Packaged in compact individual portions, army food may well seem bleak. Yet it reflects – albeit minimally – the specialties of each country. There is, of course, no room for gourmet pleasure and not even the shot of Grappa given to Italian soldiers can convince them otherwise. Emma Graham Harrison from The Guardian compared the military rations given to armed forces from eleven nations stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan. A glance at the photos of the ration packs distributed in early 2014 immediately reveals whom they are for: minestra di pasta, cheddar cheese, knäckebröd, salmon fillet, goulash with potatoes, cassoulet, peanut butter… Every nation has its favourites. Yet logistics services around the world share the same aim: to provide enough to eat no matter what the conditions.
Corned beef or “monkey meat”?
Feeding soldiers in prolonged combat is no easy feat. Besides the fact that conditions may well be adverse – snowy, mountainous, extremely arid and/or humid – troops may not have the time or the equipment for cooking. This is where “monkey meat” proved useful! This small tin of beef preserved in brine, with a close resemblance to cat food and an unappetizing odour, could be heated up or even eaten cold. It sustained soldiers throughout World War II and was the exemplary solution for the difficulty of providing healthy food to soldiers carrying out strenuous tasks in stressful situations. Such nourishment needs to be balanced, tasty and attractive, lightweight, compact and waterproof, as well as easy and fast to prepare! Although a tin of corned beef could be kept for a long time and filled ravenous stomachs, over time it was viewed with revulsion.
Weight loss and deficiencies
The K ration proposed by the American army from 1942 onwards was far more appetizing (see picture in the right column). It was composed of three standard light but varied meals, all of whose ingredients contained a minimum of water: biscuits, processed cheese, a bouillon cube, dried fruit, chocolate, tinned meat, coffee and sugar, etc. Although originally intended for soldiers on short missions, the K ration provided daily sustenance to troops for months on end. Yet its 2830 kilocalories a day proved insufficient. Soldiers not only lost weight but, even worse, they lacked vitamins and this made them more prone to illness. Their meals needed to be supplemented, with fresh fruit in particular.
24 meals for American GIs
Today, the armed forces pay attention to the appearance and taste of food and not just to whether it replenishes energy. The American army has developed 24 types of rations, enriched in vitamins and mineral salts, providing 1250 kilocalories per meal, of which 36% are fat and 51% carbohydrates. France, the home of gourmet cooking, offers its troops twelve different menus, comprising 3200 kilocalories per day, with a similar proportion of fat and carbohydrates as found in American ration packs. Since eating is above all a convivial act that raises morale, GIs may also share a specially-designed ration pack that feeds eighteen with the simplest of preparation: four separate containers with meat, starchy foodstuffs, vegetables and a dessert can be heated up in half an hour by pulling a tab that activates a saline solution.