Dinner Goes To War
The long battle for edible combat rations is finally being won
AT FIRST GLANCE THE KITCHEN AT NATICK Labs looks like that of any cafeteria: oversized ovens, cavernous caldrons, long tables of shiny stainless steel. But a closer look reveals a peculiar—some would say sinister—edge. At 9:00 A.M. most of the monstrous machines stand silent, except for one that rhythmically shoots streams of beige paste into metal tubes, then crimps and caps them and sends them down the conveyer belt.
I peer into the chugging machinery.
I take a step backward, my hand reflexively covering my mouth. “Tube food?”
“For high-altitude pilots. They can’t remove their oxygen masks,” says my tour guide, snagging a tube from the conveyer belt and squinting at the label. “This one’s, umm, pasta primavera.”
To those familiar with military meals, an Italian entrée in a tube probably isn’t too shocking. Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach, yet soldiers seem to agree that there is an Army conspiracy intent on rendering perfectly normal grub unrecognizable before sending it to the field. Tube food aside, the suspicion is unfounded. In fact, Army scientists charged with creating combat-ready cuisine have made incredible strides during the past century. Today the Army food laboratory is not so much Frankenstein’s workshop as Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, deploying rations filled with cinnamon rolls and peanut butter that, unlike the canned stew of yesteryear, look and taste like the foods they purport to be.
A ration is the amount of food needed to feed one soldier for one day, and the content varies according to whether it is served in camp or at the front. At one end of the spectrum is the A ration, standard cafeteria fare cooked and served by Army chefs. At the other end is the individual combat ration, a selfcontained packet of high-calorie food that can fit into a pocket and be eaten on the run. While Salisbury steak for 100 hungry soldiers is a feat of logistics, grilled chicken that can survive a battlefield is a miracle of science. Combat rations must resist arctic blizzards and desert sandstorms. They must be able to endure up to three years in a ship’s hold and withstand free fall from a helicopter. The package must protect against light, water, rats, bugs, and nuclear radiation. The food itself must add up to 3,600 calories a day, with a full complement of vitamins and minerals (no pills allowed). And it has to taste good, or at least decent, or the soldiers won’t eat it.
Since the 1930s the task of creating usable combat rations has fallen to the Army subsistence laboratories. The other services use rations, but the Army needs the most and therefore takes the lead in research. The latest incarnation of the subsistence lab is the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Command, Sustainability Directorate, in Natick, Massachusetts. More commonly known as Natick Labs, the sprawling complex houses scientists dedicated to improving soldiers’ meals. “We read a lot in the press about the super high-tech weapons that our country has been able to produce,” Gerald Barsch, director of sustainability, says. “But the weapons are only as good as the soldiers who use them. If we can help them run a little faster, think a little quicker, that’s a combat multiplier.”
Surprisingly, given the importance of keeping an army well fed, it wasn’t until this century that combat rations became an issue, and it wasn’t until things got desperate that science became involved. Before World War I, soldiers rarely ate on the front lines. Instead they returned to camp at night and cooked up whatever they could find to fill their bellies. During the Civil War fresh vegetables and bread were rare, and although soldiers sometimes had newly killed beef or pork, they were more likely to subsist on the threeinch-square, half-inch-thick water-and-flour biscuits called hardtack. A favorite dish was hellfire stew, made by soaking hardtack in water for an hour and then frying it in pork grease.
Such beastly brews hardly made for healthy soldiers, and waves of deficiency diseases swept over the troops. The widespread sickness did have one positive outcome: The military started to fret about diet. “They were having problems with diseases such as scurvy, and there was a heightened awareness of nutrition and health,” says Judy Aylward, a food technologist at Natick Labs. “So they started packing up what they called desiccated vegetables. They’d chop them up and dry them and package them into a cube. And then they could boil it, and it would turn back into real vegetables.” In theory anyway. Finding carrot tops and leaves packed into cakes lessened soldiers’ enthusiasm for the greens and led some to nickname them “desecrated vegetables.” There was not much good to say about Civil War food. One Union soldier advised his brother to steer clear of the war. “Though I’ll own it ain’t romantic,” he wrote, “a good soldier cares more, for a good meal than he does for all the glory he can put in a bushel basket.”
