War and Pizza

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
A few years ago Anastacia Marx de Salcedo was making lunch for her kids.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
So like most moms, I do a lot of lunches. When I do that, I usually try and find a balance between healthy and not so healthy.

Roman Mars:
On the not quite so healthy side, she might pack some cheesy crackers. And on the healthy side, she’d make her kids a sandwich, or at least she thought the sandwiches that she was making were healthy until she looked closely at the ingredients.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
I realized that I’d pull the packaged deli meat out of my fridge, that the bread came from my bread box and it had been sitting there for a while and had been sitting in a supermarket, and then it had been manufactured way back when.

Tina Antolini:
And Anastacia got to thinking, it is kind of unnatural for food to last this long. Is this really a healthy lunch?

Roman Mars:
That’s Tina Antolini, host of the podcast ‘Gravy’, helping us tell this story.

Tina Antolini:
Anastacia looked at the packaged deli meat, the store bought sliced bread, the processed cheese… As it happens, she’s a journalist. She writes a lot about food, and so she started looking into it.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
I went through all of those ingredients that you just listed out, including the mustard and the mayonnaise.

Tina Antolini:
And at least two of the items, the packaged deli meat, and the supermarket bread, took her research ultimately to this obscure U.S. Army Base, the Natick Soldier System Center.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
This is very strange. What is the Army doing it in food?

Roman Mars:
What the Army is doing in food is, of course, feeding the troops. And by strange extension, you and me.

Tina Antolini:
Military organizations have actually been involved in food production ever since the earliest combat rations.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
The first combat rations were probably eaten by the Sumerians. They did carry with them into battle barley cakes, beer, and green onions.

Tina Antolini:
Back in the early days of organized warfare, if you were marching into battle and didn’t know when you’d get home again, you needed to bring something that would keep.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
All of these rations were based on traditional methods of preserving food: drying, salting, smoking, and pickling.

Roman Mars:
But the real innovation was coming up with a preserved protein. Ancient Egyptians went to war carrying dried fish with them.

Tina Antolini:
And in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Mongols preserved their meat by storing it under their saddles.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
And the salt from the horse would enter the meat, and the pressure of the rider’s weight would push the meat down. That would actually create this preserved meat, so that’s kind of-

Tina Antolini:
Salted by horse sweat and compressed by your butt on the saddle?

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
Correct.

Roman Mars:
Mongolian methods aside, for some 2000 years, military food rations pretty much stayed the same: flour, beans, a hunk of salted meat and some hardtack, a kind of twice-baked biscuit.

Tina Antolini:
Or in the case of Napoleon’s army, soldiers would just go plunder the countryside and eat whatever they found, which became a problem when soldiers went MIA trying to get food when there was a battle to fight.

Roman Mars:
And so in 1795, the French Government and the agriculture department decided they needed a new way to preserve food for the troops. They announced a contest: 12,000 francs to anyone who could come up with a new method.

Tina Antolini:
A man named Nicholas Appert responded. He was at the time the celebrity chef, he cooked for Kings and Queens and Appert found a way to cook and preserve food using glass and metal containers.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
This is canning, and it revolutionized the world.

Tina Antolini:
This was the first time that a military had taken on a big problem in food technology and solved it. And militaries would continue to innovate around food for soldiers and sailors. Fast forward to World War II in the United States.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
During World War II, the country had to ramp up from feeding 400,000 soldiers to ultimately 11.6 million.

Tina Antolini:
American troops had packs of meat and cheese, and crackers as well as canned goods of course. But these rations didn’t survive the rigors of war too well, and they really hadn’t been sufficient to feed so many soldiers, in so many different locations, in so many different climates and conditions.

Roman Mars:
The military had been unprepared to feed their soldiers during World War II.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
The government said, “Well, you know what? We don’t ever want to have to go through this again. It was just horrible to have to ramp up, so let’s maintain ourselves in a state of preparedness.”

Tina Antolini:
And so preparedness became policy after World War II. To support that they created a system of 700 Federal laboratories, all devoted to developing military technologies.

Roman Mars:
And one of them is the Natick Soldier System Center outside of Boston.

Tina Antolini:
“So this looks pretty much like suburbia with the exception of the intense electric fence.”

