“Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spammity Spam, Wonderful Spam.”
~ Monty Python, Spam
And speaking of Brits, a pilchard is a sardine. In old style British canned rations, “compos,” pilchards came, canned, with tomato sauce. Pronounce the “tomato” properly – TamAHto – and take copious notes, for there may be a test on it.
The point of the applesauce story wasn’t so much the wretchedness of applesauce, nor even of the humor of the American soldier – or, indeed, any soldier, any place, any time, any epoch,1 nor even of the iniquities of old style C-Rations, nor of the wicked and evil McNamara, nor even of his equally wicked and evil bastard stepchildren. No, the point was actually what the Quartermaster Corps calls “menu fatigue.”
Menu fatigue? It dates from the very first ration scheme enacted by Congress before we were even a country, and saw only limited and, by and large, not especially successful attempts to defeat it up until about 1896, with the publication of what I think was the first Manual for Army Cooks.”2 There had been other military cookbooks, notably James Sanderson’s short Camp Fires and Camp Cooking, or Culinary Hints for the Soldier,3 while, for the British Army, the rather brilliant expatriate French chef and humanitarian, Alexis Soyer4, made major contributions. Some of Soyer’s work and thoughts even made it over here. From the very first, though, the menu was boring. That’s not only a morale issue – as it was for us with The Great Applesauce Blight – but it becomes a health issue, too, when the troops simply stop eating enough, lose weight, and become prey to various illnesses.
I think the Quartermasters and Natick Labs have always understood the concept of menu fatigue and the problems arising therefrom, though there was one absolutely brilliant colonel, one Paul Logan, the creator of the D-Ration bar, who observed that, “an emergency ration should not be palatable for fear the men would consume the ration rather than carry it until an emergency arose.”5 I don’t know, and really don’t believe, that the quartermasters always cared, in those dim and distant days, but at least they understood the problem.
They’ve done something about it, too, modernly; give them their due. From the three menus of the original, World War II C-Rations, to the ten menus, I think it was, that came later, to various Five-in-one and Ten-in-one configurations, to the twelve of the Meal, Combat, Individual, which is what most of us old farts mean when we say “C-Rations,” to today’s twenty-four MRE menus, plus ten for Halal and Kosher6 (which – personal opinion – ought to be made generally available), plus Kosher for Passover (which needn’t be made generally available), Unitized Group Rations-H&S, Unitized Group Rations-A and Unitized Group Rations-E (UGR-B seems to be going away),7 plus First Strike this and Pocket Sandwich that…
And you can see here that Natick and RDECOM are testing thoroughly and conscientiously to find food the soldiers will eat and like. Turn to pages five and six of that, though, and note how the three things the troops reported as most detestable – Jambalaya, Jerk Chicken, and Burgundy Beef Short Ribs somehow still managed to make it into the menu for 2012. Note, too that they’re gone – well, at least once existing supplies are used up – for 2013. That’s a system that’s working reasonably well, no?
But there’s is one mistake they seem to make regularly in testing and I don’t know that they’ve ever quite keyed to it.8 It’s the mistake that may explain those three culinary horrors, above, plus Beef with Spiced Sauce, from the old MCI, Chicken a la King – also and better known as, “Chicken a la Dog Puke,” the nasty Vienna Sausages masquerading as “Franks,” sundry freeze dried ass-wipe in a pouch, et cetera, in MREs.
Menu fatigue is always worse than the sheer paucity of menus would seem to indicate. Why? Well, because some of the crap is disgusting to somebody, and everything is liked by someone. Yes, even the never sufficiently to be damned Beef with Spiced Sauce and Chocolate Butt Roll had their admirers and defenders. I would hazard a guess that, of any twelve military menus, the average soldier probably likes two, can tolerate another six, but has to find happiness elsewhere, can get down two more without heaving…usually, and detests two so much he’d rather die than look at one. What that means in practice is he’s going eat those two favored ones quite a lot, indeed, he will trade disadvantageously for them, and consume so much of them that they will eventually move to the final category, which we might also call, “Would somebody please shoot me?”
So what happens when the bright boys and girls from Natick show up with, oh, say, something that they call “Chicken a la King,” and give it to the soldier who has finally gotten sick to death of C-Ration Ham Slices? Easy; he loves it. He reports that it is pure ambrosia. Marijuana and cocaine cannot compete with the sheer joy of eating this stuff-in-a-pouch. Even sex is not to be preferred over Chicken a la King. And so, it is adopted, this heaven-sent medley of…stuff. Is this because it is good? Not on your life; it is only different.
And then menu fatigue begins to set in all over again, only it sets in faster this time because, while the ham slices were actually pretty decent, Chicken a la King not only looks and smells like Chicken a la Dog Puke, it tastes about as one would expect dog puke to taste, too. But even CalaDP will have some low and undiscriminating character who likes it for a while…and then menu fatigue will set in…and even freeze dried pork patty might start to look good…and then…
I do think Natick and RDECOM are headed generally in the right direction now, as far as variety goes.9 I don’t think that twenty-four menus are sufficient, no, and I do think that making four of those twenty-four vegan exacerbates the insufficiency a little bit in one way and a whole lot in another.10 However, the odds of getting a fair and accurate report on new menu items are a lot greater, probably several times greater, because of reduced fatigue from the existing menus.
