History Highlights

By Chrissie Reilly, DLA Historian

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GOOD EATS:

MILITARY FOOD RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT


“The Army marches on its stomach” is a phrase credited to Napoleon, but the need to feed a military on the move is a timeless concern.

The Defense Logistics Agency helps supply high-quality, nutritious food in military dining facilities worldwide. On U.S.-based installations, at sea, and in theater, DLA has systems to ensure provisions reach their destinations on time and in good condition — primarily through DLA Troop Support. Its Subsistence division ensures customers worldwide get meals regardless of the operational or geographic challenges. Through more than a dozen varieties of MREs to fully functioning dining facilities, Subsistence works to provide a worldwide customer base with nutritious food in all climates.

In addition, the DoD Combat Feeding Research and Engineering Program, with representatives from the four military services and DLA, maintains the technological and intellectual base for this multifaceted initiative. Nutrition science, menu and recipe planning, sanitation, tactical food service equipment and training all take place at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts.

Food writer and journalist Anastacia Marx de Salcedo used visits to the Natick lab as the basis for her book “Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat,” about the science and technology of military meals. The U.S. military’s prime food objectives are shelf life, durability, taste and cost, Salcedo wrote. “A combat ration, by Congressional mandate, must be able to last for three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit,” she noted.

A great turning point in military culinary history began with Napoleon. He offered a 12,000-franc award to anyone who could create a method to keep food preserved for an army on the move. At the time, the average daily wage in Paris was less than 10 francs. Confectioner and chef Niccolas Appert devised a method to keep food fresh in airtight bottles for several months. He was awarded the 12,000-franc prize in 1810 by Napoleon himself. Later that year, British merchant Peter Durand was granted a patent for preserving food in airtight tins. It was only a few years before this technology crossed the Atlantic.

Eating During the American Revolution

Even before the United States declared independence, the Continental Congress in 1775 made provisions for the enlisted men in the Continental Army. They received peas, beans, vegetables, milk, meat and bread as part of their food allowance. Simple but portable and shelf-stable fare, it was designed to keep troops healthy and on the move.

The Civil War

In 1861, John Ordronaux, in “Hints on the Preservation of Health in Armies,” published the first guidelines for an effective military diet. However, eating in the armed forces was not much different during the Civil War from how it had been during the Revolutionary War.

The invention of canning meant foods could be preserved for long durations. The technique worked, but mass production of canned foods was not available in the 19th Century. By the 1860s, canned foods were no longer new, but they were still not widespread. So canning did not dramatically change military fare by the time of the Civil War.

World War I

The Combat Feeding Research and Engineering Program is a modern institution, but it has a philosophical predecessor that dates back nearly a century. The first formal institution for U.S. military nutrition research was created when the Surgeon General’s office established a Food Division for “safeguarding the nutritional interests of the Army” in 1917.

K rations available in 1943

Maj. H.B. Monroe, the Mess Specialists Division director at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1942 recalled his own experiences with food during his time in the First 

World War. He said: “Plenty of times I sat down to a meal of cold coffee, baked beans, and goldfish [canned salmon] in the war.”

World War II

Before 1940, there was no unified procurement or distribution of food, and each military service was responsible for itself. In 1941, the Army Quartermaster Corps centralized perishable food management into one organization known as the Market Center System. This system used experts such as supermarket executives to supplement Army personnel. According to Col. Karl Detzer in “The Mightiest Army,” the Quartermaster Corps fed the soldier, clothed him, furnished his tents and canteens, knives, forks and spoons, his blankets and the packs to carry them in, and the belts to which to hook the packs and canteens.”

Korea and Vietnam

Despite advances in wartime nutrition and food production, troops during the Korean War were mostly stuck with leftover C rations from World War II, supplemented with canned fruit and cakes. A C ration dinner included hard bread; a canned main course; crackers; chocolate or hard candy; cigarettes; chewing gum; and coffee. Unlike today’s variety, the C ration entrées were simple, like canned spaghetti and meatballs, beef stew or franks and beans.

