Military Chow and Menu Fatigue

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Lines of Departure - Menu Fatigue

“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 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 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. 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 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

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  • Dex

    Ah, yes…
    Anybody else have fond memories of the Baby$#!+ C Ration? Pretty much the only one I would eat cold.

  • Hank Kim

    I got in when they were just finishing the last of the C-Rat’s and at first the new MRE’s were great on short deployments, but by they time you have memorized the contents of the little brown bag before it is opened, you hate almost all of them with a loathing that can only be described by someone who has had to eat MRE’s/field rats for months on end. I remember when we were deployed to Desert Shield and had to eat generation one MRE’s for about two months for almost every meal. The only salvation were the care packages from home (and wonderful groups) with enough spices (i.e. hot sauce) and pogey bait to get us through. I do have to say it was a toss up about what we loved more when we rotated back into the rear area, showers that worked or hot food by the wonderfully overpaid cooks of Burn & Loot.

    • Tom Kratman

      Yeah, but those care packages, about 25 tons per division per day, were an appreciable fraction of the needs of an infantry division for all classes of supply in active combat in WW II.

    • Hank Kim

      Could not agree more. For me and the men I commanded though, the care packages were an incredible moral booster. Nothing like cookies from home to make life feel just a bit better when you are sitting in a hole in the ground, even if they are a bit worse for shipping.

    • L C

      I started good relations with the group we supported during Provide Comfort – who didn’t know what to do with a female in their midst in a war zone – by offering what was left from a care-package from my Auntie in Hawaii. Roasted macadamia nuts. Sorry, the chocolate-covered ones were long-gone. Had to eat those quick as the chocolate was melting. We got along great after that. (The fact that I demonstrated that I actually knew how to use my rifle helped as well.)

  • TM W

    I ended up in the base hospital after an exercise where I ended up eating some of the old “spiced beef” c-rats. This was in 1969 and I still remember the date on the box was 1947, the year I was born.

    • Tom Kratman

      Ordinarily, they wouldn’t make you sick, just disgusted.

  • Jon LaForce

    Chees Tortellini isn’t bad for a vegan MRE, just heat it up.

    • Harry_the_Horrible

      I don’t think vegans eat cheese, because it is an animal product.

    • Tom Kratman

      I suspect it’s not real cheese.

    • Harry_the_Horrible

      Must be “Processed Cheese Food” which neither Cheese, nor Food.

    • Tom Kratman

      Sorta food. Sorta.

  • Lawrence F. Greenwood

    I’m the odd guy, I always liked Chicken ala King. In fact I liked a lot of the MRE’s back in the day and still use them for camping trips. But I refuse to eat any of the breakfast ones or the veg ones. Just refuse to waste valuable eating time on that crap.

  • softwater

    I heard that the kosher rations in the second Iraq war were of high trading value because they didn’t make you constipated like the regular ones. Any comment on rations being designed for two week deployments instead of 6 months?

    • Tom Kratman

      For 6 months it should almost all A rats or UGRs.

  • Clifford Fargason

    Years ago I was reading Humor in Uniform in a Readers Digest. Supposedly a couple of paratroops had cooked up a deal between them. During some turbulence one of them grabbed an air sickness bag from his pocket and commenced to “heave” into it. His buddy grabbed a spoon and the bag and commenced to eat the Chicken ala King in it. Seems that everybody else felt the need to heave as well.

    Yeah, I am not good at retelling jokes. But it has stuck with me for probably thirty years now.

    • Rick Randall

      My company commander and his RTO (my asshole buddy from high school) did that gag on a blackhawk, only he “puked” into his previously Saran wrap lines Kevlar.

      The crew chief barely got his head out the doorgun hatch in time, and the shit went all on the fuselage and tailboom. Ten minutes into a fairly long flight in the August sun.

      We hit the LZ, and the crew chief was screaming, “Get your disgusting filthy fucking asses off my fucking airplane!”

