Melts in Your Mouth...

...not in the sand; military chow may not be home cooking, but it serves the purpose

`AN army marches on its stomach.'' Napoleon's words still ring true today. Since Aug. 2, the United States has spent approximately $604.5 million on military food rations for Operation Desert Shield. So it goes - chow carries major clout in military operations.

``When you get right down to the bottom line, you're fueling a fighting machine,'' says Harvey Kean, spokesman for the US Army Natick Research and Development Laboratories located here in Natick, Mass. The Natick laboratories research and develop food, clothing, and equipment for US armed forces.

``Food that is nutritious and that will store is crucial to carry out a mission,'' says Mr. Kean while escorting a writer to the food technology division. There, chief food technologist Jerry Darsch and his assistant Cathy Peterson have set up a smorgasbord of military food rations. Mr. Darsch offers samples while explaining the military's four ration options:

MREs or Meals, Ready to Eat are the standard individual combat ration. Sealed in heavy-heavy-duty plastic pouches, they have a shelf life of three years at 80 degrees F. The military concept of a bag lunch, they don't require heating.

Tray rations are airtight trays that act as shipping, heating, and serving containers for group feeding (prepared lasagna, for example). They require minimum food-service personnel, minimum preparation time, and no refrigeration. Water and fuel are required for heating. Eaten buffet style, they are often complemented by other foods. Shelf life: three years.

B rations consist of 140 non-refrigerated, semi-perishable foods such as rice. Preparation with cooks and equipment is required. B rations often are prepared in mobile kitchen trailers (MKTs).

A rations are basically identical to what's served in a fort dining facility.

In addition, fresh fruits and vegetables are recommended when possible, says Darsch. Saudi Arabia provides fresh food at no cost. ``But if bullets start flying - and I emphasize if - you can't expect them to maintain that level of host-nation support,'' he adds.

In a combat situation, the fewer resources and food personnel, and the less preparation, the better, he says. That's why the MRE, which replaced the MCI (Meal Combat Individual or C rations) in 1981, gets a lot of attention. The significant difference is in the packaging - the food pouches are flexible, much lighter than MCI cans, and don't require a can opener.

MREs are also extremely high in nutrition and calories, and come in 12 varieties.

``Menu 10,'' for example, features a Tuna-with-Noodles entree, cheese spread and crackers, chocolate nut cake, a beverage powder, a spoon, and an accessory packet (which might include instant coffee, cream substitute, sugar, salt, chewing gum, matches, tissue, and a towelette). Some include commercial candy, cocoa, or hot pepper sauce.

``I've eaten MREs. They're very good. Well, not very good, but I wouldn't complain,'' says Lorraine Netzko, public affairs specialist with the Defense Personnel Support Center in Philadelphia. ``You can't expect to get mom's home cooking when you're out there.''

It's weird eating food that was made a few years ago, admits Marine Corps 1st Lt. Daniel J. O'Connor. He was recently stationed in Saudi Arabia and says he ate MREs for ``a good part of six weeks.''

``People wouldn't walk a mile for the MRE, but no one complains that much.... As far as field food, they're not that bad,'' he adds. ``I'd say one out of 10 people love the things. My favorite was the chocolate nut cake.''

Darsch boasts that the US's military operation's rations are the best in the world. ``We do hear folks grumble - that's to be expected. But we've come a long way in quality and acceptibility,'' he says.

Acceptability is a key word around here. ``If a soldier is not going to eat it, what good is it?'' asks Darsch.

``Rations acceptable to everyone is quite a trick,'' notes Kean. ``Food is always a morale factor.''

In an effort to keep up with the times, Natick is developing fast-food items for future MREs: pizza, burritos, ``smokey-flavored'' franks, chicken chow mein, pound cake, and fruit bars.

Current MRE ``hits'' in the Middle East include: commercial candy (M&Ms, Charms, Vanilla Carmels, Tootsie Rolls), pouch bread, and hot pepper sauce.

``Getting a bottle of Tabasco was a good find. You could just change the taste, enhance the flavor - kill the flavor is more like it,'' says O'Connor.

The MRE pouch bread tastes like a decent restaurant dinner roll. This writer tasted samples of white and soon-to-be-rationed wheat bread that were more than two-and-a-half years old. It's one of the most acceptable complements we've ever added, says Darsch.

Some snack companies are even stepping into the scene. The Continental Baking Company responded to several servicemembers's requests by shipping 1 million Hostess Twinkies cakes to Saudi Arabia.

Hershey Foods Corporation has come out with the coveted ``Desert Bar.'' It was developed in response to the Army's request for a heat-resistant chocolate bar that's made with real milk chocolate. Some 144,000 bars were shipped to Saudi Arabia.

The ``Desert Bar'' replaces the old ``Tropical Chocolate'' bar, which lasted well but had a waxy flavor, explains Darsch. ``It was kind of like eating a candle,'' he says, while giving this writer a sample of the tasty Desert Bar. It had been tested at 120 degrees F. for 14 weeks.

As far as morale enhancers go, perhaps nothing can top the troops' Christmas dinner: real turkey, gravy, shrimp, cranberry sauce, cornbread, instant potatoes, nuts, sweet potatoes, fruit cake. Total cost: $3.1 million.

``We're talking about big boys out there,'' says Ms. Netzko. ``They want to eat.''

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