When you think about war, you might think about soldiers and tanks and bullets. But you might not think about food. How do you actually feed an army?
There is footage of the storming of Normandy beach, one of the most famous battles of all time, that took place during World War II. Tens of thousands of troops invaded. But it’s easy to forget that these troops all needed to eat.
On June 6, 1944, 24,000 allied paratroopers began the airborne assault, equipped with a three day supply of K rations. Hershey’s Company developed a chocolate bar that, “weighed only 4 ounces, was able to withstand high temperatures, high in food energy value, and tasted just a little better than a boiled potato.”
The solution for feeding troops is called an MRE, which stands for Meal Ready to Eat. For hundreds of years militaries searched for better ways to package and store food and then deliver it to the front lines. The results, as you may imagine, aren’t always so palatable. Some of the worst MRE’s have become legends. Who’s idea was it to serve an omelet in a warzone?!
There are even YouTube channels exclusively focused on people who open, and often try eating, vintage MRE’s provided to soldiers during past wars. In one video, someone tries a bite of a 156 year old United States Civil War era “hardtack” which is like this think cracker. In another someone opens a 70 year old pork.
The history of MRE’s is fascinating. It’s a tricky task to provide food for soldiers traveling long distances or in situations where they have little tools to prepare the food. The challenge involves a balancing act between having the lowest payload and highest calorie and nutrition count.
For example, here’s what 1,000 calories of carrots look like. 1,000 calories of bananas would be about 9 bananas. And 1,000 calories of peanut butter is about 170 grams.
The weight to nutrition ratio is important for troops, and could give a significant tactical advantage in war. Ancient soldiers had to rely on salted and cured meats and cheeses and high density carbs like barley. Modern food technologists invented methods like the “sonic agglomeration” technology to compress thirty four pounds of food down to ten pounds for the United States army. With this technology, seven days worth of food would weigh slightly less than ten pounds.
It really makes you wonder what sort of food could be nourishing and substantial like a full meal but also could be very small. The author J.R.R. Tolkien put this idea into his fictional epic The Lord of the Rings. In this book, the fellowship of travelers are gifted a special food from the elves called lembas bread. The elves instruct the fellowship that one bite of this bread will satisfy their hunger for a day. In Elvish, Lembas means “way bread” or “life bread”.
Another notable example of a supernaturally calorie dense food that far outdid itself with its weight to nutrition ratio can be found in the Old Testament. In the desert, the Israelites were instructed to gather a special food that came like the dew each morning.
The Israelites didn’t know what to call it, so they called it “Manna” which has many meanings, but one interpretation is that it meant “what is it?”. The people were instructed to only gather as much as they needed for one day, which came out to about three quarts. If they gathered more than they needed for the day, by the next day it would be rotted and filled with worms.
In the New Testament, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray and in this prayer, he teaches them to pray to God to “give us this day our daily bread”. The Greek word used here is Epiousios (eh-pew-see-oss) — a very interesting word because it occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It could mean “give us essential bread for the day.” But it could also literally mean super-essential bread. Give us bread that is super-substantial. Food that can nourish us on the journey in an above average capacity. What would supernatural food be like? What would it be like to eat food that could truly nourish you for a long, long journey?