In 1775, the Second Continental Congress passed the first legislation to provide its Army with an individual ration that considered the soldier’s nutritional health and diet. The following items were included: One pound of beef, 3/4 pound of pork or one pound of salted fish per week. Three pints of peas or beans per week. One half pint of rice or a pint of Indian Meal per week. One pint of milk per day. One pound of flour per day or hard bread once a week. One quart of spruce beer or cider per day.
After the War of 1812, questions were raised about the Army’s ability to provide for itself. So gardens were planted at Army posts to provide fresh vegetables, definitely a welcome and healthy variation to the diet of bread and beans.
A House (and Kitchen) Divided
Technological advances brought many changes to the military over the ensuing years, but unfortunately improvements in rations were not among them. During the Civil War, rations for the Union troops were ample, but they were neither nutritious nor appetizing. As unfortunate soldiers discovered, a diet of salted meat, no vegetables and hardtack—a saltless hard biscuit or bread made of flour and water—can quickly lead to scurvy and night blindness. Fresh meat was available as “beef on the hoof,” which meant that cattle were driven along with the soldiers and slaughtered as needed. Decay and insect infestation were rampant, to the extent that one Civil War veteran recalled that “soldiers often ate after dark so they wouldn’t have to see their rations. They hoped at least the food would make them tougher.”
Canned foods, an economical and reliable source of nutrition, were first used during the Civil War. Condensed milk, invented by Gail Borden in 1856, and pork and beans produced by Van Camp were occasionally available to Union troops. Since fresh vegetables were too heavy and bulky to transport easily, a new product called desiccated vegetables was tested on the troops. The product was a mixture of potatoes, cabbage, turnip, carrots, parsnips, beets, tomatoes, onions, peas, beans, lentils and celery. The vegetables were cleaned, shredded, mixed, dried and pressed into hard clumps that were expected to soften when boiled. As a member of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry Regiment reported, however, “We have boiled, baked, fried, stewed, pickled, sweetened, salted it and tried it in puddings, cakes and pies; but it sets all modes of cooking in defiance, so the boys break it up and smoke it in their pipes!” It is not surprising that this new food item was affectionately referred to by the mess cooks as “desecrated vegetables.”
If the food deficiencies of the Civil War led to the realization that military rations must include fresh vegetables, meat and milk, then so did procurement difficulties suggest a need for better buying and distributing practices. The food needs of the Armed Forces were enormous. In 1863, the Union’s Subsistence Department was responsible for providing soldiers with food. The Army began to award contracts to the commercial sector to meet its food needs. The scale of purchasing meant that there was plenty of opportunity for swindling, though the defects of the system lay primarily in unsupervised or inexperienced contractors and supply officers.
The Quest for Freshness
One of the first steps in standardizing ration delivery took place in 1896, when a manual for Army cooks was published by the Commissary General of the U.S. Subsistence Department with recipes for 100 servings. New challenges arose, however, with the start of the Spanish-American War, America’s first military venture overseas. Problems of distant transport and food preservation were overwhelming, and the Army and Navy had no organizational mechanisms for cooperation. Inspection was totally inadequate, and food, especially the notorious “embalmed beef,” was spoiled by heat. There were numerous cases of deadly food poisoning among the American troops in Cuba. Although aware that deficient rations led to physical deterioration, the military could not supply fresh food under emergency conditions. In contrast, troops stationed in this country were well-provisioned. Those near rail lines could get refrigerated as well as canned foods.
By the end of the war, the need for improvement was obvious. A clearer understanding of nutrition led to a more balanced system of rations. Ordering procedures were upgraded, bureaus were combined for increased efficiency in transportation, and the pay of military cooks was increased. Better cooking utensils and mess gear were developed and field ranges began to replace camp fires. In 1902, the Army established the first school for military cooks. The same year, the Navy published the “General Mess Manual and Cookbook” with recipes for 100 servings.
During World War I, the United States had to concern itself with feeding five distinct groups: American troops stationed in the U. S.; American troops abroad; the U. S. civilian “home front;” European Allied troops; and European civilians. Herbert Hoover was made “food commissioner” in 1917, as the U.S. entered the war. He was given sweeping power to set prices and to take measures against hoarding and profiteering. In 1918, the Subsistence Department of the Office of the Quartermaster General was established. A Food Purchase Board was created to coordinate purchases of food for the Army, Navy and the Allies. Some food was shipped from the U.S. to Europe, some was purchased in Europe. The Quartermaster Corps even set up its own factories in Europe to make macaroni, bread and candy.
