No area of the food world is immune to trends. Sure, I expect my local white-cloth, farm-to-table restaurant's menu to feature lovingly-braised ramps and za'atar-dusted everything, but it comes as more of a surprise when my corner bodega stocks green juice, kombucha, and organic, sea salt-sprinkled potato chips.
But if there were any place on earth that food trends couldn't penetrate, it would have to be the hot, sandy, ramshackle grounds of an active battlefield: If I were drafted and shipped halfway around the globe tomorrow, I'd probably have to give up my fantasies of cumin-spiced chicken and summer vegetables seasoned with herbes de Provence.
Not according to the team of food scientists working in the "combat feeding" program at the US Army's Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts. There, using high-tech gadgets and trained taste-testers, researchers develop ready-to-eat meals that can be stored at high temperatures for up to three years, free-dropped from planes and helicopters, jostled around in artillery-laden ATVs, and still provide soldiers with a dinner that at least somewhat resembles the foods they'd pick up or order out at home.
Unsurprisingly, the types of meals that soldiers crave—and ask Natick to produce—are often comfort foods like hot dogs and hamburgers. But more and more, said Jeremy Whitsitt, Natick's combat feeding team leader, GIs are asking for the trendy stuff.
"It follows what you see in the marketplace," Whitsitt said. "A few years ago, what they wanted was buffalo everything: buffalo chicken, buffalo pretzels, buffalo mac 'n' cheese."
Last year, 24 MRE menus were available to soldiers. Side by side with homespun favorites like roast beef and sloppy joes were more fashionable choices, such as Santa Fe rice and beans, lemon pepper tuna, and mocha cappuccinos. This year, Whitsitt said, combatants are asking for vegetarian foods like Thai curries and gluten-free options.
"It's not very realistic that we'd produce a gluten-free MRE," Whitsitt said, explaining that since soldiers with a proven diagnosis of gluten intolerance are considered "undeployable" by the army, any request for gluten-free food would be a preference and not a need.
While it's not Roberta's or Frank Pepe's, Natick's scientists have made news lately for their work on that most undying of trends: pizza. The team calls it their "holy grail" MRE, since it's one of their most-requested meals and it's also a food that's extraordinarily difficult to manufacture in a shelf-stable form.
"There's a lot of challenges," said Michelle Richardson, the directorate's senior food technologist. "Can this last for three years? Will it still be edible by then?"
MRE development is more about chemistry than it is about artistry: The food's moisture content needs to be lowered and its acidity upped to create an inhospitable environment for any bacteria that might try to make a home in it over the three years from packaging to eating. To that end, Natick's food scientists add humectants, or additives that chemically bind up moisture to the pizza's sauce. Some, like salt, are tasty in moderation but can't be used to excess; others, like glycerol, don't taste like much of anything. Straight supermarket pizza cheese is also too high in moisture, so the Natick team cuts it with a shelf-stable cheese product. Then there's the issue of the sauce leaching into the bread over time. To address it, the scientists add a tomato-flavored, carbohydrate- and starch-based "barrier technology" that's sheeted, cut to size, and sandwiched between the two pizza layers.
Natick has been working on the pizza project since 2012, and since then, its starchy, saucy, cheesy pièce de résistance has been subjected to about 15 taste tests performed by a panel of soldiers, as well as industry professionals trained in "attribute terminology" of appearance, smell, taste, and texture.
"When we first started making it, yes, it was unpalatable," Richardson said. "But we constantly go back to it armed with this sensory feedback, and we make it better."
This fall, Natick's pizza MRE is scheduled for a "technical demo": It will be taste-tested out in the field by on-duty soldiers. Pending the results, the pizza should be deployable within the next year.
Battlefield dining has come a long way since the early 80s, when Natick's public affairs officer, David Accetta, joined the army as an artillery officer. Back then, soldiers were issued the canned foods left over from the Korean and Cold Wars, Accetta said. These "C-rations" consisted of cardboard boxes filled with small tin cans of foods that ranged from bad to awful.
"I don't remember any of them being good," Accetta said. "The choices were so limited, you got caught in this repetitive cycle. So even if the meal had been steak and lobster, you'd still get tired of it eventually." His least favorite? Cold chopped ham and eggs, a jellied mass that would slide out of its can retaining its cylindrical shape.
Research on MRE technology began around the same time, but it wasn't until the Gulf War of 1990–1991 that the meals were consumed on a mass scale. Accetta, who served there as a major, remembers a huge improvement in meal quality.
"My guys were fighting over the spaghetti MRE like little kids," he said. "It could have helped that there were M&Ms in it, too."
The next frontier of war food? Meals printed by 3-D printers, which could potentially eliminate the need for MREs altogether, said Whitsitt, the team leader. Such technology would be more adaptable to local conditions: Though the wars of the last few decades have been fought in primarily desert environments, there's no telling what kind of climate the wars of the future will be waged in.
"We have to think about what the food tastes like without sand in it," Accetta said.