Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat

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9781591845973: Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat
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Americans eat more processed foods than anyone else in the world. We also spend more on military research. These two seemingly unrelated facts are inextricably linked. If you ever wondered how ready-to-eat foods infiltrated your kitchen, you’ll love this entertaining romp through the secret military history of practically everything you buy at the supermarket.

In a nondescript Boston suburb, in a handful of low buildings buffered by trees and a lake, a group of men and women spend their days researching, testing, tasting, and producing the foods that form the bedrock of the American diet. If you stumbled into the facility, you might think the technicians dressed in lab coats and the shiny kitchen equipment belonged to one of the giant food conglomerates responsible for your favorite brand of frozen pizza or microwavable breakfast burritos. So you’d be surprised to learn that you’ve just entered the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, ground zero for the processed food industry.

Ever since Napoleon, armies have sought better ways to preserve, store, and transport food for battle. As part of this quest, although most people don’t realize it, the U.S. military spearheaded the invention of energy bars, restructured meat, extended-life bread, instant coffee, and much more. But there’s been an insidious mission creep: because the military enlisted industry—huge corporations such as ADM, ConAgra, General Mills, Hershey, Hormel, Mars, Nabisco, Reynolds, Smithfield, Swift, Tyson, and Unilever—to help develop and manufacture food for soldiers on the front line, over the years combat rations, or the key technologies used in engineering them, have ended up dominating grocery store shelves and refrigerator cases. TV dinners, the cheese powder in snack foods, cling wrap . . . The list is almost endless.

Now food writer Anastacia Marx de Salcedo scrutinizes the world of processed food and its long relationship with the military—unveiling the twists, turns, successes, failures, and products that have found their way from the armed forces’ and contractors’ laboratories into our kitchens. In developing these rations, the army was looking for some of the very same qualities as we do in our hectic, fast-paced twenty-first-century lives: portability, ease of preparation, extended shelf life at room temperature, affordability, and appeal to even the least adventurous eaters. In other words, the military has us chowing down like special ops.

What is the effect of such a diet, eaten—as it is by soldiers and most consumers—day in and day out, year after year? We don’t really know. We’re the guinea pigs in a giant public health experiment, one in which science and technology, at the beck and call of the military, have taken over our kitchens.

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About the Author:

ANASTACIA MARX DE SALCEDO is a food writer whose work has appeared in Salon, Slate, the Boston Globe, and Gourmet magazine and on PBS and NPR blogs. She’s worked as a public health consultant, news magazine publisher, and public policy researcher. She lives in Boston, MA. Visit AnastaciaMarxdeSalcedo.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 

For about three days when we were in Kuwait in 2003 and U.S. forces were advancing into Iraq, the sirens would go off, and we’d have to put on our gas masks and our MOPP* gear and get into our bunker. Saddam was sending what we thought were Scuds with chemical weapons at us, but actually turned out to be smaller missiles. We’d have to wait for the all clear, which would sometimes take a long time.

We really shouldn’t have been eating in the bunker, but sometimes we’d get hungry, so we’d eat an MRE.* Usually only one person had one, so we were sharing between everyone. There were probably ten of us in there. It’s a concrete bunker where you can’t stand up, you can’t really sit down, you’re sitting on a sandbag, and you’re leaning forward because your head’s hitting the ceiling. Everyone’s wearing flak jackets, environmental suits, and a gas mask and helmet. So we’d pass around an MRE, take off the gas mask for ten seconds, and grab a bite of, like, Salisbury steak. And then we’d put our gas masks back on and pass it over to the next guy.

I remember when the guy pulled out the MRE. Everyone sitting in there is so hungry, we haven’t eaten in hours, and so when he offered to share, we were all really happy. It was kind of like a bonding moment. We knew that we didn’t have any control over what was going to happen, and we were all breaking the rules by taking our gas masks off and eating when we shouldn’t be. It brought us all to the same place. We were all stuck there. It didn’t matter whether you were a private or a master sergeant, you were stuck there in that bunker.