Army rations remained almost unchanged until World War I, when a new type of battle, trench warfare, brought a new problem: getting food to soldiers during combat. Even though the front was stable, it was often impossible to get supplies through or to cook them once they were there. The Quartermaster Corps, without the benefit of any research, tried various solutions with mixed success and eventually developed a “reserve ration,” a cardboard box holding gasproof tins of corned beef and hard bread, with some chocolate, coffee, and sugar. It was reserved for emergencies, hence the name. It was heavy and bulky, and the food was awful, but it was the first modern combat ration.
Ration science really got under way after World War I, and it didn’t begin with a lab, it began with a school. In 1920 the quartermaster general opened the Subsistence School in Chicago to teach selected soldiers how to buy and inspect food for the Army. In 1936 the Army decided to merge it with a similar facility in Philadelphia. At the end of the spring term, the teachers closed the doors and shipped everything East.
The Chicago professors, now out of work, lobbied the quartermaster general to reopen the school as a laboratory completely devoted to developing Army cuisine. The idea was a novel one, well argued by the scientists. “The Subsistence School,” they noted, “had investigated many promising food developments for the army, but its work, in the main, had not been experimental. … A research laboratory, however, with teaching omitted from its program, might be expected to subserve a completely new function.” The quartermaster general approved a lab with a staff of three and gave the group $300 to buy equipment. On July 24, 1936, the doors were reopened by Maj. Wilbur R. McReynolds, the first officer in charge of the Subsistence Research Laboratory.
McReynolds brought along a friend from the Subsistence School, Capt. Paul P. Logan, who was already working on a new ration. Earlier the quartermaster office had asked Logan to develop an emergency ration, something that soldiers could eat for a day or two when completely cut off from supplies. Logan chose chocolate as a base ingredient and began tinkering with various combinations, continuing his work at the newly opened lab. Logan reasoned that if the ration tasted too good, soldiers might eat it right away instead of saving it for an emergency. Thus his goal: to create the most nutritious but unappetizing chocolate bar he could.
So was born the only Army food actually designed to taste bad. Logan hunched over his workbench like a chocolatier gone mad, mixing more than 300 batches of unsavory candy. He added varying amounts of soy, rice, potato, and oat flour to raise the melting point so the chocolate bar wouldn’t soften in storage. Then he sprinkled in dried vegetables and kerosene to ruin the flavor.
Luckily for the troops, Logan held a taste test for Army brass, and they were not pleased. Some quick thinker, probably gagging on a mouthful of kerosene-laced chocolate, suggested that the ration might be used at some point to supplement other foods, so maybe it shouldn’t taste quite so ghastly. The Army changed Logan’s directive ( “palatability was made a requisite,” in military jargon), and he eventually produced a decent-tasting, 600-calorie, four-ounce chocolate bar. The Logan bar, as it came to be called, contained chocolate, sugar, oat flour, cocoa fat, skim-milk powder, and vanillin (later supplemented with vitamin B1), and it wouldn’t melt until the thermometer hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the summer of 1937 the Army fed Logan bars to soldiers and tested how well they held up in storage. The results were good enough to enlist the emergency ration, or D ration, which contained three Logan bars, into service in 1938, but the tests also revealed some problems. While most soldiers liked the bar, it made others sick, and all agreed it made them thirsty. Furthermore, when Logan bars were stored in hot, dry places, the fat in the chocolate often separated, causing the bar to crumble. The problems were minor for a ration used strictly in emergencies, but during World War II the Logan bars would be called into service more and more often.
