How combat rations got into your kid's lunchbox

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. I’m about to grab a bite to eat, but before I do I’m going to take it out of the bag here in the studio and let my next guest tell me about what I brought into work. So, here’s what I’ve got: I’ve got some cherry tomatoes, I’ve got some cherries--real cherries--I’ve got a KIND bar, and I’ve got a ham and cheese sandwich with some lettuce on it. Anastasia Marx de Salcedo, you’re my guest, you’re a food writer, and the reason you’re here is because you’ve just come out with this fascinating book called, “Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the US Military Shapes the Way You Eat.” So, deconstruct my lunch, what do I have in it. I know a couple of things are pretty good.


Anastasia Marx de Salcedo: Yeah, a couple of things are looking pretty healthy--and first of all, I want to compliment you on your lunch bag, very classy, I love the used plastic grocery bag. Why don’t you hand over items and I can go through a couple of them.


Werman: Those cherry tomatoes are from my roof garden.


Marx de Salcedo: Okay, if the cherry tomatoes are from your garden, I’m just going to have to hand that back.


Werman: These actual cherries are from Washington state.


Marx de Salcedo: Okay, these could possibly have traveled to you in a polyethylene bag that was worked on by the Navy in the 1950s in order to better ship fruits and vegetables, so there’s a first military influence.


Werman: Alright, they were in a plastic bag. Now this, this is my sandwich.


Marx de Salcedo: Okay, well first off I’m actually going to talk about the packaging, which is cling wrap, which comes from Saran.


Werman: Yeah, don’t tell my wife I did that today.


Marx de Salcedo: And that actually was the product of a WWII classified research project that was intended to replace a lot of the everyday items that soldiers needed for which there were a great scarcity of materials with synthetic substitutes. So, there was this classified research project on polymers, the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, and one of the things that they worked on with DOW chemical was coming up with a replacement for cellophane, which you may have heard of, which is based on cellulose, which is a plant-based material. They came up with something based on the Saran polymer, which was invented by DOW, and that appeared on the market shortly after the war. Okay, that was first. Now second, we have the bread itself, and this is actually one of my--can I open it?


Werman: Go ahead.


Marx de Salcedo: I’m planning to have you take a bite at the end of the interview. This is actually one of my favorite influences, which is something that--the army needed to preserve the shelf-life of bread because bread goes stale really, really fast, and it was never able to do that. In fact, it had these army units of bakers that were deployed during WWI and WWII and their only job was to bake bread. So after WWII, they wanted to create a canned bread, and one of the major problems was staling. Now, without getting very complicated in the science here, there are enzymes in bread that come from the yeast, that come from the wheat, and that come from malted barley, and what those enzymes do is break down starch into sugar so the yeast can eat the sugar and create carbon dioxide to make the bread rise. So, those are there naturally. What the army did is they funded some studies for the addition of bacterial enzymes. Now, enzymes reflect their host organism and their temperature preference. Bacteria don’t mind it being very hot, and that meant that these bacterial enzymes were not activated by cooking and they continued to work after the bread is baked and they keep breaking down the starches so it doesn’t get hard and it stays fresh.


Werman: So, it was the military, it was the army that figured all this stuff out?


Marx de Salcedo: It funded the studies, and this was done at actually Kansas State College. And it takes a long time for these things to enter the private sector. But now, in fact, this bacterial enzyme thing is huge and a bunch of scientific discoveries came together. But in the early 1990s, Novozymes, which is a Danish company, began producing a genetically modified hotspring bacterial enzyme, and that is used routinely in supermarket bread. I would dare say that most of the loaves have it.


Werman: So, to get back to my own lunch, the ham in my sandwich is a study in food preservation. What is in that meat?


Marx de Salcedo: Well, I can’t say for sure because this is proprietary information for companies. But it could be a restructured meat product, and that is something that came out of the military’s continual quest to lower the cost of its grocery bill, particularly the meat, which has traditionally accounted for 60% or more. Specifically what happened is in the 1960s there was a changeover from buying carcass meat to buying boxed meat, and that gave the opportunity for the army to replace the carcasses which have all the range of cuts with just the cheapest cuts it could buy in boxes, and it decided to figure out a way to stick those things together to make them look like what are called whole muscle cuts, which are your pork chops and your steaks and so forth. That was a project that went on during the 1960s, and in the 1970s they began to field restructured meat products--veal, lamb, pork, beef--and that technology quickly entered the fast-food industry. And, in fact, one of our all-time favorites, the McRib, is a restructured meat product.


Werman: Yeah, I knew that wasn’t a rib. When these restructured meat products started going into soldiers’ mouths, what did they think? What was the reaction? Have you read any documentation from the time?


Marx de Salcedo: Well, that is an interesting question, and I haven’t. I mean, you probably know this, but soldiers generally complain a lot about the food, so I imagine”¦ And actually, if you think about it, in all fairness, what had been available before--first, there was meat in a can, that was a sea ration, and then you had dehydrated rations. So, none of these were very tasty, so I have to think the restructured meat products in the MRE, which is when they first appeared, were probably well-accepted.


Werman: I mean, it’s weird because basically the soldiers have been the guinea pigs and then the private sector gets a hold of this stuff and they tweak it for our dainty little pallets. Am I wrong?


Marx de Salcedo: No, I mean it goes beyond that. The military actually has a mandate to get this science into our food, and I think that’s the thing that most people don’t realize and that comes from our longstanding policy of military preparedness. So, that means that if the combat food directory shares it food science and technology with the private sector, that it can, in the event of some massive future world war, ask those companies to convert their lines to produce rations. Or better yet, they’re already producing consumer items that are like rations, which is the case.


Werman: So, does military preparedness then imply that we have to eat icky stuff? Because it sounds like you’re saying this is the way we have to eat now.


Marx de Salcedo: Well, I think that’s what my book is about. My book is saying, “Hey, wait a second--a lot of our food comes from this military science and technology. Maybe we should stop for a second and assess and decide if this is the course we want to take, or maybe can we separate the consumer food market a little bit from the military one.”


Werman: So at the end of this, where do you come down on this highly processed food and its ability to sustain a life on a shelf somewhere for a while? Is it good? Or is it bad? Or does it really matter at the end of the day?


Marx de Salcedo: Well, my kids and I have a ritual. When we go to the supermarket, they sneak the items in while I’m getting the healthy stuff and I pull them out and I say, “Army food”¦”


Werman: They now know what army food is.


Marx de Salcedo: Yes.


Werman: Anastasia Marx de Salcedo is a food writer based here in Boston. Her new book is “Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the US Military Shapes the Way You Eat.” Anastasia, thank you for coming in.


Marx de Salcedo: Thank you for having me, Marco.


Werman: You’re listening to The World.