Roman Mars:
Except for that barbwire fence, and the guard posted at the gate, the Natick Soldier System Center looks like a normal office park, but this office park is the epicenter of the modern military diet. It is the home of the Combat Feeding Directorate; which has been here since the 1950s.

Tina Antolini:
“First of all, can I have you introduce yourself to me?”

Stephen Moody:
“Absolutely. I’m Stephen Moody, the Director of Combat Feeding here at the Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center.”

Tina Antolini:
Stephen showed me how military food technology has evolved over time. Cans, for instance, have since been replaced by flexible lined pouches because cans are bulky and heavy.

Roman Mars:
And since the 1980s troops have been eating their meals out of those pouches in what are called MRE’s, meals ready to eat.

Stephen Moody:
“The first MRE contained a lot of freeze-dried components, a freeze-dried meat patty that you would have to add water to and then heat it and having eaten a few of those in my time as an active-duty soldier, you had to get it just right. It was always either a little bit too soggy or a little bit crunchy. At the end of the day.”

Roman Mars:
Ever since World War II, the Combat Feeding Directorate has been tasked with overcoming certain challenges inherent in food. It spoils, it grows mold, it loses flavor.

Tina Antolini:
And if you’re trying to feed a vast number of people in climates ranging from the desert to the humid jungle over long periods of time, you have to figure out ways of making food that will avoid its natural tendency to go bad. So the Combat Feeding Directorate has whole teams of microbiologists, engineers, and other scientists working to extend the lives of foods.

Stephen Moody:
“Food engineering, preservation and stabilization, for instance, would be the ones that would try to figure out how to make that product shelf-stable for two, three, five years-”

Tina Antolini:
“Five years?”

Stephen Moody:
“Without refrigeration. Exactly.”

Roman Mars:
And then there’s the little detail of taste, making this stuff actually palatable.

Tina Antolini:
The modern MRE has come a long way from that chewy freeze-dried meat patty.

Roman Mars:
Today’s high tech pouches come with another pouch that chemically heats the ration.

Tina Antolini:
The US military now offers 24 different entrees from cheese tortellini, to lemon pepper tuna, to jambalaya.

Stephen Moody:
“On the jambalaya, for instance, trying to make sure that jambalaya would last for three years at 80 degrees in a pouch is a challenge. So we tweak the spices, we tweak the ingredients so that we can make sure that the flavor is optimal at the end of the shelf life as well as the beginning.”

Roman Mars:
So that soldier on a mountain in Afghanistan can enjoy a flexible pouch of three-year-old jambalaya.

Tina Antolini:
I mean, that’s the goal, but it’s not always the reality when you open an MRE.

Ben Armstrong:
“So it was just like this gelatinous barbecue beef that had this pungent smell to it.’

Tina Antolini:
Louisiana native Ben Armstrong spent five years in the Marine Corps. Don’t even get him started on the jambalaya MRE. For a Louisianan-

Ben Armstrong:
“It’s just sacrilege. I would never try it.”

Roman Mars:
And so the military isn’t just working on MREs, they’re also trying to develop foods that look and taste more like, you know what you’d eat at 3:00 AM. You’re like really, really hungry and your judgment is somewhat impaired.

Stephen Moody:
“We actually took something like a hot pocket that you’d find in the freezer at the grocery store and made one that was shelf-stable. We did that by controlling the water activity and the pH of the different components within the product so that they wouldn’t allow bacteria to grow.”

Tina Antolini:
They packaged it up with something called an oxygen scavenger, a little packet of iron filings that absorbs oxygen, keeping it away from the bread.

Stephen Moody:
“The mold wouldn’t grow on the bread, and we designed hurdles to each step within the process that might allow spoilage to the point where we now have a sandwich that will last for three years at room temperature.”

Tina Antolini:
And this leads us to the Holy Grail of military food science, an item that soldiers have been requesting since time immemorial… pizza.

Roman Mars:
Pizza that is shelf-stable for three years.

Stephen Moody:
“This is our pilot plant.”

Tina Antolini:
Stephen took me inside a massive industrial kitchen full of giant kettles, mixers, ovens. I see a worker in a lab coat and hairnet standing over an enormous pot, stirring vigorously. In another corner of the pilot plant, a different worker is slicing up a pizza topping that at first, I thought I misheard.

Tina Antolini:
“Did you call this osmoroni?”