—DJ, Corporal, United States Marine Corps, Al Jabar, Kuwait, and Al Asad, Iraq, 2003–6

Chapter 1

UNPACKING YOUR CHILD’S LUNCH BOX

D irty, hungry, uncomfortable, and scared. Most of us can’t imagine what it’s like to eat under the circumstances that DJ and his squad did. The experiences of war, if an American constant during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, seem remote to the average person. And we certainly don’t imagine that the entrée the soldiers shared—a several-years-old beef patty with brown sauce in a laminated plastic-and-foil pouch—has anything to do with the food that fills our refrigerators, cupboards, and shelves. But it does.

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A PASSIONATE HOME COOK, one who read recipe books in bed like novels, preferred browsing at an ethnic grocer’s or a farmers’ market to shoe shopping, and reliably created magical dinners where people lingered long into the night, talking, drinking, and nibbling until there were no leftovers. Although my own mother was indifferent to the matter, as a child I silently apprenticed myself to the three best cooks I knew—my Yankee grandmother, my Sephardic New Yorker grandfather, and my Mexican friend’s mother—sidling into their kitchens and absorbing by osmosis their doings. At the age of seven, I proudly presented my parents with my first creation: “spiced eggs” scrambled with every single flavoring from the rack. By the time I was in my midtwenties, I had read everything in M. F. K. Fisher’s oeuvre, and, inspired by—but not following—the thousands of recipes I’d mentally collected, cosseted my college boyfriend nightly with delectable little suppers prepared just for him.

When the new millennium rolled around, I’d acquired a husband—from Cuba, in Ecuador—and become a mother, which only strengthened my resolve to concoct everything from scratch, even pancakes, whipped cream, and mac ’n’ cheese. I spent an inordinate amount of time provisioning, trucking out to farms weekly for two separate community-supported agriculture locations, one for meat and the other for vegetables; ladling bulk items into flimsy plastic bags at my local co-op; and scouring Asian, Latin, and Middle Eastern groceries for exotic produce, spices, specialty meats, and condiments. Regardless of how much my children pleaded, I refused to stop at McDonald’s on car trips. I even became a leader of Boston’s Slow Food convivium, finding time to organize a cocktail party featuring local Brazilian culture, teach Boston schoolkids how to make their own vegetable burritos, and celebrate the humble bean with a hundred-plus-person potluck and a reading by a renowned food historian. It was exhausting. It was fun. And it made me feel good—proudly conscientious. As many do, I fervently believed that it was important to cook, that it brought together my family in a vital ritual, that the dishes I produced were healthier and more satisfying, and that it was part of a human heritage that embedded us in the world, both past and present.

Which is why, when it came to school, I made the extra effort to pack my daughters a nutritious, homemade meal. I could have signed them up for the school meals program, where blue-capped cafeteria ladies grimly plop onto trays a hot entrée, such as the dreaded sloppy joe, insipid pizza, or turkey with gravy; a vegetable (canned peas/green beans/corn); a slightly rancid carton of milk; and Jell-O, fruit cocktail, or a mealy apple. (The menu has improved slightly in recent years—wheat instead of white buns, no dessert, and some scraggly schoolyard-grown broccoli.) But an involved parent, a mother who cares about what her children eat, makes their lunches herself. To do so, I relaxed my stance against processed foods, which, I have to confess, had long ago snuck into my home, first with my husband and eventually, under the duress of relentless lobbying, with me. Armed with child-pleasing supplies culled from the shelves of the supermarket, I set about my task. Into the nylon carrier with its cunningly zipped insulated vinyl compartments and controlled-atmosphere Tupperware, I put Goldfish, an energy bar, a juice pouch, and a sandwich. This last I’d assembled with my own two hands: soft twelve-grain bread, turkey ham, and a slice of American cheese swathed in Saran wrap. A couple of baby carrots and some grapes to round things out. I put the two lunch boxes in the refrigerator, poured myself a fishbowl of Shiraz, and went to bed, confident that I’d done my best by them.

