WASHINGTON: The military should soon deploy a new weapon in its efforts to keep troops fit and fed: foccaccia. That’s right, those tough folks who can live on snakes and water may soon get their hands on a Meal Ready To Eat filled with a pretty tasty Italian delicacy covered in Italian herbs and a bit of salt.
I stumbled on this while checking out the US Army’s booth at the biggest defense conference in America, put on by the Association of the US Army. Laid out on a table was something that looked an awful lot like a cocktail party platter. Focaccia pieces covered in herbs, poppyseed cake, and small chunks of a kind of salami.
For those who haven’t served, troops in the field eat what are called Meals Ready To Eat (mres), which are exactly what they sound like. Rip open the packages and there’s your meal. Each MRE provides 1,300 calories. Their shelf life is an impressive three years. And the line is designed to keep a soldier, sailor or airman going in combat for as long as three weeks — not that many want to eat that many MREs for that long a stretch.
While MREs are an enormous improvement over the old C- Rations — basically canned stuff, hard biscuits and the like — soldiers get bored with the taste and trading the “good” MREs for those that are less loved is a time-honored tradition in the military. Also, tastes change and soldiers age. Giving them the same thing year after year guarantees they are less likely to eat enough to keep them going when their early need it. (That makes the American military one of the few demographic groups here that sometimes need to worry about eating enough food.)
So, cut to the chase, I can hear you thinking: How does it taste? I cajoled three career Army soldiers into trying the focaccia. The universal conclusion? It tastes pretty damn good.
Now, a friend of mine from Rome would probably sniff at the product, saying it’s a bit doughy and not light enough. But here’s what one long-serving officer said. “That’s actually very tasty. I used to say, I wanted something I could serve at my wedding reception to eat. You could serve this,” said Col. John Schrader, chief information officer at Arlington Cemetery. His comments echoed those of the other tasters. I tried several pieces and can honestly say I haven’t had any kind of bread that tasty from an MRE before.
Before you dismiss this, arguing that the military of course should provide decent food to our troops, bear in mind the requirements this food must meet. This focaccia has to be able to sit in a plastic bag for three years and still taste good and be safe to eat. To get some idea of how the folks in Natick, Mass. who design and make the food used by all the services, I spoke with Jeremy Whitsitt, who represented them at AUSA (see the video above).
Their credo is simple: “Warfighters deserve food that is as appetizing in the field as it is in the factory.” But it’s got to last for three years and provide “approximately 1300 calories, composed of 169 grams of carbohydrates, 41 grams of protein, and 50 grams of fat for the energy needed to accomplish any mission.” The really hard part for the focaccia is that it has to contain enough moisture to remain palatable and to maintain taste but not so much that it provides a comfortable environment for “bugs,” bacteria. They’ve spent much of the last two years juggling ingredients to meet that requirement.
If it passes field tests over the next few months, then the focaccia could start hitting the front lines in a year or so.
The military doesn’t actually make the food for the MREs once it’s developed. They develop it, set the requirements and then issue contracts. Once this happens, the focaccia will be made in bulk, packed in plastic and shipped across the world.