WWII stationed in England. For many months the only vegetable they had was brussel sprouts. Grandma was the type of woman who always ate her veggies (or at least would not admit to not eating them.) So she diligently scarfed down the endless supply. I believe it was many years after the war before she could face them again.
    (On a side note, my three year old watched the Jerry Lewis clip and said with disgust, “He has pee pee and poo poo.” Everyone’s a critic.)

  3. Well, Paul you bubbleheads definitely ate better than we skimmers did aboard surface ships. The food on the Navy bases overseas (like Sasebo, Japan and Subic Bay, Phillipines) was actually pretty good. MRE also stands for Meal Refusing to Exit…the gastrointestinal tract that is.

  4. You’re right, Greg, we bubbleheads did eat better than skimmers did. I think that with the advent of nuclear propulsion, the Navy was able to have excellent food refrigeration aboard submarines, and due to the nature of the work – being submerged for months at a time – spared no expense when it came to feeding the crews on submarines.

  5. Is military food to food like military music is to music?

    Each Friday morning, the CO made us eat breakfast in the Army-run mess hall in Ramsein AB. It was the best meal I had all week. No, seriously! They cooked three-egg omelets with all the fixings while you watched. Of course, we did favors for the cooks and they did some for us.

    Boy, you never wanted to aggravate the medics. They could lose your shot records.

  6. The Civilian run eateries I’ve tried on various bases were good– Pensacola’s NATTC’s deserved its award winning status, the various Air Force places justify the price tag (only free if you’re on orders for the air force, although they Navy will “pay you back”…*giggles at the notion of someone believing that*) and the on-base Galley for Sasebo has food whose quality was only surpassed by the quality of the facilities. (And they had a real set of Samurai armor when you walked in.)

  7. On the ships I was on, the food could either be really bad (it just a ittle more than edible most of the time) or pretty good. I do remember, shortly after I reported to my first ship (USS Dubuque LPD-8) in Japan, thy moved this Senior Chief HT (hull technician–affectionately referred to as tird chasers) to the mess decks. I don’t kow what kind of mojo he had going on, but the food was great the short time he was on the mess decks.

    I also remember when we had this gung-ho skipper who would sometimes compensate us enlisted guys with high quality steaks when we had steel beach picnics (BBQs at sea). This was surely a welcome change from the fillet-o-shoe sole that normally got passed off to us as steak.

    Well, Don, swabbie life for me was no picnic either. Try working 16+ hour days in a hot boiler room that often got up 130+ regularly. I did that for five years than did my two year vacation (aka shore duty) and then got out.

  8. I guess that is why they call it service Greg! Parts of the Army I enjoyed, but I couldn’t imagine making a career of it, but I am glad there are good men and women who do, in all the armed services!

  9. I do remember, shortly after I reported to my first ship (USS Dubuque LPD-8) in Japan, thy moved this Senior Chief HT (hull technician–affectionately referred to as tird chasers) to the mess decks. I don’t kow what kind of mojo he had going on, but the food was great the short time he was on the mess decks.

    Going off of my interaction with the HTCS that made things tick, he made them follow the recipes. Even if it did mean they had to get different measuring devices. Man, was that guy great about understanding the idea of doing EXACTLY what the instructions said or he’d come down like the wrath of God! (For those who don’t know–very important when dealing with the sewage of several thousand people on a tiny tin box.)

  10. “I guess that is why they call it service Greg! Parts of the Army I enjoyed, but I couldn’t imagine making a career of it, but I am glad there are good men and women who do, in all the armed services!”

    That’s true. I had no desire of making a career of the Navy either, especially after fives aboard ship. I too enjoyed parts of the Navy (some a little too much). But all in all, I believe am a much better man because of that experience.

  11. That was supposed to read “after five years aboard ship”. Computers make my Detroit Public school educated grammar even worse!

