Living in a food desert within an actual desert sounds pretty rough. Being in a warzone halfway across the world on top of that sounds unbearable. For many servicemen and servicewomen across the globe, this is their reality.
Just in time for Veteran’s Day, this week on the Sporkful Dan Pashman chats with veterans of America’s Armed Forces. He delves into the difficulties of subsisting solely on MREs—the military’s Meal, Ready-to-Eat—which really only become appealing when your only alternative is starvation.
Even when the government has formulated the most stale and unpalatable (and un-perishable) culinary options imaginable, people will work to make the best out of the situation. Thankfully, humans have been trying to make food tastier for a long, long time, and Dan discovers that the members of the military are certainly no exception. Throughout the episode he listens to some of the best techniques for enhancing the flavor of military cuisine. Their creative solutions to boost the flavor profiles of the dreaded MREs and other food tricks are a testament to their power of the spirit (and stomach).
What’s fascinating to me is how relative eating experiences and perspectives on food can be. The friendly Kurds one soldier describes are fascinated by MREs. The fact that the US military has successfully increased the durability of food totally impresses them and more than compensates for the sacrifices in taste.
However, what’s clear from the various tales told to Mr. Pashman is that however nicely you dress up an MRE, it’s still an MRE. And in no way does it substitute for homemade cooking, especially in a high-stress environment. In a combat zone, every method of reducing anxiety and relieving stress becomes a necessity. In these (and all) situations, food can have a comforting effect. But it needs to be real food, not a government-made acronym.
For a large portion of the episode, Dan speaks to a veteran that had a particular stressful encounter while in a hostile environment overseas. This show is about food, so you can guess that eating somehow played a role in making the shitty situation turn out to be OK. It’s more than evident that food and sharing meals don’t just alleviate stress, they can building strong bonds and attachments. In more military terms, food is a force multiplier. Being well-fed increases operational efficiency by minimizing stress levels, solidifying connections, and improving general morale. Unfortunately, it also works the other way around. There’s a reason most of the successful armies throughout history were the ones with the best supply lines and ability to leverage their food resources.
The bottom line is that, even in the worst conditions, we use food for more than merely survival. It goes beyond something that can be quantified in its taste and heartiness alone. Homemade cooking, especially, has a component that transcends taste buds. It comforts and connects us at a fundamentally human level.
If you want to feel humbled and grateful, listen to a veteran talk about the joys terrors of eating while deployed. They won’t wish it on anyone, and certainly don’t want you to wish it on yourself, but it allows for a degree of perspective. It’s certainly easy to take for granted how easy most of us have access to good and stable meals.
But the best part about that conversation—and the best part of this episode—will be when that veteran mentions their first meal back at home. They’ll say how it was the best meal they ever tasted.
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