War food and Memorial Day

It's Memorial Day, and thinking about soldiers and war got me also thinking about food, and the culinary privations and sacrifices made during war time.

During the Civil War Southern civilians suffered heavily from Northern blockades and as the war dragged on, food supplies became quite limited. Southern food substitutions became common when staples were no longer available. For meat people ate "[d]omestic animals, crows, frogs, locusts, snails, snakes and worms." When coffee ran out, it was "brewed" from "[o]kra seeds that were browned, dried sweet potatoes or carrots, roasted acorns, wheat berries."

Soldiers in the field had it worse, as you can see from listings of Civil War recipes and stories of Civil War food. Hardtack was common.

Hardtack was a biscuit made of flour with other simple ingredients, and issued to Union soldiers throughout the war. Hardtack crackers made up a large portion of a soldier's daily ration. It was square or sometimes rectangular in shape with small holes baked into it, similar to a large soda cracker. Large factories in the north baked hundreds of hardtack crackers every day, packed them in wooden crates and shipped them out by wagon or rail. If the hardtack was received soon after leaving the factory, they were quite tasty and satisfying. Usually, the hardtack did not get to the soldiers until months after it had been made. By that time, they were very hard, so hard that soldiers called them "tooth dullers" and "sheet iron crackers". Sometimes they were infested with small bugs the soldiers called weevils, so they referred to the hardtack as "worm castles" because of the many holes bored through the crackers by these pests.

Though you can find the recipe for hardtack online, it certainly isn't very tempting to make. As technology advanced so too did war rations. During World War I, the food in trenches improved slightly, as you can see in this listing of soldiers food in the trenches. But it also states "[g]etting decent hot food from the field kitchens to the front line trenches could be impossible when a battle was either imminent or in full flow." And tin canned food became more common as well, though there were shortages and soldiers were given appetite suppressants such as cigarettes and amphetamines.

World War II saw the introduction of the C-ration. The C-ration consisted of an entree in a can and an accompanying pack of cheese, canned dessert, crackers, and things like "Soluble cream product." Also in use was the K-ration, which provided more food variety than the C-ration but less calories per serving. On the civilian side people had victory gardens to provide their families with vegetables (enabling canned veggies to go to the troops) and ration books limiting civilian quantities of such staples as beef, sugar, butter, and bacon.

K-rations were served in Korea, and C-rations were served until the introduction of the Meal, Ready to Eat (MRE) in the early eighties. Today's soldiers "enjoy" MREs in such flavors as "Sloppy Joe filling," "Cheese & vegetable omelet" and "Grilled Beefsteak with mushroom gravy." Earlier versions of MREs offered "Chicken loaf" and "Beef ground with spiced sauce."

War food has come a long way. MREs are a major improvement over hardtack. And on the civilian side, the Iraq war has not effected our food supply or caused any rationing or culinary sacrifice. So as we fire up our grills on Memorial Day, as we enjoy a nice steak and fresh vegetables, let us remember the men and women who have died in military service for our country. Let us be thankful for the bounty of food we have and our freedom to enjoy it.