Honolulu Lite


Love is fleeting, but
a sandwich is forever

An army (or Navy) travels on its stomach, and throughout history that stomach has had to have been made of cast iron to handle the strange, allegedly edible materials it has been forced to digest.

In the fine tradition of pushing the concept of what constitutes "food" past the edges of the envelope, off the desk and onto the floor, the U.S. Defense Department will spend the next four years designing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a shelf life of three years.

Why would anyone want to eat a 3-year-old peanut butter and jelly sandwich? They wouldn't. But when you are in the military you don't necessarily get to eat what you want; you get to eat what is there.

Consider the grand traditions of the 19th century British Royal Navy -- and we're not talking about rum, sodomy and the lash. We are talking about culinary traditions of the time when sailors were subjected to weevil-infested biscuits, a curious gelatinous concoction called "portable soup" that would make school paste look yummy and a main entrée of "salt horse."

You would hope that "salt horse" was some sort of quaint maritime slang for corned beef, smoked brisket or some other scrumptious meat dish. Sadly, for the sailors of Admiral Nelson's day, salt horse was horse that had been preserved in salt. To be more precise, it was horse that had been cut up and stuffed into wooden barrels, crammed with salt and sealed.

It was sort of the "creamed chicken in a pouch" of today's modern military, the thing to eat only after every other possible choice had been consumed. As a result, the barrels of salt horse often would have made several trips across the Atlantic and back before dietary conditions on a ship were so perilous that the barrels were raised from the hold and opened. This would have been just before rats, or "millers" as they were called, became part of the menu. But the choice between fresh rat and old salt horse was a close-run thing for many tars.

There is a direct genetic lineage that runs from Napoleonic era barrels of salt horse to the cans of creamed beef "K Rations" of World War II to the "MREs" (Meals Ready to Eat) of Desert Storm to the IPJS (Indestructible Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich) of whatever war it is we'll be fighting in four years. The common denominator is "preservation." The military has a preservation hang-up. It's like, if food cannot be preserved for four or five years, it's not worth serving to the soldiers.

This made sense when it took a year to sail around the world and there was no refrigeration. Or when you had guys pinned down in trenches with no McDonald's in sight.

I can't imagine a modern war in which you couldn't get food to the fighting forces quickly. You don't need a 4-year-old sandwich when you can get by with day-old burritos. In a wartime emergency, you could bake fresh bread in New York and have it in Baghdad in 10 hours. Transportation, not preservation, is the key.

But sheer momentum forces the military to invent new ways for saving food forever. After thousands of years of preserving food, they can't help it. As for the taste, well, soldiers say the military grub tastes better today than eras past. Then again, how many of them have tasted freshly stewed miller?

Charles Memminger, winner of National Society of Newspaper Columnists awards, appears Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. E-mail

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