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Combat-Ready Kitchen
Cover of Combat-Ready Kitchen
Combat-Ready Kitchen
How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat
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Americans eat more processed foods than anyone else in the world. We also spend more on military research. These two seemingly unrelated facts are inextricably linked. If you ever wondered how ready-to-eat foods infiltrated your kitchen, you'll love this entertaining romp through the secret military history of practically everything you buy at the supermarket.
In a nondescript Boston suburb, in a handful of low buildings buffered by trees and a lake, a group of men and women spend their days researching, testing, tasting, and producing the foods that form the bedrock of the American diet. If you stumbled into the facility, you might think the technicians dressed in lab coats and the shiny kitchen equipment belonged to one of the giant food conglomerates responsible for your favorite brand of frozen pizza or microwavable breakfast burritos. So you'd be surprised to learn that you've just entered the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, ground zero for the processed food industry.
Ever since Napoleon, armies have sought better ways to preserve, store, and transport food for battle. As part of this quest, although most people don't realize it, the U.S. military spearheaded the invention of energy bars, restructured meat, extended-life bread, instant coffee, and much more. But there's been an insidious mission creep: because the military enlisted industry—huge corporations such as ADM, ConAgra, General Mills, Hershey, Hormel, Mars, Nabisco, Reynolds, Smithfield, Swift, Tyson, and Unilever—to help develop and manufacture food for soldiers on the front line, over the years combat rations, or the key technologies used in engineering them, have ended up dominating grocery store shelves and refrigerator cases. TV dinners, the cheese powder in snack foods, cling wrap . . . The list is almost endless.
Now food writer Anastacia Marx de Salcedo scrutinizes the world of processed food and its long relationship with the military—unveiling the twists, turns, successes, failures, and products that have found their way from the armed forces' and contractors' laboratories into our kitchens. In developing these rations, the army was looking for some of the very same qualities as we do in our hectic, fast-paced twenty-first-century lives: portability, ease of preparation, extended shelf life at room temperature, affordability, and appeal to even the least adventurous eaters. In other words, the military has us chowing down like special ops.
What is the effect of such a diet, eaten—as it is by soldiers and most consumers—day in and day out, year after year? We don't really know. We're the guinea pigs in a giant public health experiment, one in which science and technology, at the beck and call of the military, have taken over our kitchens.


From the Hardcover edition.

Americans eat more processed foods than anyone else in the world. We also spend more on military research. These two seemingly unrelated facts are inextricably linked. If you ever wondered how ready-to-eat foods infiltrated your kitchen, you'll love this entertaining romp through the secret military history of practically everything you buy at the supermarket.
In a nondescript Boston suburb, in a handful of low buildings buffered by trees and a lake, a group of men and women spend their days researching, testing, tasting, and producing the foods that form the bedrock of the American diet. If you stumbled into the facility, you might think the technicians dressed in lab coats and the shiny kitchen equipment belonged to one of the giant food conglomerates responsible for your favorite brand of frozen pizza or microwavable breakfast burritos. So you'd be surprised to learn that you've just entered the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, ground zero for the processed food industry.
Ever since Napoleon, armies have sought better ways to preserve, store, and transport food for battle. As part of this quest, although most people don't realize it, the U.S. military spearheaded the invention of energy bars, restructured meat, extended-life bread, instant coffee, and much more. But there's been an insidious mission creep: because the military enlisted industry—huge corporations such as ADM, ConAgra, General Mills, Hershey, Hormel, Mars, Nabisco, Reynolds, Smithfield, Swift, Tyson, and Unilever—to help develop and manufacture food for soldiers on the front line, over the years combat rations, or the key technologies used in engineering them, have ended up dominating grocery store shelves and refrigerator cases. TV dinners, the cheese powder in snack foods, cling wrap . . . The list is almost endless.
Now food writer Anastacia Marx de Salcedo scrutinizes the world of processed food and its long relationship with the military—unveiling the twists, turns, successes, failures, and products that have found their way from the armed forces' and contractors' laboratories into our kitchens. In developing these rations, the army was looking for some of the very same qualities as we do in our hectic, fast-paced twenty-first-century lives: portability, ease of preparation, extended shelf life at room temperature, affordability, and appeal to even the least adventurous eaters. In other words, the military has us chowing down like special ops.
What is the effect of such a diet, eaten—as it is by soldiers and most consumers—day in and day out, year after year? We don't really know. We're the guinea pigs in a giant public health experiment, one in which science and technology, at the beck and call of the military, have taken over our kitchens.