Or had I?

As my children had gotten older, I’d started a side career as a food writer. After a few pieces about Latin American cooking—fiestas de Pascua (Easter), Ecuadorian soups, street food—I found myself increasingly drawn to writing not about home cooking, my own or that of others, but about the industrial foodstuffs that I, with annoyance, accepted as staples in my pantry. First off the block was that insidious impostor Annie’s mac ’n’ cheese, pretending to be more wholesome than it was: I read the label very carefully, and it turned out to have practically the same components as the neon-orange standby, Kraft’s. The Internet exploded, mostly with vitriolic responses by parents defending their reliance on “the Bunny” and his wares as a decision that was somehow healthier than buying an almost identical nutrition-free product from a major conglomerate.

I had found my topic.

My next piece, on breakfast cereal, led me deeper into the real world of food processing. I dug into the history of our archetypical carbohydrate and read up on its modern-day production, schooling myself in the functioning of that mainstay of manufacturing, the extruder, which uses a screw or a ram to push metal, plastic, ceramics, and food through a long chamber, where it is heated by friction and pressure (and, in some cases, electrical heat) and then forced through a die. In addition to cereal, extruders are used to create many other starchy foods, including pastas, pet foods, and snack foods. The latter can be hollow and then filled, or puffed by exposing them to reduced pressure on exiting. (Cheetos, one of the first extruder-produced junk foods, are fabricated this way.) Extrusion cooking requires little moisture, so the resulting foods are dry and last a long time without refrigeration. As I delved further into the ideas, ingredients, and technology, I began to see that to understand how industrial food was made, I’d need to have a good grasp of physics, chemistry, and biology. Little did I know where that would lead me.

I took my newfound food-science research skills and applied them to children’s lunch boxes. I was in for an unpleasant surprise: by no measure—environmental, nutritional, or freshness—did the meal I’d diligently “prepared” for my children surpass that of the much-maligned school lunch. I compared the Goldfish, energy bar, sandwich, carrots, and grapes with a typical cafeteria meal—chicken tenderloins with sauce, brown rice, cooked frozen carrots, canned peaches in syrup, and milk. The school lunch blew the brown bag out of the water. Many of the ingredients in the cafeteria food come in enormous sacks and cans, minimizing packaging waste, and were prepared in large quantities, cutting the fuel used per serving to almost zero. The refuse from your child’s lunch box, on the other hand, would have sent your grandparents or great-grandparents into cardiac arrest: a laminated pouch from the juice, packaging from the Goldfish and energy bar, plastic wrap in which you put the sandwich, and a paper napkin, not to mention the wrappers from the sandwich ingredients. While the school meal wasn’t exactly a paragon of nutrition—it clocked in at 600 calories, 17.5 grams of fat (3.5 grams saturated), 57 milligrams of cholesterol, and 1,131 milligrams of sodium—it beat out my repast, which had a total of 643 calories, 20.1 grams of fat (8.5 grams saturated), 50 milligrams of cholesterol, 994 milligrams of sodium, and 38 grams of sugar (the school lunch didn’t report sugar). Even more devastating, the cafeteria meal, which is largely concocted of frozen raw or partially cooked ingredients, was much closer to food in its natural state. Sure, the strips of chicken coated with bread crumbs are Tyson’s; the cryonic carrot coins have traveled three thousand miles from California’s Central Valley; and the rice was parboiled and plumped up in an industrial steamer. But overall, this meal had fewer ingredients and the animal and plant tissues of its components were still recognizable.

