The Emperor Napoleon supposedly said, "An Army travels on its stomach." While I wasn't around back then, (stop snickering, people!) I have always enjoyed reading about what soldiers have have been fed throughout the centuries. I've tried hardtack and bully beef at Civil War re-enactments, WWII-era mess hall standards like SOS, and the C-rations I ate while on active duty were very similar to those served during WWII, Korean and Vietnam Wars. Heck, when I first came in, the C-rations still had mini-packs of cigarettes in them, which as a non-smoker made for great trading material. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of eating a C-ration (its official name was Meal, Combat, Individual), it came packaged in a 8" X 10" cardboard carton. Everything except the plastic spoon was packed in olive drab metal cans. Since this was the BPT era (Before Pull Tabs), we all carried an ingenious tiny folding can opener known as the P-38 on our dogtag chain. (According to popular legend, the can opener was designated as "P-38" because it took 38 strokes to open a C-ration can.) The P-38 became sharper the more cans you opened, so we hung on to 'em...in fact, it's one of the few things I still have from the 70's, aside from my polyester double-knit cranberry color leisure suit with matching white belt and loafers.
The C-ration menu varied only slightly from its WWII relative: Ham and Lima Beans, Scrambled Eggs and Ham, Ham Slices, Beef and Potatoes, Beans and Meatballs, and Spaghetti with "meat" sauce (we always suspected that horses rejected for the glue factory became an ingredient in that one). There were combo tins containing crackers and either jam, cheese, or peanut butter, and my all-time favorite, "John Wayne Bars". These were foil-wrapped 2" diameter chocolate disks, sprinkled with toffee bits. They were tasty, and could also be thrown at the enemy like ninja stars if you ran out of ammo.
In the early 1980's just before I left active duty, my division was selected to test the replacement for C-rations, called MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat). These first-generation efforts were just plain yucky, and were subject to spoiling. (The chicken ala king entree once leveled me for three days due to tainted meat.) Of course, this might have been a clever military plot to advance their new soldier weight-loss program...
Today's generation of MREs are a huge improvement in terms of taste and variety. The entrees include meatloaf with mashed potatoes, chicken fajitas with tortillas, cheese omelets, beef enchiladas and refried beans, and a BBQ pork rib sandwich. In keeping with current food trends, these rations have junk food items like Skittles, M&Ms, Cheezits, muffins, scones, and Tootsie Rolls. Now for the bad news...each MRE contains a gigunda amount of calories, fat, sugar, and carbs, so unless a soldier has the metabolism of a hamster and runs 15 miles daily, there's no way to burn one of these meals off in 24 hours. I usually stretch one of those bags into three meals, and still have food left over. So while combat rations have evolved, we older veterans still ocasionally wax nostalgic about those old C-rats, which always left us wanting more...Pepto Bismol.