Woman:
“We call it osmoroni.”

Tina Antolini:
“Osmoroni.”

Woman:
“Osmoroni.”

Roman Mars:
Osmoroni or osmotic pepperoni looks like a roll of toilet paper made of meat, a thin sheet of beef rolled up with a layer of plastic to prevent it from sticking to itself. It’s preserved using osmotic dehydration.

Tina Antolini:
The technology basically involves running thin sheets of meat through a special water bath that removes the water from the meat itself, preserving it. I tasted it.

Tina Antolini:
“I probably… if somebody had just served me that I would not have even questioned what it was.”

Woman:
“No, you wouldn’t. I mean it tastes like pepperoni. I would probably increase the amount of pepperoni flavor, but those are some of the things that we’re working on.”

Roman Mars:
The Army is aiming to have shelf-stable pizza in combat zones by 2017 and maybe soon after that in your local grocery store.

Tina Antolini:
This is another part of the Combat Feeding Directorate ever since its origins after World War II, when the military decided it needed to create a backup plan to feed troops in the event of a sudden war.

Roman Mars:
And so the US government made it a requirement for these labs to share their findings with the commercial sector.

Stephen Moody:
What we try to do when we come up with a new technology is make sure that it’s not military-specific so that there are commercial applications for it, and that can only help us with economies of scale. If something is military unique and it’s only produced for the US military, the costs are going to be a lot higher than if it’s produced for the commercial sector as well.

Roman Mars:
And it’s not just costs. If there’s ever a large demand for these combat rations, like in a time of war, it’s good for the military if there are companies out there that already have the technology to make these kinds of products. And of course, if the private sector has these technologies, they’ll use them… on us.

Tina Antolini:
This means there’s evidence of the Army’s influence all over the grocery aisles.

Roman Mars:
For example, your children can thank the Armed Services for their favorite food, mac and cheese.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
“Cheese powder in the mac and cheese, and then you’d have it also in any cheesy snack foods that might be around.”

Tina Antolini:
Anastacia Marx de Salcedo took all of her research, starting with her children’s lunch, and wrote a book called “Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat”. So at this point she can walk into a grocery store and point out all the foods that have the military’s fingerprints on them; which is exactly what she did with me.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
“We’ve got some TV dinners: turkey tetrazzini, meatloaf and gravy, and turkey pot pie.”

Roman Mars:
The TV dinner, the frozen entree, was developed by an Army contractor to feed bomber troops on overseas flights.

Tina Antolini:
And this prompted the military to come up with what became the microwave. Yes, the microwave is a military innovation.

Roman Mars:
The military also developed freeze-drying technology, so instant coffee, teas, soups.

Tina Antolini:
The Army also hit upon a game-changer, what they call intermediate moisture foods.

Roman Mars:
Foods that are moist and also bacteria resistant.

Tina Antolini:
You see this in energy bars, pillowy sliced bread and packaged cookies.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
“One thing that cookie makers did, is once they understood this science they started making the soft and chewy cookies. In the olden days, supermarket cookies would be crisp.”

Tina Antolini:
As we go through the grocery store Anastacia stops and squeezes packages. She gets excited about a package of Thai basil and sweet chili stir fry sauce.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
“Okay. The reason I feel it up is that to feel the packaging. This is a retort pouch which was developed by the Natick Center.”

Roman Mars:
Those flexible pouches are the same packaging from the MREs, but now it’s for squeezy applesauce and yogurt, tuna and sauce packets.

Tina Antolini:
“It can start to be a little bit haunting as you go grocery shopping. The military everywhere.”

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
“I started to feel like I was walking around looking at ghosts of combat rations. I think about it when I’m with my kids because they do seem to prefer this food.”

Tina Antolini:
It’s not just Anastacia’s kids, these food products are beloved and ubiquitous from Cheetos to chewy granola bars. Military innovations have a tendency to get worked into our diets. And most people don’t stop to question how a packaged cookie can remain soft for eternity.

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
“I think most consumers, we say, ‘Hey, it comes in a package. The company says it’s okay, I’m not going to worry about it,’ and we go for that.”

Tina Antolini:
Anastacia says it’s unclear how, or if, these food preservation techniques are affecting our health. There are a lot of ways that the military has changed the chemistry of different foods and not all of them have been studied, but she’s definitely hesitating before putting these types of foods in her kids’ lunches.

