In 1936, with war clouds gathering over Europe, some in the U.S. Army couldn’t stop thinking about food.
Fast food, in particular -- which is to say victuals for soldiers such as paratroopers, who were required to be highly mobile. “The primary focus,” reflected three Army investigators some years after the war, was on “nutritional adequacy, storage stability, and military functionality.”
After five years of research, an outside consultant suggested a fourth issue. Would the troops actually like the food -- and eat it?
More investigation followed. Finally, a revolutionary product emerged: the K-ration.
The visionary consultant was Ancel Keys, a University of Minnesota physiologist hired by the Quartermaster Corps’s Subsistence Research and Development Laboratory. Keys was an unlikely choice to become the autocrat of the mess table. A scientist trained at Berkeley and Cambridge, he had studied zoology and the effects of high altitude on the human body. He told one journalist that he was never sure how the Army came to pick him for the K-rations project.
Keys’s first step was to visit a Minneapolis supermarket, where he assembled 30 sample packets, each of which included hard biscuits, sausage, chocolate and hard candy. These were tested on troops at Fort Snelling and at Fort Benning in Georgia. The human guinea pigs thought the meals were tolerable but tellingly suggested the inclusion of cigarettes and toilet paper.
The contents of the 2,800-calorie, three-meals-in-one-box K-rations continued to evolve throughout World War II. Canned meat and cheese, biscuits, candy bars, and instant coffee became standards. Other contents: malted-milk tablets, lemonade powder (so acrid that it was best suited, many said, to be floor cleaner), cigarettes and Wrigley’s spearmint gum.
K-rations became an infantry mainstay -- more than 105 million were produced in 1944 -- and ultimately an object of considerable GI opprobrium. The troops “complained in no uncertain terms about their steady diet of processed foods,” a postwar report noted pointedly. Nor did K-rations provide sufficient calories for physically taxed combatants. Soldiers who weren’t on the front lines got better chow, including eggs and vegetables. The New Yorker magazine writer A.J. Liebling, ever attuned to dietary matters, reported having a mess-tent breakfast of bacon, rice, apple butter, margarine, hard biscuits and sweetened tea during a 1943 trip to the Tunisian front.
Other troops got C-rations: two 12-ounce cans per meal, one containing a meat stew and the other bread and dessert. That was a lot to lug around, so a considerable percentage of the meals the troops ate -- in some areas, more than 80 percent -- were K-rations.
The food industry, of course, provided regular input. Amid fierce lobbying, some companies profited more than others. William Wrigley Jr. Co., for example, convinced the Army that chewing gum could help soldiers overcome thirst and won the bid to supply gum in K-rations. The company also served as one of the packers for the boxes of rations, dedicating an entire factory to the work.
In return, Wrigley’s gum became an “essential product,” exempt from the sugar rationing that put other candy makers out of business. The move “guaranteed the survival of the gum business,” Fortune magazine wrote.
Sales to the armed forces also helped other companies compensate for losses in a rationed domestic market. Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co.’s Chesterfield cigarettes were regularly included in K-rations (one four-pack per meal), as was Geo. A. Hormel & Co.’s fatty potted ham, aka Spam. The military bought half of Wrigley’s total product. Huge K-ration orders kept four Hormel production lines humming during double shifts, even as the company’s U.S. sales were hurt by restrictions on the use of metal cans.
Patriotic involvement in the war effort also became part of companies’ marketing. “It’s Chesterfield,” proclaimed a helmeted, cigarette-smoking soldier in a full-color Liggett & Myers magazine ad. “They treat you right.”
Fortune magazine noted that, by the war’s end, the American soldier “will have brought gum to the four corners of the world.” The Army played a role akin to that of sample distributors in American supermarkets. The children of liberated France came to expect regular doles of gum and cigarettes from U.S. troops, prompting some less-generous soldiers to paint “No gum, chum” on their vehicles. K-rations provided nutrition even to Paris’s elite, including Pablo Picasso, theater designer Christian Berard, and the British officer Lord Rothschild. American cigarettes, soap, coffee and Spam were the lifeblood of the black market.
By 1945, 100 million pounds of Spam had been shipped abroad, mostly to the U.K., where it became almost ubiquitous. Despite eating so much of the stuff, many Britons grew to like it. And everyone admitted: “We couldn’t possibly have survived the war without it.”
(Hardy Green is working on a book about World War II and the home front. He is the author of “The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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