PROGRAM: Program Director Mabe Downey began with an elaborate story of how he was forced to put together the program over the holiday. He called 86 different people before he was finally, at 10:00 PM on Wednesday night, able to get a hold of Tom Keller. Tom then had to scramble to find a speaker and then was forced to drive to Denver from an event in Burlington to attend our meeting, only to get a speeding ticket for doing eighty-four in a fifty-five on the way over.
Tom thanked Mabe for his marvelous tall tale and introduced our speaker for the day, Virgil Hughes. Mr. Hughes is a veteran of WWII. He entered the war shortly after graduating from Yale with a degree in Chemistry, and was immediately put to work as a private in the infantry. He received a battleground promotion to 2 nd Lieutenant in Northern Europe. He has two purple hearts, 2 bronze stars, and most proudly, an infantry badge. He continued to serve in the army for 43 years and retired as a Colonial. He now speaks on military history, with an emphasis on military music. He also participates in several historical military reenactments and plays with Tom in some vintage military musical bands.
Mr. Hughes then introduced the topic of his program. That most reviled and despised of all subjects, Military Food, which is never to be discussed before, during, or after eating.
Historically, the military has always faced food problems. They have restricted budgets, extreme dietary requirements (active soldiers can burn up to 4500 calories per day), transportation problems, and to top it off, somehow they have to try and make the food taste decent. Meeting all these goals has always been very hard to accomplish.
Starting with the Romans, one of the first military foods was millet. This grain kept its freshness and was easy to grow and transport. It was a bland diet, but the millet would would keep soldiers on their feet. In the civil war you began to see more variety in a soldiers ration. They would receive four eggs, a half pound of salt pork, and one pound of hard tack bread.
Hard tack was just flour and water that was mixed and then baked until dry. It was so hard that it would crack your teeth. Thus the name “ crackers ” which persists to this day. Both the hard tack and the salt pork were good for up to 30 years, but had to be soaked in water to be edible.
The ration also included two ounces of molasses (a cheap sweetener) and 2 ounces of raw coffee beans. Roasted coffee beans will go rancid quickly, but raw coffee beans, like the other parts of the ration, will last for up to 30 years. It is important to note that you would die of scurvy in about a year if you were restricted to this diet alone, so it was important to supplement it with fruits and vegetables.
The content of rations has not always been entirely healthy. Whiskey was an important part of early military rations and while it started to be phased out in 1832, it was not phased out entirely until 1902. Cigarettes were included in rations until very recently.
Rations saw a huge change during WWII. The type and variety of foods in the rations expanded greatly. Soldiers began to see the inclusion of a variety of canned foods, including meats, fruits, vegetables and desserts. After WWII the technology changed again with the MRE or Meal Ready to Eat (or Meals Rejected by Ethiopians). The MRE used radiation to preserve foods. The foods were generally much better and the packages would last for 6 to 7 years.
Now the MRE is also being phased out in favor of the T-Ration or Tray Ration. The focus has now changed from feeding individual troops to feeding squadrons. Each tray is a separate dish with just one item and is sized to feed 17 troops.
Food in the military has come a long way. However, fresh food is still the issue with all military diets. Despite all the advances in technology it is still hard to get fresh bread to the front lines.