Roman Mars:
The average civilian doesn’t need food to stay preserved for years at a time, but it’s showing up on our shelves thanks to the military and we’re buying it. This is what we’re given, these shelf-stable and the mold-resistant, meticulously designed to simulate the fresh and the familiar. So if in a few years you happen to buy a shelf-stable pizza in your local supermarket, be prepared. That pepperoni might actually be osmoroni.

Roman Mars:
99% invisible was produced this week by Tina Antolini with Avery Truffleman, Katie Mingle, Sam Greenspan, Kurt Kohlstedt and me, Roman Mars. Tina Antolini hosts the podcast ‘Gravy’, which is a production of the Southern Foodways Alliance. You can check it out at www.southernfoodways.org/gravy. You can find a link to Anastacia Marx de Salcedo’s book ‘Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat’ on our website. That’s 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Reporter Tina Antolini, host of the podcast Gravy, spoke with Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, author of Combat-Ready Kitchen; Stephen Moody, the Director of Combat Feeding at the Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center and Louisiana-native Ben Armstrong, who spent five years in the United States Marine Corps.

  1. uthor

    So the military is to blame for overly soft cookies? And probably “chewy” granola, I’d bet!

  2. Courtney

    We had a couple MRE’s that someone gave us. I ate one and it wasn’t too bad. Pretty ingenious how they packaged and preserved the food, and the way to heat up your soup

  3. chocolatebunting

    To unnecessarily address the intro, its a fob pocket for holding your pocket watch and its now frequently call a coin pocket so it is perfect for challenge coins.

    1. Alex

      I wonder if there’s a 99PI episode about watches/pants anywhere in there…

  4. Jeff Gunderson

    Oh no, Roman! “powered cheese” in the description. Took me a second to realize it’s supposed to say “powdered cheese”… Anyway, great episode! As always.

  5. Heather

    I’m sad that I can’t download the episodes as mp3s anymore. Any reason for the change?

  6. Here is one area of the defence budget I have nothing against. Seeing how much of the food produced goes to waste from spoilage, any R&D we can put into food preservation tech is a good idea.

  7. SRPinPGh

    Can I point out the tank on the book cover, about American military, is WWII German? It’s a Tiger.

  8. My aunt, Frances Lee, used to be in charge of the Natick Lab’s test kitchen. They prepared meals for consideration by the military for their bases in the U.S. and abroad. Friday was “tasting” day and friends and family could eat (for free!) and fill out a 6-page survey (too salty, too sweet,etc.). Enlisted men once had this task and they even got hazardous duty pay for it. But then the labs switched to civilians. The Natick kitchen also coordinated with Houston to develop food for the astronauts. Frances was one of the inventors of Tang and appeared on the old TV show “What’s My Line” as such. The military still has 5-gallon tins of grapefruit Tang. It’s pretty good…especially with vodka.

  9. KarmaTiger

    The microwave oven wasn’t a “military innovation”. It was invented by Percy Spencer after he discovered the effect microwaves had on a chocolate bar in his pocket (he wasn’t the first to experience this, but the first to look into it). He then tried it with popcorn kernels (worlds first microwaved popcorn!) and then put an egg in a modified kettle and shot a microwave bean at it from the magnetron. The egg exploded.

    He then created what might be called the first true microwave oven by attaching a high density electromagnetic field generator to an enclosed metal box. The magnetron would then shoot into the metal box (similar to the kettle), so that the electromagnetic waves would have no way to escape, which would allow for more controlled and safe experimentation. He then placed various food items in the box and monitored their temperature to observe the effect.

    He happened to be working for Raytheon, a private company that, among other things, produced radar systems which it sold to the US military. Because Spencer came up with the idea of a microwave oven at work, Raytheon was able to patent the invention. The first ovens they made were huge and cost more than a car, but by 1967 they were cheap enough for consumers to buy.

    The fact that they were useful to the military is a side benefit, not the cause. The way it was shoehorned as a “military innovation” here throws makes Anastacia’s research seem superficial.

  10. Eli the Bearded

    “They hope to have a shelf-stable pizza, which would last for years without refrigeration, available to the military by 2017.”

    So did they ever succeed?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist