Kitchen pa­trol

The mil­i­tary made our food eas­ier, longer last­ing — and more bland

New York Post - - BOOKS - by LARRY GETLEN

Com­bat­Ready Kitchen How the U.S. Mil­i­tary Shapes the Way You Eat

by Anasta­cia Marx de Sal­cedo


Anasta­cia Marx de Sal­cedo de­scribes McDon­ald’s sea­sonal sen­sa­tion the McRib as, “a wash­board­shaped cut­let com­posed of porcine odd­ments, soaked in trea­cly bar­be­cue sauce, strewn with pick­les and onions, and stuffed in an ob­long bun.”

For this we can thank the US mil­i­tary, whose culi­nary phi­los­o­phy de Sal­cedo says is “get the cheap­est stuff there is and fig­ure out a way to get the grunts to eat it.”

In “Com­bat­Ready Kitchen,” de Sal­cedo lays out the ex­ten­sive history of the mil­i­tary’s food­science ef­forts and how they led to the prepack­aged, heav­ily pre­served and of­ten nu­tri­ent­drained foods — like the McRib — that dom­i­nate our fast­food restau­rants and lo­cal su­per­mar­kets.

The US Army Nat­ick Soldier Re­search, De­vel­op­ment and En­gi­neer­ing Cen­ter, lo­cated in a sub­urb of Bos­ton, is the “beat­ing heart of the in­dus­trial­food sys­tem,” says de Sal­cedo, who writes that the cen­ter houses seven re­search cen­ters with names like the “Com­bat Feed­ing Di­rec­torate.”

“As Hol­ly­wood is to movies, as Nashville is to coun­try mu­sic, and as New York City is to the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, the Nat­ick Cen­ter is to the pro­cessed foods that form the bedrock of the Amer­i­can diet,” she writes, not­ing that the cen­ter’s in­ven­tions in­clude “energy bars, re­struc­tured meat, non­stal­ing bread and in­stant cof­fee,” to name just a few.

Over the years, the mil­i­tary has of­ten paired with ma­jor food con­glom­er­ates to try to find ways to feed our na­tion’s front­line fight­ers for the low­est pos­si­ble cost. But their col­lec­tive find­ings have rarely re­mained sim­ply mil­i­tary. Once those uses were es­tab­lished, the con­glom­er­ates adapted them to our mod­ern run­and­gun way of life.

While the cost and time sav­ings can be gen­uine, these sorts of food prod­ucts are some­times cre­ated by “strip­ping ev­ery lit­tle last bit of pro­tein from car­casses,” or by us­ing bind­ing agents in­clud­ing “cow’s blood and pig’s blood clot­ting fac­tor, bac­te­rial en­zymes, al­gae and chem­i­cals.” Bon ap­petit! Here’s the du­bi­ous path two sta­ples of our daily diet took from mil­i­tary re­search to your lunch plate.


The Army’s decades­long ef­forts to find ways to pre­serve bread be­gan in World War II. Even­tu­ally, the mil­i­tary set­tled on bread be­ing pre­served with “mi­cro­bial en­zymes, es­pe­cially bac­te­rial ones, which soften tex­ture, in­crease vol­ume, add color and ex­ tend shelf life by one or two weeks.”

En­zymes are re­garded as a “pro­cess­ing aid,” so their in­clu­sion need not be noted on a prod­uct’s pack­ag­ing. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an im­pact.

“These changes may be a recipe for ill health,” de Sal­cedo writes, blam­ing the in­creased amounts of gluten and yeast, and the “less de­vel­oped fer­men­ta­tion” in bread that in­creased en­zymes re­quire, on “re­cent spikes in au­toim­mune dis­or­ders such as Crohn’s and in­testi­nal dys­func­tions such as celiac dis­ease.”

If you eat pro­cessed bread, de Sal­cedo lays out one other in­ter­est­ing fact: Your bread may not be bread.

Not­ing how the French have of­fi­cially de­fined bread as re­quir­ing, among other things, to rise for a longer pe­riod of time, “all those neatly pack­aged loaves in the su­per­mar­ket — the farm­house white, the 100 per­cent whole wheat, the multi­grain — which have only risen 50 min­utes, are not bread. In the words of the army­funded con­trac­tors whose 1950s re­search on en­zymes helped to cre­ate them, they are ‘non­stal­ing bread­like prod­ucts.’ ”


Boxed beef now ac­counts for “more than 90 per­cent of the beef sold in su­per­mar­kets.”

While fresh kill worked fine for mil­len­nia, af­ter World War I, the US mil­i­tary de­sired cheaper ways to feed a large army. Once ini­tial ef­forts to box beef re­sulted in the dis­cov­ery that, “a quar­ter car­cass weighed 25 per­cent less with­out its bones, fat, and car­ti­lage and, when frozen into a rec­tan­gu­lar solid, wrapped in burlap and waxed pa­per, and stacked, oc­cu­pied 60 per­cent less space,” our fate was sealed.

In 1938, the Navy Vet­eri­nary Depart­ment, work­ing with meat­pack­ers Ar­mour and Swift, de­vel­oped a bon­ing tech­nique that “got al­most all the ed­i­ble meat off the car­cass,” sort­ing it into “dif­fer­ent classes” in­clud­ing “roasts and steaks, chunks for soups and stews, and — don’t look too closely — grind­ing grade.” It worked for sol­diers in the field, and the De­fense Depart­ment, years later, an­nounced that, “The Army has put bone­less beef on a ba­sis where fur­ther ex­per­i­men­ta­tion is not nec­es­sary. It is now ready for civil­ian use.”

Over time and with lit­tle thought, the public “learned to pre­fer our an­i­mal in the forms pi­o­neered by the mil­i­tary: bone­less, which halves its ship­ping vol­ume, and re­struc­tured, which al­lows [for] cheaper cuts. By far most of the an­i­mal pro­tein we eat has been re­assem­bled from bits and pieces by ma­chines and is pur­chased ev­ery­where but the meat depart­ment — deli case, frozen­foods sec­tion, vend­ing ma­chine, cafe­te­ria, drive­through.”

Sol­diers with MREs, “meals ready to eat” — the orig­i­nal fast food.


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