How did that compare with my offering, put together with the best intentions in the intimacy of my own kitchen? I already knew that the Goldfish, energy bar, and juice pouch had long shelf lives. It’s one of the reasons we parents buy them. The facts that such foods can be stored at room temperature for an extended duration, are easy to carry and hard to destroy, are wrapped in single servings, and are eagerly scarfed up by children make them the leitmotif of the weekday lunch. I let my guilt at including these admittedly overprocessed items be assuaged by the fact that they were just the backdrop to the main act, made the night before from ingredients I myself had excavated from the refrigerator and bread box. Except that the turkey ham, formed from poultry protein that’s been mechanically separated from the bone, tumbled with salt, sugar, preservatives, and plenty of water, then cooked, is also strangely long-lived, lasting for up to two weeks. Ditto the slice of white or orange (a touch of annatto gives it its cheery hue) American cheese, which can be kept for a month. Even the bread, the daily freshness of which was so important that for thousands of years chronically sleep-deprived men spent their nights shoveling dough into and hot loaves out of village ovens, is now long in the tooth—treated with high-fructose corn syrup and starch-snacking enzymes, it goes weeks without changing taste. Together the items in my “homemade” lunch were probably older than my kids.

In early 2011, I wrote a piece saying as much for a PBS blog where I was a contributor. My point: the components of the brown bag’s centerpiece foodstuff, far from being fresh and healthy, were positively geriatric, tricked up to appear youthful and brimming with artificial and possibly harmful ingredients. (I may have made an unfortunate comparison to Donatella Versace.) But I’d learned something else in my research, something that I didn’t put in the piece, a puzzling nugget of information that I hoarded for later. As I untangled the thread of extended shelf life for both the turkey ham and the soft “whole grain” bread in my sandwich, at their origins I found attributions to work done by an obscure U.S. Army base, the Natick Soldier Systems Center. What was it, and what was its relation to the processed foods we Americans eat every day?

Those questions became a book proposal. Soon after we sent it out, my agent called with a deal from a Penguin imprint, which I promptly Googled for its specialty. Science? A science publisher wanted my book? But then I realized, yes, of course, the topic, how the military constructs the underpinnings of industrial food, was all about science and technology. The last science course I’d taken was rocks for jocks at Columbia, but I gamely rolled up my sleeves and waded in. Over the next two and a half years, I talked to soldiers, scientists, and historians; I poked around in the Natick Center’s equipment-jammed laboratories; I combed over old meeting notes and reports; I spelunked declassified Department of Defense documents and the U.S. Patent and Trademark database. And I probably became the only regular nonprofessional reader of publications such as Cereal Chemistry, Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, Journal of Dairy Science, Nebraska Swine Report, Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Journal of Polymer Science, and Toxicological Sciences, including, at times, their back issues to the early 1930s.

The answers to my questions about the Natick Center, contained in these pages, floored me. The reason we send our children to school with heavily processed, hermetically sealed convenience foods isn’t (only) that big corporations, preying on our hectic lifestyle and relief that there’s something the little dears will eat, have created these items, most of them manufactured from the cheapest calories around, to maximize profits—your kid’s health and the planet’s be damned. No, it’s far worse than that. Your child’s lunch isn’t healthful, fresh, or environmentally sound because it wasn’t designed for children. It was designed for soldiers. Almost all of the foodstuffs, or the key technologies used in producing them, originated with the U.S. military in the creation of combat rations. In developing them, the army was seeking some of the very same qualities we do in putting together our children’s out-of-home midday meal: portability, ease of preparation, extended shelf life at room temperature, affordability, and appeal to even the least adventurous eaters. In other words, we’ve got our children chowing down like special ops.

It’s time to unpack your child’s lunch box and unravel the secret military past of just about everything in it.

Chapter 2

AMERICAN FOOD SYSTEM, CENTRAL COMMAND, PART ONE

I ’m not at liberty to divulge the top secret way I got my embarrassingly old and dented Camry to the Natick Soldier Center gatehouse, but suffice it to say there are various uniformed men and a lot of concrete barriers involved. Once inside, my car is checked for improvised explosive devices and I’m met by Lieutenant Colonel David Accetta, a creased-pant...

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