  12. Yeah Foxfier, old school chiefs (especially those who were snipes and deckapes) certainly did know how run the Navy didn’t they?

  13. And their galley! Too bad they got rid of the Chief’s Galley Navy-wide after one guy embezzled. (I was the only female sent to mess duty that turn that was polite, so they sent me to serve in the Chief’s mess– which included being house keeping for the female chief’s berthing.)
    I suspect they were just looking for an excuse.

    Going back on topic…if I remember reading about some of the issues with food during WWI, although I’ve only read about fiction set in the UK (author likes to inject history and hobbies), slop-in-a-tray was a pretty big advancement. Being able to eat it without being medically sick, instead of disgusted, was a big deal.

    *watches the video again, with play-by-play*
    Highly amused at the “nutrition has become a science!”
    And like the Beautiful Assistant.
    And suddenly I see why my dad’s twin got jokes about his dad bringing that nose back from Italy… (the guy that talks with the bread is an archetype)
    Lack of bones would explain a lot of the lack of flavor. The…um… lack of standard aging and side effects that the farm boys would’ve been use to probably didn’t help. (Well into the 60s, my mom was going out to the well house, shaving off hair and cutting dinner off of the hanging beef. Eew, but it tenderized things so much that they didn’t NEED ground beef.)
    What was that guy doing with the humidity-over-time meter? You don’t need to twist that thing like that unless you’re putting in a new ink-stick. (probable answer: making it look cool. Did that regularly with a series of o-scopes and sig-gens.)
    *laughs* Oh, that poor guy! Poor Colonel Isken! I feel bad about laughing at the flat acting, but I bet he was miserable doing that horrible script.
    When I think about what a lot of folks would have been eating usually, “a can of meat for every meal” sounds REALLY good. (Just because my family were mostly ranch-born doesn’t mean I don’t realize they had it good food-wise– especially with the great depression right there.)

  14. Don

    I was in a mess line once and by the door they had sign.

    All meals are based on the four basic food groups.

    (They served abundant well prepared and good tasting food.)

    It is a soldiers absolute and unalienable right to complain about the food. Most of the cooks I have known took pride in preparing good food and did as well as varying circumstances allowed, despite knowing they would seldom if ever get a thank you.

    Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

  15. I would not generally blame the cooks for poor meals Hank. I think sometimes it was poor quality of supplies, unimaginative menus that sometimes the cooks had little control over and, sometimes, too high expectations for food that had to be prepared in mass quantities and not under the best conditions.

  16. My brother-in-law’s father, and his brother were cooks in the army in WW2. They were brought up on a large outack farm in the central Hawkes Bay in the North Island, so were both able to scrape up a meal from almost anything, as they used to go hunting pigs and deer in the rugged and mountainous bush country and stay away for days living off the land. They were both crack shots – and when WW2 broke out, they enlisted thinking that they would be used as snipers or something similar.
    But as is always the case with the army,you get put where you least expect and they were both appointed as cooks. They were shipped off to Guadalcanal, after brief orientation in New Caledonia, not long after the Americans launched their assault to re-take the Pacific Islands in 1942 – around Aug/Sept. only a matter of weeks after the allied landing at which is now known as Honiara (where my son worked a couple of years ago). I think the RNZ Air Force sent 6 Hudson bombers there first to take over recon and patrols to allow the US aircraft to concentrate on the offensive actions. I’m not quite sure exactly when Wally and his brother got there, but the Japanese were still within sniping distance of the allied base – so he said it used to get pretty scary.
    He loved being close to the Americans because their tucker was generally different or better than ours, so they used to trade – or steal. 🙂
    This led some of the Americans to claim, that if they stationed the NZ troops on the Japanese occupied islands, the war would be over in a week, because the Japanese would have nothing left to eat or fight with. 😆

  17. He loved being close to the Americans because their tucker was generally different or better than ours, so they used to trade – or steal.

    As mentioned before– Acquisition runs!

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