We grew up eating a number of convenience foods and we haven’t died yet. Me, I’m all in favor of the trendy farm-to-table food movement, though. It will give you the willies if you read food labels carefully.
But I don’t want to get preachy and tiresome here. There’s always some spoilsport telling you what you should or should not eat these days. You have to be careful of people who tell you what you should, ought or must do, because there is a fair chance they are trying to reach into your wallet.
I was reading something a few minutes ago that made me think about a number of common foods we grew up with. For example, I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t instant coffee.
Americans developed a taste for coffee during the Civil War, and there seems to have been a stunning amount of effort put into buying and trading it on both sides of the conflict. One of my favorite recipes from that time is coffee syrup, or coffee essence.
Basically, you brew up a batch of really strong coffee, stir it into a pot of simple sugar-and-water syrup, let the mess cool and then pour it into a bottle for safe keeping. When you want a quick cup of coffee, you heat up a cup of water and add a bit of the syrup. You end up with a pre-sweetened cuppa Joe in minutes that isn’t half bad.
By the time World War I came around, the food industry had developed more advanced preservation techniques, and instant coffee made its appearance. It was so popular that the military scooped up all the civilian supplies that it could, requiring about 18.5 tons per day at the end of the war. In technical terms, this is known as “a whole lot of coffee.”
World War II troops lived on the stuff, along with other new foods that wouldn’t go bad while they were out in the field for days. By the 1990s, field troops had access to those coffee-stick tubes you find at the dollar store. Desert Storm vets have told me about dumping those into their mouths, without water, and chewing the crystals, an experience I have not tried for obvious reasons.
We know how great sliced bread is. The homemade stuff is to die for, but it has a lifespan of a couple of days. The military puttered around with some chemicals to increase bread’s shelf life for use in the field. Your basic loaf of Wonder bread will outlive you as a result.
And how about that radioactive-orange cheese you find in your Cheetos, on your hands, in your hair and on every light switch in the house? The army funded research that mixed salt into powdered cheese, and then sprayed the concoction on everything from pasta to sandwiches. Guys who fought in the war acquired a taste for it, and we are still living with the consequences.
Who hasn’t eaten at least one can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti in his life? This, too, came out of World War II, and the head of the Boiardi family received the highest civilian medal for his efforts. That’s all well and good, but I haven’t eaten that stuff in many years and never fed it to my own child.
Remember that thing about reading food labels I mentioned in the first paragraph? These days, a single serving of canned pasta provides 100 percent of your daily dose of sodium, with a couple of tablespoons of sugar for good measure.
Now, M&Ms are a different matter. Chocolate should be declared a major food group. Executives from the Mars candy company teamed up with Hershey’s to develop a candy coating that kept chocolate from flowing away in the tropical heat of the Pacific theater, and GIs loved the tidbits.
You may have heard about the mixed feelings that World War I vets held about corned beef. It was a good product for its time and provided shelf-stable protein in the trenches. Unfortunately, some rear-echelon types decided that nothing succeeds like excess, and troops ate it for weeks, ad nauseum.
Of course, you can’t be all that picky when things are tough. Field kitchens in those days were not exactly state of the art, but people still had to eat.
The venerable SPAM was developed in time for World War II, and proved a blessing to the British during their very lean war years. Americans were and are less reverent, dubbing it “meat that flunked its physical.” We might love or hate it, but cans of gluttonous meaty goodness still gather dust in emergency foodstocks “just in case.”
You might find a jar of Tang sharing storage space with those cans. This vitamin C-rich powdered drink was a mainstay of our early space program. Advertised on television as “what the astronauts drink,” kids across America started pestering their parents to buy it on the next trip to the supermarket.
TV dinners, developed outside of the military and NASA, were geared toward increasingly hectic mid-century lives. The trend has evolved alarmingly, and you can now order fresh meal packs in more urban areas, saving time and transportation expenses. But I wonder what these people would do if there were some kind of distribution problem.
”Oh, darn. Gooey-Gooey Deliveries can’t get through this month. Whatever shall we do?”
One word: SPAM.
[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]