With regards to British Compos, note that, in the hands of a real cook, they were also generally pretty good raw material for real food. I have the following story from a friend of mine, a retired Sergeant Major (WO2) from the British Army who lurks here a bit. (He can identify himself if he wishes to; I shall not.) It’s not only worth reading in its own right but has something to say, too, I think, about less than desirable items of rations and troop feeling on the subject. It is only slightly edited:
One time, on exercise in Germany with the EW11 Regiment I served in, I was doing a stint in the Troop complex – essentially the intercept site, plus DF control and some administrative and communications odds and sods, around forty individuals. They had a military cook assigned; that being a young and shabby private soldier, known throughout the Regiment as ‘Herfy’, after his enthusiasm for Herforder Pilsner.
My detachment had been given twenty-four hours R&R so the crew set about doing the routine servicing and I took a night shift in the complex as Ops. The exercise was open-ended – it was not clear when it would end, but it was live environment, so the best guess was that we’d go home when 3 Shock Army did.
I left the complex at around 6 o’clock in the morning to go for a piss and a smoke and couldn’t help noticing that Herfy was standing on a tree stump with a tow rope around his neck, which led up and over a stout branch, with four beefy lads holding the trailing end. The rest of the off shift was standing around watching. I enquired, in that smug way Sergeants do, “What’s the story?”.
Politely, the senior full Corporal replied, “We’re going to hang Herfy”.
“Well, yes, I can see that, but I was wondering why.”
The full screw turned to Herfy and fixed him with a cold eye: “Go on, then, Herfy; tell him”.
Herfy turned pleadingly to me and whimpered, “I think the exercise will finish today, didn’t want to open another four ten man boxes, so decided to use up what I had left over from the last few days.”
“What was that, Herfy?” I inquired.
“Pilchards, Sar’nt. Lo’s o’ tins o’ pilchards. So I put them all in a big po’ o’ water and made pilchard soup.”
“Hm. Haul away, lads, I’ll see if I can get us another cook’.”
They did lift him briefly off his feet but were kind enough to let him down quite quickly. He was the best-behaved and most helpful cook in NATO after that, although still a shockingly filthy disgrace to his uniform, of course.
1 Unless you’ve been in, and it really doesn’t matter which service or, indeed, which country’s service, a lot of military humor you will probably never get. It derives from a lot of things, shared outlook, shared experiences, shared hardships, all of that. Military service is a laugh a minute, from waking up at zero dark thirty – which is not, by the way, an expression coined by Hollywood – to laying your pained, weary ass down at night, be that in a bed or in the brambles. If you ask a veteran who enjoyed his time in – which some, of course, do not – and ask him what he misses most about the service, the answer, maybe nine of ten or ninety-nine of one hundred times, is going to be something on the order of, “I miss the humor.”
3 http://books.google.com/books?id=QiBXAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. The actual title is longer than that. It only got limited distribution, as I understand the matter.
4 You want a chef for a candidate for canonization in the Catholic Church. He’s my nominee. Look him up.
5 http://hotchow.natick.army.mil/history/Historical_Rations.pdf You realize, right, that I don’t mean “brilliant,” unless we redefine the word as “so unbefuckinglievably stupid or wicked that one can only hope he spends his time in Tartarus, right between Tantalus’ pool and Sisyphus’ hill, eating D-Ration bars until the second coming.” I know, I know; nisi bonum and all. But that just pisses me off.
6 Precisely the same menus, actually, but from different factories, with different labeling and certifications. http://nsrdec.natick.army.mil/media/fact/food/Kosher-Halal.pdf Unless things have changed, these come through Chaplaincy channels, rather than normal food service channels.
8 Actually, there are at least two mistakes, but the one is related to the other. Note the words of Colonel John F, Westen of the then Subsistence Department to Commissary General Charles P. Eagan, 24 March, 1898, concerning a stew made from “canned roast beef, ” alleged to be “fit for the immortal gods and not beneath the notice of a general.” The opinion of the troops who had to actually eat the crap were, apparently, at odds with this assessment. See, Graham A, Cosmas. An Army for Empire, at page 158.
9 I’ll talk about some different failing over which they have little control later on.
10 The vegan menus are, by all reports and my own experience, actually pretty damned good, so much so that non-vegans will eat them readily. However, think about it: we presume a minimum of twenty-four menus but condemn some portion of the armed forces to a mere four? That’s not just preposterous, it’s bloody inhuman, so inhuman as to suggest very strongly that veganism is incompatible with military service, unless we put them in their own units eating a decently varied vegan menu. We probably should do this.
11 Electronic Warfare
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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