From the Hardcover edition.
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    For about three days when we were in Kuwait in 2003 and U.S. forces were advancing into Iraq, the sirens would go off, and we’d have to put on our gas masks and our MOPP* gear and get into our bunker. Saddam was sending what we thought were Scuds with chemical weapons at us, but actually turned out to be smaller missiles. We’d have to wait for the all clear, which would sometimes take a long time.

    We really shouldn’t have been eating in the bunker, but sometimes we’d get hungry, so we’d eat an MRE.* Usually only one person had one, so we were sharing between everyone. There were probably ten of us in there. It’s a concrete bunker where you can’t stand up, you can’t really sit down, you’re sitting on a sandbag, and you’re leaning forward because your head’s hitting the ceiling. Everyone’s wearing flak jackets, environmental suits, and a gas mask and helmet. So we’d pass around an MRE, take off the gas mask for ten seconds, and grab a bite of, like, Salisbury steak. And then we’d put our gas masks back on and pass it over to the next guy.

    I remember when the guy pulled out the MRE. Everyone sitting in there is so hungry, we haven’t eaten in hours, and so when he offered to share, we were all really happy. It was kind of like a bonding moment. We knew that we didn’t have any control over what was going to happen, and we were all breaking the rules by taking our gas masks off and eating when we shouldn’t be. It brought us all to the same place. We were all stuck there. It didn’t matter whether you were a private or a master sergeant, you were stuck there in that bunker.

    —DJ, Corporal, United States Marine Corps, Al Jabar, Kuwait, and Al Asad, Iraq, 2003–6

    Chapter 1

    UNPACKING YOUR CHILD’S LUNCH BOX

    D irty, hungry, uncomfortable, and scared. Most of us can’t imagine what it’s like to eat under the circumstances that DJ and his squad did. The experiences of war, if an American constant during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, seem remote to the average person. And we certainly don’t imagine that the entrée the soldiers shared—a several-years-old beef patty with brown sauce in a laminated plastic-and-foil pouch—has anything to do with the food that fills our refrigerators, cupboards, and shelves. But it does.

    I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A PASSIONATE HOME COOK, one who read recipe books in bed like novels, preferred browsing at an ethnic grocer’s or a farmers’ market to shoe shopping, and reliably created magical dinners where people lingered long into the night, talking, drinking, and nibbling until there were no leftovers. Although my own mother was indifferent to the matter, as a child I silently apprenticed myself to the three best cooks I knew—my Yankee grandmother, my Sephardic New Yorker grandfather, and my Mexican friend’s mother—sidling into their kitchens and absorbing by osmosis their doings. At the age of seven, I proudly presented my parents with my first creation: “spiced eggs” scrambled with every single flavoring from the rack. By the time I was in my midtwenties, I had read everything in M. F. K. Fisher’s oeuvre, and, inspired by—but not following—the thousands of recipes I’d mentally collected, cosseted my college boyfriend nightly with delectable little suppers prepared just for him.

    When the new millennium rolled around, I’d acquired a husband—from Cuba, in Ecuador—and become a mother, which only strengthened my resolve to concoct everything from...

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  • Kirkus

    June 1, 2015
    Veteran food journalist Marx de Salcedo delves into a previously obscure organization in the Boston suburbs that influences perhaps half the items for sale in supermarkets. The organization, within the Department of Defense, is found on military charts as the Combat Feeding Directorate, which is part of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center. The book, which includes astonishing facts in every chapter, stems partly from investigative journalism about food quality, partly from the author's fascination with how she feeds her family ("I've always been a passionate home cook"), and partly from concern about the future of nutrition. The premise sounds simple: nourishment developed to feed combat troops in remote battle zones has come to dominate food consumed by American civilians. That truism, in the author's value system, becomes a mixed blessing. She wants troops to eat well, but she feels shaky about how the research has compromised the food supply outside war zones. Marx de Salcedo gained limited access to the Army facilities in Natick, and her account of the tour and her resulting analysis of highly technical scientific literature make for interesting, if sometimes laborious, reading. However, when she begins to apply what she learned to specific foods and preservation processes, readers will eagerly go along. The author devotes individual chapters to the development and consumption of energy bars, processed meats, bread, cheese, pizza, and plastic packaging. Marx de Salcedo comments that by discovering the military genesis of so many everyday supermarket items, "I've breached the secret, beating heart of the industrial food system." According to the author, current research by the scientists at Natick contains the potential to change eating habits entirely, including the traditional regimen of three distinct meals per day. A well-researched effort that will undoubtedly add to general readers' knowledge about the food they consume on a daily basis.

    COPYRIGHT(2015) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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Combat-Ready Kitchen
Combat-Ready Kitchen
How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat
Anastacia Marx de Salcedo
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