There’s no such thing as a mess hall in today’s military, it’s now an enlisted dining facility. The C-ration is also gone, replaced by the less lyrical MRE, short for meal ready to eat.
These changes, and others, are constantly being orchestrated by the U.S. Army’s Research and Development Laboratories, assigned to develop food for all the armed forces, among other tasks.
One of the latest items for GI menus is an all-natural bread with a shelf life of three years. And Tabasco sauce is now a required condiment for every fighting man and woman.
Army scientists and engineers develop food, clothing, shelter and airdrop equipment in the labs that are spread out on the 78-acre base about 20 miles south of Boston. But much attention is paid to planning the continually evolving menus, or what scientists call “future feeding concepts.”
Civilians might call most of the food “take-out.” The majority is designed for soldiers in combat and must last for three years.
“The conception of how war needs to be fought changes, and when the military rethinks how it’s going to fight, we need to rethink food,” said Phil Brandler, acting director of food engineering at the base.
MREs replaced the well-known C-rations in 1981. The heavier canned items that were part of the lore of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars were dropped in favor of a lightweight “meal in a pouch,” much of which can be reconstituted in the field.
“The modern battlefield is more mobile, it makes (the men) harder to find and get to, and they go off for days at a time,” said Brandler. “They have to be provided with foodstuffs of low volume that can be carried around for a while.”
Army chefs are also mindful that soldiers ought to like what they eat, or at least tolerate it.
“Tastes change,” said Brandler. “Food that we developed for the Korean and Vietnam wars no longer is always acceptable.”
Part of that, according to Brandler, is that the ethnic makeup of the Army has changed over the years.
“We have a higher percentage of Vietnamese and Orientals,” he said. “Our troops want spicier foods.” Hence the tiny bottles of Tabasco sauce that surface in each MRE.
“Loss of acceptance” is the term given food items scorned by soldiers in periodic taste tests, according to Army food specialist Sue Gagner.
Among the foods that have been dropped are lima beans, ham and chicken loaf, three-bean salad and fruitcake. Beef stew is on the way out. After soldiers complained that omelets were too “dense,” they were promptly “reformulated.”
The first of Army rations was established by congressional resolution on Nov. 4, 1775.
Those daily rations consisted of either beef, pork or salt fish, accompanied by bread or flour, three pints of peas or beans, one pint of milk, one pint of Indian meal, one quart of spruce beer and a portion of molasses.
These days, along with one of 12 different entrees such as chicken a la king or tuna with noodles, soldiers are allotted crackers with cheese spread, freeze-dried fruit, candy, cookies or cake, instant coffee or tea and powders that turn into fruit-flavored drinks.
Most popular foods in the MREs are spaghetti and meatballs, the dried strawberries (just add water) and bags of brand-name candy.
The food is surprisingly palatable and can be heated up in minutes.
Its relative tastiness is all the more surprising given the ambitious shelf-life requirements for combat food. Because food must be warehoused for long periods and be available for immediate shipment to hot spots, the Army has developed the bread that still tastes pretty good after a few years.
The bread is new and the result of recent technology developed at the base. No preservatives or chemicals are used; instead, it is baked with a combination of ingredients designed to slow the growth of microbes.
You may not find it served at Maxim’s any time soon, but the bread has enjoyed “good acceptance” among soldiers. And that suits its creators just fine.
Even after three years, according to Gerald Schulz, associate director of food engineering, “they would not be repulsed by it.”