All troops not deployed to the field were issued a Garrison Ration that included canned boneless beef and dehydrated vegetables. As trench warfare began, hot food and drinking water were delivered to the troops in milk cans carried on a pole by two soldiers. This is the first time that hot meals were served on the front lines. The most popular items among the troops were the tobacco and the half pound of candy issued them every 10 days. In all, World War I saw an appreciable upgrading of the standard overseas ration. The “doughboy” diet now included a greater variety of food and a wider use of fresh foods, even in the field.
By the time World War II began, a complex and far-flung food supply, transport and distribution system had been established. The needs of the American forces during that war quickly outpaced the system, however. The scope of the war and the number and diversity of overseas operations presented an enormous challenge, and the logistics of food supply could not be allowed to dictate military strategy. Ration designers were charged with developing lighter weight, nutritionally balanced individual and group rations for 100-man units, survival rations, and unique Air Corps and Navy rations. Due to advances in food technology and assistance from industry and academia, more than 23 different rations and ration supplements were developed. In 1941, the military food services began using standardized recipes with precise quantities of ingredients and preparation methods assuring 100-portion recipes that met nutritional requirements and soldiers’ tastes.
Service men stationed in America were issued the maximum possible fresh meat, fruit and vegetables. Overseas units still depended largely on canned food, dehydrated fruits and “powdered eggs.” Both at home and overseas, the military attempted not only to feed the troops, but to feed them well. Food was generally worse closer to the front lines, though extraordinary efforts were made to get holiday food to combat areas on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
After the war, the United States recognized the need for a world-class military food program. In 1946, the Subsistence Department research and development laboratory became the Quartermaster Food and Container Institute for the Armed Forces, located in Chicago. In 1954, the Quartermaster Research and Development Command opened as a new facility in Natick, Mass., and in August 1963, the Quartermaster Food and Container Institute moved from Chicago to Natick and was renamed the U.S. Army Natick Laboratories, which is now known as the Natick Research, Development and Engineering Center (NRDEC).
All of the research to produce the Army’s standardized recipes was done at the Quartermaster Institute in Chicago between 1946 and 1963, when the facilities and functions moved to Natick where the recipe development research continues to this day. In 1963, the Army and Air Force used the same 100-portion recipes, published in a book format, and the Navy and Marine Corps used a separate set of 100-portion recipes, published in a 5-by 8-inch card format. A similar card format is used today by the Armed Forces Recipe Service (AFRS), which was established in 1967 when the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense determined that a recipe service common to all branches of the military was feasible and cost-effective.
NRDEC’s Recipes for the Services
Today, NRDEC is responsible for creating and maintaining a collection of more than 1,500 standardized recipes for the AFRS. These recipes are used by all four branches of the military in dining facilities and hospitals. The requirements and goals of AFRS recipe maintenance, development and testing are standardization, meeting the nutritional initiatives of the Surgeon General, optimizing military consumer acceptance, and efficiently using military food service ingredients, personnel and equipment.
The recipe standardization process encompasses the following factors: yield size, terminology, preparation procedures and equipment, and ingredient weight/volume ratios and as-purchased/edible portion ratios. The nutrition initiatives require recipes with nutrient retention, reduced fat and cholesterol, moderate sodium, and increased complex carbohydrates. Military consumer acceptance requires recipes that optimize the sensory qualities of appearance, flavor, odor and texture; reflect current food-preference trends; and provide options for ethnic and regional favorites, as well as religious, health, vegetarian and reduced-calorie diets. Other concerns include the support of various food service programs, the use of new food items, equipment changes, and the consolidation of recipes to reduce printing costs.
The first edition of the AFRS recipes was published in 1969. Partial revisions have been published every two to three years since, and the latest edition is currently being printed. There are now about 1,500 recipes, variations and guideline cards in the AFRS file, as well as 69 photos illustrating finished products and illustrations for difficult procedures. A Recipe Development Database System has also been developed for use at NRDEC, expediting all recipe development functions and providing the four services with up-to-date recipes on a regular basis. Thanks to the work done by NRDEC, troops now enjoy a wide variety of wholesome, tasty foods that reflect the ethnic, religious, and geographical diversity that today’s Army embraces.
This month, with American troops stationed in Bosnia, in Korea, and around the world, each of the four services will create and serve its own Thanksgiving Day menus using the AFRS recipes. Although these military men and women cannot be home with their loved ones, they will be able to share in their country’s peace and prosperity through a traditional meal prepared by military chefs drawing on more than two centuries of food-service history.