by Richard L. Lobb
Rations are the foods issued to soldiers, particularly those given when they are engaged in field operations. Since rations are often carried over long distances, they have to be as non-perishable as possible. Dry bread and salted meat were the mainstay of soldier’s fare until modern preservation techniques were developed.
In the days of the Roman Empire, soldiers on active service were supposed to get two pounds of bread per day, plus meat, olive oil, and wine. If baker’s bread was not available, the soldiers were given grain that could be mixed with water to produce a gruel or porridge, or baked into flat (unleavened) bread. In the Byzantine army, the soldiers were given “paximadion,” a biscuit baked twice to make it light and, more importantly, very dry, since it would keep better that way than bread with any moisture in it.
From the fall of Rome to early modern time, armies in Europe were typically small and temporary. They collected grain for bread and animals for meat; when on the march, they depended largely on supplies purchased or simply taken from civilian populations. Before setting off on an expedition to France in 1294, for example, Edward I of England procured cattle and swine to be slaughtered for meat, and salt to preserve it. Bread, flour, and wheat were also issued to the units for the soldiers to eat. Records indicate that while some of these supplies were purchased on the open market, others were requisitioned from apparently unwilling sellers. Forces heading off on longer trips, such as Crusaders, carried hard money to buy provisions along the way.
When more permanent armies were established, the problem of sustaining them on the march was again solved with bread and salted beef or pork, plus dried peas or beans. The Continental Congress decreed in 1775 that the daily ration was to consist of a pound of beef, three quarters of a pound of pork, or a pound of salted fish, plus a pound of bread or flour, along with a pint of milk and a quart of spruce beer or cider to wash it down. Quantities of peas, beans, and rice or cornmeal were also allotted. Unfortunately, these generous rations were often not available, the Continental supply system not being up to the task.
In the American Civil War, soldiers on both sides ate salted beef or pork and made “johnnycakes” out of flour and fried them in bacon grease, or kneaded the dough into a long roll, wrapped it around a ramrod and roasted it over a fire. They became accustomed to hard bread, or hardtack, so hard that the best thing to do with it was to smash it with a musket butt and soak it in the soup or coffee. The federal army attempted to provide a more balanced meal through a concoction of dehydrated potatoes, cabbage, turnips, carrots, parsnips, beets, tomatoes, onions, peas, beans, lentils and celery called “desiccated vegetables.” The soldiers had little luck trying to cook the newfangled product and called it “desecrated vegetables.”
The process of preserving food by sealing it in tin cans and heating it to high temperatures was invented by the Frenchman Nicholas Appert around 1800. The French army and navy were the first to adopt canned rations. Other armies adopted “iron rations” as the technology was perfected and industrialized. Quality control was critical, however: inadequate canning led to death by food poisoning for some U.S. soldiers in the Spanish-American War.
Canned corned beef – “bully beef”– became the mainstay of British army rations in World War I, along with the usual dry bread, called “dog biscuits” by the soldiers. “Maconochie rations” –a canned soup of turnips and carrots — provided men in the trenches with some variety, but was unappealing when eaten cold, as it often had to be.
In World War II, the U.S. Army’s “C” rations were individual canned items such as beef and beans or corned beef hash. “K” rations – said to be named after Dr. Ancel Keys, the nutritionist who helped develop them — were complete meals in a water-resistant package, such a breakfast of canned hash, biscuits, a compressed cereal bar, instant coffee, a fruit bar, and chewing gum. They were intended for short-term use and became monotonous when eaten for days or weeks on end. K rations were discontinued in 1948, although C rations remained in use through the Vietnam War.
The concept of a complete, packaged meal was obviously sound, and armed forces have developed new versions with the food sealed in plastic pouches. The U.S. “Meal, Ready To Eat,” or MRE, comes in 24 varieties reflecting the range of tastes in the United States, from grilled beefsteak to pasta with alfredo sauce and chicken with Thai sauce. Side dishes such as beans or noodles, fruit, crackers, and dessert round out the meal. The meals provide an average of 1,300 calories each. Other armies have similar ration packs, with the British version heavy on tea and puddings while the French version offers duck or salmon appetizers and veal or stewed lamb among the entrees. None of them are particularly popular with the troops, and American soldiers say “MRE” stands for “Meals Rejected by Everyone.”
Soldiers’ food in times past was bad enough. Sailors on long voyagers had it even worse, subsisting mainly on ship’s biscuit (similar to soldiers’ hard bread) and salted beef or pork. The meat often stayed in casks for years before being opened, and was distinctly unappetizing: “It was of a stony hardness, fibrous, shrunken, dark, gristly, and glistening with salt crystals,” as British sailor, poet and historian John Masefield put it. A sailor handy with a knife could turn a chunk of salt beef into a box or other useful item. The lack of vegetables and fresh food led to the scurvy, a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency, that could decimate crews on long voyages. The British eventually solved the scurvy problem by issuing sailors lemon or lime juice. The juice ration gave rise to the nickname “limeys” for British seamen.
By Richard L. Lobb
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