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Food innovations from the armed forces

Zubin D’Souza


I love long treks. I do not take them and so maybe I should reword my statement to read ‘I love the idea of long treks’. So what stops me from taking long treks? Apart from the fact that I have passed the prime of my life, have a belly that reaches any venue five minutes before I do and the energy of a two legged sloth bear, it is the food. Not food in the sense of me not knowing what I want to eat; I know what I want to eat but I may never get what I want to eat. I could be hanging from my fingertips on the sheer rock face of the Himalayas far from any civilization outpost but I would need to eat good food and I want to eat good food. Being in a life or death situation should never mean that you have to compromise on eating and I chose a career as a chef so that I could eat well. It was then I thought of turning to the very people who need the right balance of nutrition but face life or death situations almost every day – the armed forces!

Napoleon once famously stated that ‘an army marches on its stomach’. This saying was also attributed to Frederick the Great. Napoleon should know – one of the most famous French origin dishes ‘Poulet Sauté Marengo’ was served to Napoleon after he defeated the Austrians at the battle of Marengo. Apparently Napoleon never ate anything when he was going into battle and when the one at Marengo ended in a decisive victory for him; he turned to his chef Durand and asked him to bring him something to eat. The chef noticed that the supply wagons were a far off and created this particular chicken dish with the ingredients he had at hand. Napoleon loved it so much that he insisted that it be served to him after every battle.

Almost every military commander has learnt the importance of having a well fed team under their leadership. In the past, there were always supply chains established and to ensure the rout of an army, the enemy always tried to disrupt them. As innovations in tactics and weaponry increased so did the developments in food. Innovativeness has been rife with the people in uniform and this has somehow escaped into the larger world leaving us to reap the benefits.

There is a plethora of kebabs that were invented by the Mughal and Turkic forces as the soldiers grilled meats on skewers over open fires while they were on long marches to conquer large swathes of Asia. The wok was developed after shields started bending due to constant heating with soldiers placing them over fires as an impromptu pan to help them in their cooking.

During the Franco-German war of 1870-71, there was a siege of Paris and inevitably this led to a shortage of food. Innovativeness coupled with the French insistence of dining well under the even most adverse circumstances led to some rather startling items on the menu which included ‘dog cutlets with green peas’ and a ‘fricasse of rats and mice cooked a la Chinoise!’

Cooking methods and dubious ingredients apart, there are several foods that we eat today that were originally designed to help the armed forces ‘soldier on’. Each war brought with it some innovations in the food department.

Canned foods for instance were first developed at the insistence on Emperor Napoleon (again! This guy is surely taking the well fed army bit a tad too seriously) who had a competition with a large purse as prize to the person who could help protect the army rations from spoilage.

The American Civil War was the grounds for creating condensed milk and the Vietnam War was where the famous goldfish crackers and dips were served. M&M’s, the tiny little sugar coated chocolate candies were part of the soldiers treat rations where they gained international renown and the Second World War saw the creation of Spam ham, high energy biscuits which were reportedly so tough that they had to be broken by the rifle butts and the Cheetos brand of corn puffs. Along with the Gulf and Iraq wars came an innovation called MRE’s. This is the acronym for Meals Ready to Eat which was a field ready packaging of all the dietary requirements of a soldier in the thick of action.

Only recently American scientists have discovered ways of making sandwiches and pizzas last for two years without the need for refrigeration. I think I just found the perfect dining companion for my next long trek!


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