The Good Military Food Fight

Far from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, a small army of scientists is facing a different kind of foe: bad chow.

from Reader's Digest Magazine | November 2009

I’m offered a palate cleanser of either arctic-ice mint or cinnamon gumballs. Each contains the same amount of caffeine as one cup of coffee. While initially terrific, the pleasant flavor is quickly dominated by a bitter taste. Still, the gum serves its purpose: delivering a pick-me-up to drowsy war fighters. "We had to find a way to put what they need into gum or food, since we don’t use pills," says Betty Davis, one of the team leaders.

After a break, it’s lunchtime. I prepare to sample the newly approved beef brisket. The military, my hosts assure me, never adds MSG or any preservative. They don’t need to—instead, they regulate the pH level and the amount of chemically bound water in each meal, to make it inhospitable to microorganisms. The food is packaged in a three- or four-layer shell that keeps out water and oxygen. Finally, the meal is pressure-cooked at 250 degrees Fahr¬enheit for up to 90 minutes, to kill bacteria.

I dunk the meat in the gravy. Not bad. A little lackluster, but nothing that a mini bottle of Tabasco can’t cure—and in fact, hot sauce is included in many MRE packs. My next dish is Mediterranean chicken, a meal that will be introduced to soldiers next year. While the mashed potatoes that accompany it leave something to be desired—they, too, could use some chili pepper—the meat is tender and tastes … just like chicken. (Earlier, I’d tasted powdered scrambled eggs that tasted eggy and, bonus points, were neither overcooked nor runny.) The snack pack of jalapeño-spiced cashews is delicious.

On today’s battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, the "four fingers of death" are a distant memory. Boneless pork ribs and chicken fajitas have taken their place. Other treats, such as maple-flavored breakfast sausages and a potato-Cheddar soup with home-style corn bread, are already set for this year. Vegetarians—their ranks within the military are increasing—are catered to with penne and meatless sausage in spicy tomato sauce and vegetable lasagna. And strips of chicken breast smothered in salsa, along with Mexican rice, enchiladas, and tortillas, have been introduced as a nod to the military’s growing Hispanic population.

With new techniques in microwave sterilization and high-pressure processing on the horizon, says Evangelos, "our pasta will finally become al dente." Other technical innovations will also extend shelf life. At the end of my tour, Darsch’s pride and excitement are hard to contain. "We’ve gone from ‘meals rejected by everyone,’ " he says, "to ‘meals respected by Europeans’ "—a tasty development indeed.

And not just for members of the military. The Army’s culinary revolution has affected civilian food too. When the lab "restructured" (the insider term) meat and poultry in the 1970s, it helped lay the basis for chicken nuggets. Its research on freeze-dried coffee, pressure-cooking, processed cheese, and dehydrated egg and dairy products has been exported to commercial food production. And new Army refinements in high-pressure processing are being used to pasteurize supermarket cold cuts, chicken products, and guacamole.

The rating system devised for military food tasters, known as the hedonic scale, has become standard practice in the larger food industry:  the ultimate tribute, perhaps, to the Combat Feeding Directorate’s discerning palate.

Thanksgiving in a Box
The military understands how much a turkey dinner can mean for those who spend Thanksgiving in the trenches. The holiday Unitized Group Ration-Express (UGR-E) contains a tray each of turkey slices with gravy, glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, and corn bread–and–sausage stuffing. While the MRE is designed to feed just one soldier, the UGR-E produces food for 18. Just pull a tab and presto—a hot turkey dinner. Salt water inside the box reacts with magnesium and iron to generate enough steam and convection to heat the meal in 45 minutes. On the side: raisin-nut mix with chocolate candies, beverage powder, and cranberry jelly. Utensils and trays come with each box. Bring your own tablecloth.

UGR-E Holiday Meal
Weight (g): 742.05
Cals: 1,265.06
Prot (g): 53.42
Carbs (g): 149.01
Fat (g): 53.385

See a slideshow of the new food and drinks soldiers in the trenches are eating.

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