U.S. Army Rations—A Short History. The Cook’s Creed.
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The Cook’s Creed • Cleanliness is next to Godliness, both in persons and kettles be ever industrious, then, in scouring your pots. Much elbow grease, a few ashes, and a little water are capital aids to the careful cook. Dirt and grease betray the poor cook, and destroy the poor soldier; whilst health, content, and good cheer should ever reward him who does his duty and keeps his kettles clean. In military life, punctuality is to be exact in time. Be sparing with sugar and salt, as a deficiency can be better remedied than an over-plus. • U.S. Army Cookbook, 1863
For more than a century after 1776, the basis of all troop feeding—for soldiers in camp, on the march, in action, or just surviving—was the simple fare of meat and bread, and sometimes vegetables, known as the garrison ration. From the Revolutionary War to the First World War, the garrison ration served the unit, the small group, and the individual. Early Rations
Revolutionary War Rations • In the Revolutionary War, the all-purpose ration (established by resolution of Congress) included beef, pork, or salt fish; bread or flour; peas or beans (or "vegetable equivalent"); milk; rice or Indian meal; and spruce beer or cider. Candles and soap also were authorized "essentials." Ordinarily, preparation of the food was up to the soldier. To provide fresh meat, cattle and hogs were driven to camp at "proper seasons" for slaughter and curing. Depending on the availability of supplies, other occasional variations were provided from time to time. One of the most welcome was "spirits."
Revolutionary War Rations • Immediately after the Revolutionary War, the issue of meat was reduced and fresh foods virtually disappeared from the ration. Dr. Benjamin Rush, Army Surgeon in 1777-1778, and others, complained of the lack of fresh vegetables and pointed out that more soldiers died from sickness than were killed by the sword.
Civil War Rations • At the close of the Civil War, the basic ration included ¾ -pound of pork or bacon, 1 ¼ pounds of fresh or salt beef, and 18 ounces of flour. In varying proportions based on 100 rations, he was provided with potatoes, peas, beans or rice; coffee or tea; sugar; vinegar; salt and pepper; candles; and soap. On campaigns or marches, corn meal and hard bread were issued.For items not officially approved nor always available, it was expected that the soldier would resort to forage to augment the food supplied to him.
Civil War Rations • Especially on the march, both Billy Yank and Johnny Reb had to make do with “iron” rations: an unsliced piece of salt pork, more like cheap bacon, which the troops called sowbelly. Hardtack—a three-inch square, quarter-inch thick cracker made of compressed white flour and shortening—was often so hard, they became known as “teeth-dullers.”
Civil War Rations • To consume the hardtack, soldiers had to break it into bits and soak it in coffee, or fry it up in grease into a concoction known as “skilleygalee” or “hellfire stew.” Each soldier was supposed to get enough coffee beans to make six strong cups a day.
Spanish-American War Rations • The prescribed ration was beef (or its equivalent), flour or bread, baking powder, beans, potatoes (fresh), green coffee, sugar, vinegar, salt, pepper, soap, and candles. Progress in the preparation, handling, shipping, and storage of foods was then considered to be sufficiently advanced to justify the procurement of large supplies of fresh and canned meats. • The lack or spoilage of fresh foods was at least a contributory cause to mortality statistics, which showed that fourteen soldiers died from illness and disease for every one who died from battle causes.
First World War Rations • Three special-purpose rations came into general use in World War I—the reserve ration, the trench ration, and the emergency ration.The first of these was an individual packaged ration which the soldier carried for use when regular food was unavailable. The reserve ration, which sought to provide a complete food allowance for one man for one day, included a one-pound can of meat (usually corned beef), two 8-ounce tins of hard bread, 2.4 ounces of sugar, 1.12 ounces of roasted and ground coffee, and 0.16 ounce of salt. It weighed about 2 ¾ pounds and contained about 3300 calories. The food was considered ample and satisfying but the packaging, in cylindrical cans of one-pound capacity, was far from practical or economical.
First World War Rations • As its name implies, the trench ration was designed to provide subsistence under conditions of trench warfare. The unit consisted of sufficient canned meats and canned hard bread to provide 25 men with food for one day. The canned meats were roast beef, corned beef, salmon, and sardines. Other components included salt, sugar, soluble coffee, solidified alcohol, and cigarettes. The unit was packed in large, galvanized containers designed to protect contents from poison gas. Although the trench ration was to be prepared as a hot meal, it could be used without preparation or cooking. The ration had the advantage of convenience, afforded excellent protection against poison gas, and provided a wider diet than the reserve ration.