Logan, still fiddling with the final ingredient list for his chocolate bar, went on to a job in Washington in 1938, and Major McReynolds was left to find a new direction for his Chicago lab. The small cadre of scientists was keeping busy, to be sure—they were besieged daily by visitors pushing everything from soup mix to vitamin pills—but the lab still had no guiding cause. That is, until McReynolds had a vision. According to official accounts, he suddenly decided in March 1938 that soldiers needed a ration entirely unlike any other: a full day’s chow to be distributed every morning and carried into combat by each soldier. Previously rations were distributed to soldiers at mealtime. This new ration would be nutritious and lightweight and need no preparation. It was eventually dubbed the C ration, possibly because of its intended use in combat. For several months McReynolds formulated and reformulated his idea. “I have fought hundreds of questions and have finally ironed out and perfected a ration,” he wrote to Logan, “as revolutionary as the canning of Mr. Appert for the French Republic.” That summer McReynolds sent a comprehensive report to the quartermaster general. By September he was showing off his C ration to representatives of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.
The C ration that went into the field contained six cans, three holding meat and vegetables (the M unit) and three holding biscuits, coffee, and sugar (the B unit). The ration weighed a hefty 5 pounds 10 ounces, and when supplemented with two Logan bars, it provided about 4,500 calories.
The moment the C ration went into service, soldiers began complaining about the cans’ excessive weight and awkward cylindrical shape. Flat cans, they repeatedly suggested, would be much easier to carry. But the gripes about the ration’s bulk were nothing compared with those about its contents. “The C ration,” said one report, “was not unqualifiedly popular with the troops.” “Dog food” was the soldiers’ more blunt assessment. Under optimal storage conditions the biscuits were bland and dry, the meat greasy and barely recognizable. After months or years at high temperatures, the crackers went rancid and the fat separated from the meat, forming “a reddish conglomeration at the ends of the can, so distasteful in appearance that soldiers repeatedly threw the whole mass of food away.” Marines on Guadalcanal were discovered dumping their rations in favor of canned taro and bean sprouts captured from the Japanese.
The Chicago scientists were undoubtedly dismayed by the reports coming back from the field. At least one big complaint, menu monotony, fell outside their jurisdiction; it was the result of Army bureaucracy. The lab had suggested ten meat dishes, which the Army promptly reduced to the three most easily available: pork and beans, beef stew, and the nebulous “meat hash.” The three suggested varieties of biscuit were also pushed aside, replaced by one square biscuit “reinforced with vitamins and calories at the expense of taste,” according to an official history.
While the scientists could do little about monotonous menus, they were responsible for the condition of the food that did reach the troops. With aluminum foil strictly rationed and other flexible packaging like cellophane available but not waterproof, tin cans were the only viable option for packing C rats. They worked just fine, but by 1940 Japan was threatening the Malay Peninsula, which supplied the United States with most of its tin. Two years later most of the supply had been cut off. Scientists responded the only way they could. While hustling to invent new forms of packaging, they made do with what they had, thinning the cans and lowering the tin content of the solder. Unfortunately these flimsy cans rusted easily, a problem accelerated by soggy paper labels and bad handling. Also, according to Army reports, “the paper labels often became detached from the cans, making identification of the contents difficult.” Opening the cans frequently brought soldiers no closer to solving the mystery. By the end of the war, scientists had replaced the paper labels with printing and developed a varnish that successfully rust-proofed the cans.
Even with the protective packaging, the food sometimes spoiled, or at least looked spoiled. The small companies that the Army hired to produce rations weren’t always up to the job. Some factories got sloppy and canned the meat improperly, while others cut corners to meet production goals. The result often was spoiled C rats. Just as often, however, food that looked and smelled bad wasn’t spoiled at all; it was the victim of the natural browning reaction that occurs between meat and vegetables when they’re heated and then trapped together in a can. The foods trade flavors and lose colors, and the result is an entrée that’s edible but, in the words of food researchers, “off.” During the war, scientists were only beginning to understand this complicated chemistry, and they were not able to fix the problem.