In 1953, the initiative to centrally procure semi-perishable subsistence and operational rations began. The Defense Subsistence Supply Center, a DLA Troop Support predecessor, was established in Chicago to perform these centralized procurement functions, with eight decentralized regional headquarters left to manage the perishable subsistence items. When the Defense Supply Agency, now DLA, in 1961 began to further centralize the management of common items for the military, this included Subsistence. In 1965, the Defense Subsistence Supply Center, the Defense Clothing and Textile Supply Center, and the Defense Medical Supply Center were consolidated to form the Defense Personnel Support Center in Philadelphia.Military rations during the Vietnam War

Even with the modernization of ration acquisitions in the 1950s, in 1966 thousands of portable, walk-in, refrigerated storage boxes filled with perishable beef, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables began arriving in Vietnam — a logistics miracle.

Army historian Glen C. Morris wrote in the “Quartermaster Professional Bulletin” that few changes occurred in Army service between WWII and the Korean War, but “the war in Vietnam was unique because it presented no clearly defined battle lines.” Similar to recent conflicts, ground transportation was difficult, and the battlefield was fast-moving.

One of the challenges of feeding troops during the Vietnam War was the absence of a permanently established fighting front. A solution to this was mobile kitchen trailers, known as MKTs, which carried food along with troops but usually had no means of refrigeration. C rations in Vietnam were only slightly different from their Korean War versions. (And cigarettes were still included, despite the 1964 surgeon general’s report showing their harm and the 1965 law banning tobacco advertising on TV.)

The Persian Gulf War

In response to the needs of a military on the move, the Meals, Ready to Eat, or MRE, and the Tray Ration, or T ration, were developed in the 1980s. T rations were hot meals for use when cooks were unavailable. MREs were designed to provide a day’s worth of sustenance in a convenient package. Designed to sustain the service member on the front lines, early MREs were not especially well-liked. Textures, flavors, and meal choices were lacking, earning MREs nicknames like “Meals Refused by the Enemy,” “Meals Rejected by Everyone,” and “Materials Resembling Edibles.”

Improvements began in the early 1990s, with brand-name snacks and innovations such as the heat-resistant Hershey’s Desert Bar. Brand-name foods and spices, like Taster’s Choice instant coffee and Tabasco hot sauce, became part of the prepackaged meals. In 1993, the Flameless Ration Heater debuted, allowing a service member to heat a meal by simply adding water to a pouch.

No longer canned spam and candy bars, contemporary MREs are being infused with caffeine, omega-3 fatty acids and the anti-inflammatory curcuminAfghanistan, Iraq and Beyond

Troops now have dozens of MRE menus, with options such as kosher and vegetarian. Professional tasters evaluate mouth feel and “nasal pungency.”

When asked about preferences for specific MREs, Army veteran Joseph Parker recalled, “I’m not a vegetarian, but the ones that were actually the best were the meatless ones. My favorite was the cheese ravioli.” However, all was not lost even if one wound up with a less-than-adored MRE, as the MREs with the grossest entrees always had the best accompaniments, like M&Ms or Skittles.”

Parker said that one of his fondest memories regarding military eating was soldiers’ ability to come up with even better offerings by combining multiple MREs. “You’d find one MRE with a Dreamsicle cookie, and then another MRE with milkshake powder, which you would add a small amount of water to, and then use that as icing on the cookie,” he explained. “Cookies and milkshakes didn’t come together so you had to trade for them. … That was the best: the frosted milkshake cookie.”

DLA employee and Army veteran Mason Lowery, who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, explained, “It is a soldier’s right to complain about MREs, but I loved them.” From the coffee packs to the jalapeño cheese spread, Lowery raved about the rations he ate. One of the best items he ever had from an MRE came from the Meal, Cold Weather ration. “The eggs were fluffy and delicious, and with the hot sauce that came with it, I think they were the best eggs I’ve ever eaten.”

The Meal, Cold Weather will not freeze and supplies extra drink mixes for countering dehydration. In addition, each meal contains around 200-300 more calories over the standard MRE to maintain energy in extreme cold.

The future of military cuisine is unwritten. But whatever tomorrow’s warfighters are eating, DLA will have played a key role in creating, refining, manufacturing, packaging, and delivering it — at home or overseas.