      I think that was the *only* time I ever actually heard and understood speech on a helicopter…

    • AuricTech LIC

      In general, it wasn’t due to turbulence (you could never count on that), but during low-level flight (not quite nap-of-the-earth, but still a lot of up-and-down motion) that paratroopers would pull this prank. In my experience, it was commonly planned so that the paratrooper eating from the bag was seated next to someone on his “cherry blast” (first jump with the unit).

  • Jack Withrow

    I think I had a D-ration bar one time. It was truly vile. I never understood why they were such hot trading materials with civilians in Europe during WW II.
    And something else I have noticed over the years regarding combat rations. I have yet to meet a vet who liked what ever replaced the combat rations he/she first ate when they enlisted. My Father and Uncles who ate K-rations in WW II despised C-rats when they got them in Korea. My first combat ration along with most of my friends were C-rats, everyone of us would rather have C-rats than MRE’s any time. I would imagine that when MRE’s are replaced the same thing will happen with those that started out by eating MRE’s.

    • PavePusher

      Nostalgia hides many evils….

    • Jack Withrow

      Very, very true

    • Tom Kratman

      Probably because the Euros of the day were facing actual starvation and calories really mattered.

    • Rick Randall

      I’ll guarantee it. When even the rats and seagulls have gotten wary, anything edible is great.

    • Pugmak

      MREs came out the last year I was in.

      Outrage! That’s what the common feeling was at the time.

      Most of us had been, recently, through the evolutionary change from water discipline to water over consumption. Wary eyed, we was of that change. Like, for reals, there’s gonna be unlimited access to water on a battlefield! Sure. Why not.

      So, they took away what extra moisture we could glean from our rats and gave us freeze dried crap? And, what the hell are we supposed to use now for jinglers on the wire? improvised grenades? Cans are useful, damn it!

      It didn’t help a bit that they also gave us new cammies that were too heavy and hot for summer but not heavy enough to make a lick of difference in the winter, and the damned things took forever to dry when they got wet.

      And the new helmets. Uncomfortable as hell. Felt like someone had their paw pressed against your forehead pushing back against your neck muscles. And, that took away our shaving/skivvy washing bucket!

      The consensus was that the pogues had finally found a way to punish us grunts for being so much more manly than themselves. Jealous bastards!

    • Tom Kratman

      MREs actually had their origin much earlier, even pre-Vietnam. I don’t know that getting rid of cans to prevent the enemy from turning them into booby traps was part of the original intent, but I seem to recall reading that it became a selling point, later on.

    • Pugmak

      The Vietnam era MRE was the LRRP freeze dried meal in a bag, wasn’t it? I had some of that once. It was, mostly, like soggy bits of rice shaped cardboard once “cooked” lol.

      Iirc, there were some sort of “fiber bar” with it.

      As to the can thing…

      Surprised at you, sir. You know outrage, especially in the enlisted ranks of an grunt unit, doesn’t actually need to have much, if any, basis in reality.

      They changed our stuff. Stuff we were used to. Stuff we’d learned to make good use of, gotten comfortable with.

      And, they did it on purpose! Which means, it was spiteful!!

    • Tom Kratman

      More like first cousins, once removed, than father and son.

  • L C

    During Operation Provide Comfort, my team was supporting the British. We subsisted almost entirely on MREs during that time, and yes, I started to lose weight after a bit. (If I hadn’t been able to talk the cooks down in base-camp out of T-Rat cake from time-to-time… )
    We did a lot of trading with the British. They liked our MRE’s because of the variety. We liked theirs because it tasted better. We had a box in our tent for parts of MRE’s we didn’t want and maybe someone else would. It filled to over-flowing with Potatoes-Au-Rotten.

    • Tom Kratman

      Hiya, O She Whose Smile Lights Up the Desert!

      Actually, Provide Comfort was sort of an international Combat Ration Extravaganza, where boredom and menu fatigue were almost impossible. I’m not sure where you were, but my team sergeant and I were overseeing the town of Mangesh. We had our choice of Compos, Brit Rat Packs, French, Dutch, and Spanish. Or, of course, our own.