First World War Rations • The emergency ration, popularly known as the "Armour" or "iron" ration, was a packaged unit of concentrated food carried by the soldier to sustain life during emergencies when no other source of subsistence was available. It consisted of three 3-ounce cakes of a mixture of beef powder and cooked wheat and three one-ounce chocolate bars. These hardy items were contained in an oval-shaped, lacquered can which fitted the soldier's pocket.
Second World War Rations • The D ration was intended to allay the hunger of a single missed meal. It can be called the first modern emergency ration. • The D ration consisted of a chocolate bar, stabilized to a high melting point by the inclusion of oat flour. Each bar provided 600 calories. Three 4-ounce chocolate bars provided one ration.
Second World War Rations • Misuse of the D ration as a combat food led to its unpopularity and replacement by the C and K rations. • The June 1944 version of the C ration included 3 cans of B (bread) units, 3 cans of M (meat) units, and 1 accessory pack. The B and M units varied to fit the meal.
Second World War Rations • B units included biscuits, compressed and premixed cereal, candy-coated peanuts or raisins, soluble coffee, sugar, lemon- or orange-juice powder, hard candies, jam, cocoa beverage powder, and caramels. • M units included meat and beans; meat and vegetable stew; meat and spaghetti; ham, egg, and potato; meat and noodles; pork and rice; frankfurters and beans; pork and beans; ham and lima beans; and chicken and vegetables.
Second World War Rations • The accessory packet included 9 cigarettes, water-purification tablets, book matches, toilet paper, chewing gum, and an opener for the meat cans. • The C ration had 3,700 calories.
Second World War Rations • The K ration was developed for parachute troops, tank corps, motorcycle troops and other mobile units. It was officially adopted in 1942.
Second World War Rations • The K ration had 2,700 calories. • The letter K was chosen merely to have a phonetically different letter from the letters C and D.
Second World War Rations • The breakfast packet contained a canned meat product, biscuits, a compressed cereal bar, soluble coffee, a fruit bar, gum, sugar tablets, 4 cigarettes, water-purification tablets, a can opener, toilet paper, and a wooden spoon.
Second World War Rations • The dinner carton had a canned cheese product, biscuits, a candy bar, gum, a variety of beverage powders, granulated sugar, salt tablets, cigarettes and matches, a can opener, and spoon.
Second World War Rations • The supper packet included a canned meat product, biscuits, bouillon powder, confections and gum, soluble coffee, granulated sugar, cigarettes, can opener, and spoon.
Second World War Rations • Wiseman and I woke up hungry; in fact, we were always hungry, for neither British nor American combat rations were enough to fill a man. You could subsist on them, to be sure, but you were never full. That is why we were always on the lookout for food. We picked ripe fruit from the trees, milked the cows, and filched whatever victuals the civilians had abandoned in their houses. • --David Kenyon Webster, Parachute Infantry: An American Paratrooper’s Memoir of D-Day and the Fall of the Third Reich
Army Food Service in the 1950s • Army cooks in Korea used much the same types of rations and equipment as their Second World War counterparts. • The 1950s took full advantage of the postwar revolution in commercial kitchen appliances to help modernize garrison dining facilities throughout the military.
Army Food Service in the 1950s • A tour through a late-’50s vintage, up-to-date dining facility might reveal innovations such as: an electric “potato peeler” capable of peeling 100 to 400 pounds of potatoes per hour; a 140-quart vertical-type rotary mixing machine for mixing doughs, batters, potatoes, etc; large-scale refrigerators called “reach-in boxes”; stoves and ranges with “hot tops” and griddles, and an assortment of “range assistants” (steam kettles, deep fat fryers, “veggie warmers,” and triple deck ovens); a conveyor-type toaster for toasting 500-600 slices of bread per hour; and a shiny new twin coffee urn for perking 15 gallons of java at a time.
Vietnam War Rations • By the late 1960s, it was not uncommon to find ice cream and eggs to order at far-flung fire support bases. The Sea Land Corporation off-loaded large refrigerator cargo vans and convoyed them to major distribution centers throughout the country. Use of helicopters permitted troops in the field to enjoy garrison-type meals almost on a daily basis.
Rations Today • Thermal processed Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs) were added to field rations in the late 1970s. Flameless ration heaters were added later, giving soldiers the option of eating a balanced hot meal anytime, anywhere.
Sources • Quartermaster Professional Bulletin, U.S. Army Quartermaster Center and School, Summer 2002. • “Army Operational Rations—Historical Background,” from Special Rations for the Armed Forces, 1946-53, Chapter 1, by Franz A. Koehler, Office of the Quartermaster General, 1958. • “Rations in Review,” by Colonel James C. Longino, Q.M.C., The Quartermaster Review, May-June 1946.