Unfortunately, few of the problems with C rations were resolved during wartime. The Army sent out refurbished C rations late in 1944 with ten varieties of meat, cocoa powder, improved biscuits with jam, packets of cigarettes, gum, waterpurification tablets, and a can opener. It even had toilet paper (“the usefulness of toilet paper as an accessory item had been shown in the ten-in-one ration and was therefore now added to the C ration,” a report explains). But it was too late. Although some soldiers praised the reforms, the damage had been done. “So powerful was the prejudice against the C ration in the Pacific theaters,” said one document, “that it was questionable whether the new type of C ration could overcome it.”
While the C ration was losing popularity, a replacement was being developed in Chicago. By 1942 the fighting in Europe was well under way, and a much more mobile form of battle had replaced the trench fighting of World War I. The C rations clearly were too heavy and bulky for troops who changed camp every day. They needed something smaller and lighter.
By now the Chicago scientists had a chemistry lab, a vitamin lab, a kitchen, a dining room, a staff of 22, and a new director, Col. Rohland A. Isker. Under Isker, the lab had established a relationship with Dr. Ancel Keys, a physiologist at the University of Minnesota. A handsome, dark-haired up-and-comer in his late thirties, Keys was instrumental in developing and testing the new lightweight combat rations, which came to be called K rations. So influential was the doctor that some sources claim that the K in K rations stands for “Keys.” An official history of the lab, however, notes that “the K has no significance, but was chosen in order to have a phonetically different letter from D and C.”
The K ration was indisputably the most scientifically engineered ration to date. Packaging, handled by the Chicago group, was part of the achievement. Unlike the C rations, the Ks were divided into three meals, each in its own wax-dipped, waterproof cardboard box. Each brick-sized box weighed less than a pound and typically contained a tin of meat or cheese or “meat substitute,” biscuits, bouillon powder, coffee powder, sugar tablets, several types of candy (including the inescapable Logan bar), dextrose tablets, gum, cigarettes, and matches. (An officer reported that soldiers “were extremely critical of the inclusion of nonpopular brands of cigarettes.”) Three boxes made up one day’s ration. The lightweight packaging was the fruit of years of labor. The Chicago scientists had tested sturdier cellophane and waterproof paper before they found and developed wrappers that could hold up in battle. Although the meat or cheese was still canned in tin, the rest of the food was wrapped in waxtreated cellophane or a laminated wrapping made from aluminum foil, sulfate paper, and kraft paper (except for the instant coffee, which was in foil). The lab had also spent years testing different types and layers of wax on cardboard before finding a combination that could survive being dunked under water and heated to 100 degrees.
While the Chicago group was figuring out how to package the new ration, Dr. Keys was helping decide what to put in it. He gathered volunteers—soldiers from nearby Fort Snelling and conscientious objectors—and put them through rigorous physical tests. He fed the men K rations and then marched them through the snow. He ran them on treadmills and collected their breath, blood, and sweat for analysis. He locked them in hot rooms to simulate the desert and cold rooms to mimic the mountains. They were weighed and photographed and poked and pricked with needles. It was pioneering work, leading to significant discoveries about human nutrition. It also led to a discovery that was immediately applicable to the new ration: Soldiers eating the K rations for more than a few days may run low on vitamin C. To solve the problem, Chicago added lemon powder to the new ration.
It’s hard to imagine that lemonade could create the tempest that it did. “The troops,” came the report from Europe, “detested the lemonade and all its variants and offspring.” The unsweetened lemon crystals turned to taffy in the heat, losing any semblance of flavor. When soldiers could make the lemonade, it was far too sour. They almost universally rejected it. As a final blow, a quartermaster of the 2d Infantry Division reported scrubbing floors with the stuff, noting that “it worked out exceptionally well, cutting dirt spots and more or less bleaching the wooden floors.” Other resourceful soldiers used the lemon powder to clean stoves or as a hair rinse. Not surprisingly, some found ways of “combining it with liberated spirits in new tests of inventiveness.” Conceding defeat, the Army retired the lemon powder in 1945 in favor of orange or grape.