    • Duffy

      Kosovo, being a Coalition action with not quite clearly defined AO’s, was where some serious Rat Trades were made. The Brits had a standing rule that 1 British ration was equal to 2 MRE’s (and yes, it was about right) But the only MRE they desired the Pork Chop with Jamaican noodles. (Which was fortunate because none of my people like it, and the Terps would eat them because they were pork). However, you could get a lot for on genuine US Military Cot (with end pieces, must have end Pieces). But the only ration they would give up was Stew. But that was cool, their stew was pretty Good. Herman the German would just give the Hamburger Patty in Tomato sauce away. I will never ever again be tempted to eat Greek Rations. Polish Rations, good god they suck, and they had exactly 1 entree, which was an amazing version of what I swear looked like Alpo. Spanish Rations are palatable. The French MP’s were pricks, usually intoxicated, and did not think any other nations ration were a fair trade for a French one. But the one point you have to give MRE’s, Be it Iraq or Kosovo, they made Goatmeat Sandwich a desirable meal.

    • L C

      I didn’t do any rats trading in Kosovo. Too much being courted by the locals. I ate a lot of the local Serbian food. My team leader assigned me the good-relations person because I will eat just about anything once as long as I am fairly certain it won’t kill me.

    • L C

      Ummm… let’s see if I remember correctly… cross the Turkey border, pass Silopi, and you found our main body running the camps. The troops there did a LOT of rations trading. We sent three teams into the mountains. I was on one of those teams. The only non-US I really dealt with were the British. We were camped with the Headquarters of the 40th Royal Marines.

    • Tom Kratman

      Yeah, I was with E company of the Dutch marines, followed by 7 Battery, IIRC, of 29 CDO.

    • Neil

      Really? I once got a rather substantial portion of my calories for a week from the cheez-whiz-n-potato-bits. I thought it was the most palatable and filling choice for eating cold.

      Come to think of it, I probably had so many of them because nobody else would eat it.

    • L C

      Keep in mind that we were there for several months. The only actually hot meal was when I purchased a few potatos and onions in Silopi, borrowed a pot from the Brits, scrounged mystery meat from the MREs, along with the ever-present salt and pepper and cooked it over a coleman stove. It probably actually tasted horrible by my now-standards, but it was gone in seconds.

  • PavePusher


    And I’m one of those perverted bastards that rather liked the CalaK. Of course, I never had to eat it more than once every 4-5 meals….

  • Ming the Merciless

    veganism is incompatible with military service

    Of course veganism is incompatible with military service! Its enthusiasts are mostly women and homosexuals. Oh wait, they let them into the military now. Never mind…

    • Tom Kratman

      I don’t know about gays, but, yes, most seem to be female. My team sergeant, in the Gulf, however – basic branch infantry, straight, currently married to a nice Russian girl – was a Rosicrucian. That made him a vegetarian, if not quite a vegan, I think. Keeping himself healthy in the field was a chore, because you just have to spend so much more time cooking and eating as a vegetarian or vegan than most do.

  • Harry_the_Horrible

    After reading about what they used to feed soldiers and sailors, I think MREs, even gross ones, are okay.
    I mean, imagine trying to live on hardtack, salt meat, dried peas, and dried potatoes, with the hardtack making up the biggest portion (2-3 pounds per day!). That would get old in any combination!

  • Cincinnatus

    I prided myself on avoiding eating a single MRE for the final four years I was in before I retired. I would rather leave some unnecessary item off the packing list and replace it with pogey bait than eat another MRE.

    • Tom Kratman

      Easy to do if mech or out for only a short time. It gets considerably harder as the time scale increases.

    • Cincinnatus

      I was Cav

  • KenWats
    • Tom Kratman

      Fortunately, I was wise enough to put my coffee cup down before reading that.

  • El Paso Mark

    What, no mention of LURPs Tom?

  • AuricTech LIC

    After I did eight years in the Regular Army, I joined the National Guard. About the only times we had MREs in my Guard unit was when we were going to the range. I would generally keep my MREs as “unemployment food,” with one exception. I referred to the Escalloped Potatoes with Ham as “Donner Party food”: if it came down to eating that MRE and anthropophagy, I’d tighten my belt and try to hold out for another week.

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