Combat Cuisine: How Military Food Changed In World War II

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This season of Service: Veteran Stories of Hunger and War features recollections from World War II veterans about their time serving the country during what turned out to be the deadliest conflict in human history. On this episode, our host Jacqueline Raposo wraps up the season by sitting down with authors Myke Cole and Anastacia Marx de Salcedo to find the common links. How did combat change military cuisine over time, and what innovations did the military come up with for servicemen that made their way into our own kitchens? What else did World War II change about our civilization? Featuring clips from all the veterans interviewed for the season, this episode charges into lesser-known territory about an important part of the war effort: keeping the soldiers fed.

Myke starts the episode discussing war strategies and tactics, and how they’ve changed over time. He says that “we’re always fighting the last war,” and not in a good way; each new war is initially fought with old strategies that don’t always work with new technology, costing human lives. He talks about the impact of rifling technology on musket warfare during the Civil War as an example. But another problem faced the military, besides tactics. In 1939, the U.S. Army had about 180,000 men; by the end of the war, there were over 12 million active personnel. With so many people all over the world to feed and clothe, the military had to innovate. Rations in World War I consisted of hard biscuits, canned and dried meat, and chocolate, but the canned meat actually spoiled to the point that the military was accused of unintentionally poisoning troops. Products wrapped in cellophane became soggy on the sea or in wet conditions, and cans would rust and fall apart. Clearly, something needed to be done. 

So the military created a lab to start tinkering around with military food. They needed it to be “portable, durable, long-lasting, safe, and nourishing,” Anastacia says, and way down on the bottom of the list, “and then, do people like to eat it?” Dehydration led to innovations like powdered milk, eggs, and cheese, though Anastacia acknowledges that on taste, these products missed the mark: “Eggs have a special combination of textures when they’re fresh that’s hard to replicate,” she says, and we hear clips of veterans recounting times they traded their cigarettes for real eggs. Even more changed was the packaging they came in, with the food lab coming up with thicker cans, latex linings, and wax overlays. But it was in 1941 that they really put money into the food lab, and this was “the Big Bang moment of processed food.” Learn about how they started to incorporate microwaves and plastics into their process, and why the Navy had the best food of all, on this episode of Service: Veteran Stories of Hunger and War

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