Soon after the war ended, the group was renamed the Food and Container Institute and began taking the first baby steps toward the modern ration. Without a world war breathing down the researchers’ necks, however, and with no drastic improvements being made in packaging, progress crawled. The K-type ration, renamed and recon-figured, clung on through Korea and Vietnam, continuing to cause problems along the way. The food itself was still generally poor, and the cans were still heavy and bulky. Soldiers complained about the pain of hitting the dirt with cans in their pockets—or worse. “I remember talking to a Marine officer during Vietnam,” said Gerald Shulz, director of research and development at the Food and Container Institute in the 1960s and 1970s. “He pulled up his trouser leg and showed me a scar from his ankle to his knee or maybe higher. He said it was from a booby-trapped ration can.” Clearly the cans had to go, but there was nothing better to take their place. “We had to find packaging that could melt in order to be sealed but wouldn’t melt during processing,” explains Shulz. “At times it appeared to be ‘mission impossible.’” In 1963 Army food research was moved to Natick Labs, where the search for perfect packaging continued. In the early 1980s science finally succeeded. In 1983 the modern combat ration, called a Meal, Ready-to-Eat, or MRE, was introduced to the troops.
The 6-by-12-by-1-inch pouch that holds each MRE is made of some of the sturdiest stuff around: two layers of brown plastic with a sheet of aluminum foil sandwiched in between. The package shuts out water and light, as well as roaches, rats, and radiation. Inside the pouch each entrée or side dish is sealed in its own sturdy, airtight package. (To kill bacteria and other unwanted guests, the food is processed after packaging, in a procedure similar to canning, by being heated in a retort oven under high pressure.) Because the packaging is so lightweight, a one-and-a-half-pound MRE can hold twice as much as a canned ration. Unpacking one is like watching circus clowns debark from a tiny car. The pork chow mein MRE, for example, holds an eight-ounce package of the feature entrée, chow mein noodles, crackers, peanut butter, a chocolate-covered cookie bar, cherry drink mix, a pack of Charms candy, a brown plastic spoon, instant coffee, nondairy coffee creamer, sugar, salt, matches, a moist towelette, two pieces of green chewing gum, toilet paper, and a little bottle of Tabasco. Tabasco, by the way, is the only product in a bottle. The standard packaging may resist cockroaches and chemicals, but the powerful pepper sauce can eat right through it.
Despite vast improvements over the old rations, MREs met quite a bit of hostility during Desert Storm. Perhaps it was because soldiers were eating prepositioned war stocks that had been sweating in a ship’s cargo hold for five or six years. Menu monotony was again a problem; there were only 12 different meals during Desert Storm, and fresh food was a long time coming. Soldiers who were supposed to eat MREs for a maximum of 21 days were eating them for 30 or 40. Surly troops nicknamed them “meals rejected by everyone.”
The complaints prompted an overhaul of the MRE. One of the first additions was a new heating gadget. Throughout history hot food during combat had been a rare luxury, since fuel was usually hard to come by and flame could make a soldier an easy target for enemy sharpshooters. Still, the soldiers tried. During World War II they ignited gasoline-soaked dirt, and in Vietnam they burned blue, four-inch-long trioxane fuel bars. Unfortunately, because the trioxane bars were classified and packaged separately from the rations, food often landed in Camp A while the fuel bars sat unused in Camp B. Even if soldiers did get them, heating the rations was no easy feat. Cooking dinner often involved plunging cans into a helmet of boiling water, a messy and inconvenient task.
