The Sunday New York Times Week in Review section had a fascinating photo essay by Ashley Gilbertson on the varying contents of soldiers' meals. As Sam Sifton commented, it's even better online—you get a longer and closer look at the components of the meals, and can compare which of the 14 countries value actual food like raisins and nuts and which ones lazily, if reassuringly, rely on highly processed food.
The U.S. doesn't rank so high on the whole-foods list, but is better than you'd think. And, of course, the ingenuity of packaging and shipping these meals is always a remarkable part of this story, one that is reported on every so often around Boston, because the Department of Defense's Combat Feeding Directorate does its research and testing in Natick, nearby. The lab doesn't usually make journalists welcome: here's a reprint of a local story from 1999 and a 2005 related story by Julia Moskin, of The New York Times. Moskin, who was writing about a competition of military chefs, mentioned in passing the aspect most notable to me in the last weekend's story—the part that most stories neglect in their focus on the gee-whiz tech solutions, and making lightly condescending notes on how the bad American diet gets exported to the field. (There's some of that in the Gilbertson piece: He remarks, "A fellow journalist who just got back from an embed with the French told me that today they look forward to visiting the Americans for a meal. American rations—hamburgers, chili, peanut butter, candy—they say, are 'fun.'") Moskin wrote,
But Mr. Darsch, the Natick director, said that M.R.E.'s have also had an unexpected and unwanted result in the field: soldiers eating in solitude, without access to the morale-boosting camaraderie of the mess tent.
Soldiers in combat often forget to eat, or are so charged with adrenaline that they do not feel hungry, he said, which makes regular meals even more important. So Natick has gone back to the drawing board; it is now testing "unified ground rations express," or U.G.R.E., which can feed 18 soldiers a hot meal out of a single disposable box. Mr. Darsch said the U.G.R.E.'s were so successful in preliminary testing that their schedule for introduction in the field has been accelerated, to the end of 2006.
Gilbertson's piece went farther, with a piercing observation that goes to the heart of the story:
In combat, eating is often the only good thing about a day. When a soldier or marine sits down to warm up his M.R.E., he's not being shot at, he's not losing friends. It's almost a ritual, and the very act of opening one of these packages suggests safety, however brief it may be.
To a lot of the American troops I've met, mealtimes are the only thing here to look forward to.
Of course, that meal might be taken in solitude—the problem Moskin started to get at, and one not mentioned in the weekend survey. But Gilbertson is a photojournalist who can write, and if you didn't click on the various MREs, don't miss them. His website is here, and I'll now be watching for his byline.
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His piece reminded me of another set of photojournalists who have been documenting the way the world eats: Peter Menzel and his wife, Faith D'Aluisio, creators of the popular Material World series. In the 2005 Hungry Planet they published photographic portraits of the daily diets of 30 families in 24 countries, asking them to lay out everything they ate in a day, as they had photographed families' entire possessions in Material World. In their new and even more ambitious What I Eat, they photographed 80 people in 30 countries and showed what they eat in the course of a day, organizing the book by number of calories consumed. (Marion Nestle wrote the foreword to both books, and I contributed to both.)
In the new book, Menzel and D'Aluisio dig deeper into what mealtimes mean to the workers and families who eat them. Like Gilbertson, they are alive to the circumstances that make people eat what and when they do. And in extended essays they show where their subjects eat them, and with whom—often, like soldiers, alone, but often with colleagues and where they can. The new book documents people's daily lives, too, in a way that's fascinating way beyond the food. Both the couple's books and the Times piece are reminders that context and what people can afford to eat are as and more important to look at than the components of their diets. They both warrant many looks.