An army, so they say, travels on its stomach. So why is their food so bad?
Of course, the "they" who said an army travels on its stomach was Napoleon, so his army probably dined on fricasseed ortolan with a blueberry jus demi-glace. But other army chow is notoriously, well, let's call it unappetizing.
Older vets still tell jokes about K-Rations and C-Rations ("the canned meat and eggs smelled like dead corpses" and the biscuits had the texture of tender wood, "with the same taste"). The MCIs were no better, and younger vets still have nightmares about MREs.
And so it must have been with equal parts pride and trepidation that the scientists who create foods for the U.S. Army announced their latest development in culinary technology: The two-year sandwich. That is, a sandwich that stays fresh for two full years, or at least edible.
They are actually called shelf-stable pocket sandwiches, and they resemble Hot Pockets, or perhaps Hot Pockets that someone sat on. They come in three flavors: bacon cheddar, Italian, and honey BBQ beef.
The need for such a revolutionary item is obvious. Soldiers in the field cannot always find time to be supplied with food, and the MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) can be heavy to carry into combat. And to taste good, or at least better, they need to be heated with a Flameless Ration Heater, which takes valuable time and adds to the weight.
And so the researchers at the Combat Feeding division of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center in Natick, Mass., came up with the sandwich that stays fresh for two years. The soldiers can go longer without being resupplied, the food can be stockpiled for a long time, and in a pinch, the soldiers can give the sandwiches to the enemy to guarantee instant surrender.
And how did the minds at the NSRDEC -- that's what they really call it -- come up with the process to make sandwiches last some 700 days?
If I were trying to be funny, I'd say, "Two words: Twinkie technology."
But actually, the science behind the near-eternal sandwich is kind of fascinating.
The mission was to develop bread that resisted mold, and resisted it for a long time. What they had to do was find ways to keep bacteria from growing.
As NSRDEC Senior Food Technologist Michelle Richardson explained to NPR, the scientists needed to lower the sandwiches' pH -- make it more acidic -- to bind the water molecules to something else so bacteria can't use it, and to add something called "oxygen scavengers." The oxygen scavengers in this case are iron filings, which is kind of scary until you realize that they are not sprinkled over the sandwich, they are put in a packet to absorb the oxygen in the packaging.
In other words, it was all because of good old American know-how, that can-do spirit that also led to the creation of the telephone, the electric light, and the home computer. And it's even better than those inventions, because in two years you will not be able to eat a telephone, a light bulb, or a computer.
Still, you have to think that the two-year shelf-stable pocket sandwich is going to be a hard sell. Not many eager young men and women are going to walk into their local recruiting office and say, "I want to join the Army because I want to eat old food." Can you imagine a poster of Uncle Sam holding out a sandwich and saying "I want you [to eat this before 2014]." The slogan "Army strong" will soon refer to the soldiers' stomachs.
The gang at NSRDEC might be a great bunch of folks. But you wouldn't want to eat in their cafeteria.
In last week's column, I took what was meant to be a gentle, tongue-in-cheek jab at my former state, Virginia. As I belatedly and rather horrifyingly realized, that line could also be taken to be offensive. Obviously, that was not my intent.
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.