In 1993 Natick Labs responded with the flameless ration heater. It’s a device of which Gerald Darsch is especially proud. Sitting at a table in his office, he demonstrates how it works with characteristic enthusiasm. “I don’t care how good an MRE entrée is,” he says, pulling open a pouch. “Eaten cold, it’s never going to be as tasty as one that’s able to be heated.” Darsch reaches into the MRE and pulls out a thin cardboard box. From the box he shakes a squishy brown package, labeled “grilled chicken.” Reaching back into the MRE, he pulls out a foot-long plastic sleeve containing the heater, a thin fourby-rive-inch cardboard square with seven holes punched on either side. Visible through the holes is a gray, gritty material resembling sandpaper. “All environmentally friendly ingredients and chemicals,” says Darsch. “Magnesium, table salt, and some iron filings. What happens when you add water, about an ounce and a half, is you have an exothermic reaction, which is a fancy name for generating heat.” As he speaks, Darsch slides the package of chicken into the plastic sleeve, pours in some water from a canteen, soaking the heater, then folds the sleeve closed. “The byproduct of the reaction,” he continues, “is magnesium hydroxide, which is like milk of magnesia, and a readily absorbable form of iron. So if the soldier inadvertently consumes it, it does not pose any health hazard whatsoever.”
The device can heat an entrée 100 degrees in about 12 minutes. “The other beauty of this particular device,” Darsch adds, “is that if the soldier cannot eat it in twelve minutes, he or she can place it back in the entrée carton and put it in the pocket of their battle dress uniform. When time permits, the war fighter can then take a break and enjoy a nice hot entrée.”
Darsch, in his enthusiasm, does forget one small problem with the flameless ration heater. Another byproduct of the water-magnesium reaction is flammable hydrogen gas. While usually safe, the heater is designated a “Dangerous When Wet Material,” which leads to restrictions in shipping and storage. A replacement, the nonflammable ration heater, is under development. Still-classified chemicals in the new heater also react with water to produce heat, but without generating hydrogen gas.
To improve the rations further, the Natick scientists are adding more commercial items, like M&M’s that have been specially heat-treated to survive in the MRE. They’re also changing the entrées and upping the choices to 24. “A lot of our young soldiers are very health-conscious; they’re not used to food from my generation,” says Judy Aylward, who’s in charge of developing new menus. “They’ve been brought up on Chinese and Mexican food, so now we’re using a lot of ethnic foods.” That means that old standards like chicken àla king and corned beef hash are gone, replaced by beef teriyaki, spicy Oriental chicken, and Jamaican pork chops. Natick is also adding vegetarian choices to meet kosher and halal requirements. Aylward showed me a list of vegetarian entrées they were preparing to test on Marines: spicy bean medley, lentil stew, vegetable gumbo. She and her colleagues regularly field-test new rations, following Marines on maneuvers (sometimes under live fire) to survey the soldiers about their favorite foods.
“You would think the Marines would be meat-and-potatoes guys, but they love the vegetarian food,” says Aylward. “One young guy was eating the pasta primavera and said to me, ‘This is so good! It tastes just like the Olive Garden!’”
Most of the soldiers I spoke with were equally enthusiastic. But I was suspicious. Were they just toeing the party line? There was only one way to find out. I picked up MRE number 9, pork chow mein, and sat down at the kitchen table with my husband, Brian. “Be honest,” I told him.
Emptying out the pouch, Brian looked reluctantly at the chow mein and squished the packet. He figured out the ration heater, dumped in the chow mein with some water, and set it steaming. In the meantime we sampled the peanut butter, crackers, chow mein noodles, and cherry drink mix, all of which tasted absolutely normal. Then came the moment of truth. Brian yanked the chow mein out of the steaming heater and ripped open the top. He looked inside and grimaced. Then he ate a spoonful and smiled. “You know,” he said, “if someone served me this in a restaurant, I’d eat it.” He handed me the spoon, and I helped myself. It tasted like Campbell’s soup.
The real moment of truth came several minutes later, when I was clearing the table. As I began sweeping the MRE debris into the wastebasket, Brian came into the room. “Hey!” he shouted, grabbing the remaining cherry drink mix from the pile. “I wanted to keep that.”