The annual McRib frenzy has begun, with elusive sightings of the ersatz baby back ribs in Michigan, Utah, North Carolina, and Massachusetts. Aficionados are wringing their hands as reports filter in of a 20% drop this year in the number of franchises carrying the item.
Lost in the hoopla, the McRib’s real origin story: as a cost-cutting measure by the US Army during the 1960s. Working with companies such as Oscar Mayer and Armour, as well as university food scientists, the Natick Soldier Systems Center’s Combat Feeding Directorate figured out a way to glue together cheaper cuts of meat to resemble steaks and chops. The technology quickly found its way into the fast food industry. In 1981, five years after soldiers ate their first “restructured” steaks in the field, the nation sank its teeth into the now iconic pork sandwich.
For more see “How Do You Want That Chunked and Formed Restructured Steak,” Combat-Ready Kitchen, pp. 117-123.
Combat-Ready Kitchen describes over six dozen military influences on our food. There are many, many more. Some I eliminated at the outset for lack of time and space—as it is, the book took three years to write and runs 300 pages. Others I abandoned midway through because I couldn’t find a critical piece of information to confirm the armed forces’ link. But the vast majority I simply don’t know about; they’re waiting to be discovered—maybe by you. If you can add to this inventory of military influences on the food system, email me. I’d love to hear from you.
One thing we would do when I first went over to Iraq in spring 2003 was watch Sex and the City when we were off duty. We were located in Baghad International Airport, in a shelled-out bakery. It was a one-story, adobe building, high like a warehouse with a lot of space inside. Charlie Company had one section; Alpha Company had another; the officers slept across from us in another building. I slept in the area with all the women, but if I had to go to the bathroom—we had Porta Johns set up outside, I had to walk through someone’s sleeping area.
For a while, during my 2003 deployment in Baghdad, Iraq I was with a group of Army engineers based out of Puerto Rico. We were staying on the third floor of the former governor’s palace, which had been taken over by the U.S. military. There were about 15 of us—civil engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers. Our mission was to bring back up the municipal services like water, sewer, power. I was assessing the power plants that were damaged in Iraq and figuring out what we were going to need to do to put them back on line and bring them back up to running status. In the National Guard and the Reserves, we have a lot of civilian careers outside of the military, and one of the Puerto Rican engineers happened to be a four-star chef.
Jerry Morrison was my next-door roommate. We were both new medics straight out of Advanced Individual Training (AIT) from Fort Sam, Houston, TX. We arrived and were assigned to a provisional medical company, and we then transferred to HHT 2/11th ACR. We were given barracks rooms that adjoined each other with a bathroom that we shared. He was a young kid from Chicago with Jamaican heritage, and I was a young kid from Tampa, FL.