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From GI Joe to Trader Joe’s

Arthur Herman

Since Thermopylae soldiers have complained about the food they are given, and American soldiers have been no exception. In the wake of the D-Day landings in 1944, some GIs passed their despised K-rations along to hungry German prisoners of war. To their amazement the POWs devoured them with gusto. “These are first-rate,” they told the astonished Americans.

And, in a way, they were. The principal theme of “Combat-Ready Kitchen” is that, whatever the griping of soldiers, the U.S. Army, in the modern age, has routinely discovered new ways to process food and preserve it, leading to the innovations that allow today’s supermarkets and Trader Joe’s to offer an almost limitless variety of foods for every taste, budget and kitchen. Napoleon may have said that “an army travels on its stomach,” but it was the Pentagon that developed the world’s most advanced military-culinary complex to keep its own armies going.

If you thought that such an accomplishment was a matter for celebration, think again. We wouldn’t eat the way we do, Anastacia Marx de Salcedo argues, if it weren’t for the Army, and we shouldn’t (she believes) eat the way we do. Still, she has a fascinating tale to tell—of technology and ingenuity—before arriving at her doubts.

Consider food preservation. During the Civil War, the Army perfected the technique of mass-canning food for the soldiers who would fight at Shiloh and Gettysburg, a technique that would spread into the commercial market in the 1870s thanks to Chicago meat packers like Swift and Armour and Co. When canned beef didn’t hold up well in the tropical heat of the Spanish-American War, the Army developed ways of thermally and chemically treating meat products to kill off bacteria. These improvements would transform the food industry again and would culminate in the success of Spam in World War II. It may be a mocked comestible now, but Spam—with its portability, durability and affordability—was a nearly miraculous one in the postwar years.

The world wars changed the nature of food preservation in part because of the sheer number of soldiers involved. Instead of the 300,000 men to feed in the Spanish-American War, there were 4.7 million in World War I and almost triple that number in World War II. The preserving and transporting of animal proteins were made easier by new flash-freezing, freeze-drying and de-boning methods, and the taste of beef and other products was improved too. “Cooking and serving the new cuts took fewer personnel and less time,” Ms. Salcedo writes. Meanwhile, “the streamlined slices of meat eliminated the smelly piles of viscera that for eons added a down-market vibe to the mess hall landscaping”—and would improve the “vibe” of civilian kitchens as well.

New techniques of flash freezing and airtight packaging became standard for handling other parts of the military’s food supply, like bread, vegetables and snacks. Food manufacturers seized on the changes. “When the troops returned home in 1945 and 1946, rather than scale back now that their military buyers had disappeared,” Ms. Salcedo writes, “companies focused their marketing efforts on the consumer. Overburdened housewives—and what housewife isn’t?—were happy to oblige.”

Hence the age of Birdseye and Green Giant, Wonder Bread and Hostess Twinkies, Bisquick and Tang, not to mention Swanson TV dinners. “In significant part because of military influence,” Ms. Salcedo writes, “food science has made breathtaking strides.”

But those strides have carried us into a culinary wasteland, Ms. Salcedo believes. “Cooking, like music before it, is a dying art,” she says. Behind America’s ready-to-eat meals lies the “hyperefficient machinery of American agribusiness, food processors, packers, shippers, and retailers.” And behind that apparatus, “like a shadowy puppeteer, stands the one entity to which having inexpensive, portable, long-shelf-life, easy-to-prepare or ready-to-eat food is vitally important, at time existentially so: the U.S. Army.”

This passage is meant to send chills up the spine. But Ms. Salcedo is too honest a writer not to concede that she can’t find any sinister motives behind the military-culinary complex. Even the centerpiece of her book, a portrait of the food research labs that the Army supports at the Natick Center, near Boston, hardly winds up looking like the Castle Frankenstein that her “shadowy puppeteer” rhetoric implies. In her acknowledgments she admits that she feels a “deep admiration” for the center’s staff, “who make the whole thing work.” Personally, she admits that the food technology spawned by the military-culinary complex has “offered me unprecedented freedom: freedom from drudgery, freedom to do more of what I like and want.”

And yet. “What are the long-term effects of such a diet?” she wonders, noting the high levels of chemical additives, preservatives and fructose syrups in the eating habits of Americans. “We don’t really know.” Ms. Salcedo seems to feel that we’re all guinea pigs in a vast, Army-led experiment involving preserved and processed foods, but she conveys her concern more by innuendo than invective.

“Combat-Ready Kitchen” ends by quoting a Marine sergeant who remembers the MREs (meals ready to eat) that he and his comrades used to hand out to children in Honduras in the 1980s. The meals were, he saw, the children’s lifeline and kept them from starvation. “I never looked at an MRE the same way after that,” he says. The reader of Ms. Salcedo’s chronicle, despite her misgivings, is likely to look at our daily fare with a similarly fresh sense of appreciation.

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