The Science Behind the U.S. Military's Super Sandwich

Chris McGrath, Getty Images
Chris McGrath, Getty Images

The U.S. military has a fraught history with food. During the Civil War, soldiers munched on tooth-cracking hardtack and salt pork. By World War II, it was SPAM and M&Ms. During the Cold War, the military introduced the world to survival crackers, a.k.a. Doomsday Biscuits.

But there’s always been one problem with most of the items on the menu: Few tasted very good. Hardtack regularly contained worms. Soldiers liked to call SPAM “ham that failed the physical.” The Chicago Tribune once claimed that survival crackers were “better as weapons.”

The challenge facing battlefield rations—called “Meal, Ready-to-Eat,” or MREs—has always been multifaceted. The Seattle Times explains it nicely: "To qualify for MRE duty, a food item has to be able to survive years of storage in a dank ship’s hold or a sun-baked shipping container, withstand Arctic freezes and tropical monsoons, stave off assaults by insects, and remain intact through a parachute airdrop or a free fall from 100 feet.” Taste, as a result, has been woefully neglected.

In 2002, researchers at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts took the first tangible steps toward fixing that by concocting the world’s first “Super Sandwich.” Resembling a hot pocket, the prototype—which contained fillings like pepperoni and chicken—could last up to two or three years in temperatures of 78 degrees without spoiling or getting soggy. (At 100 degrees, its shelf life dropped to six months.)

For the food scientists working on the problem, the enemy in the battle to make the Super Sandwich was water—specifically, water activity. Put simply, water activity is a measurement of how easily moisture migrates from one food product to another. The higher a food item's water activity, the more likely it’ll give away moisture. The lower the water activity, the more likely it’ll absorb water.

Water activity is a huge hurdle for foods that contain multiple components. Take Raisin Bran, for example: Raisins are moist and have a relatively high water activity. The flakes, on the other hand, are crunchy and have a low water activity. Under normal circumstances, these two components will trade moisture, with the raisins turning hard and the flakes soggy.

The same problem faced the Super Sandwich. “The water activity of the different sandwich components needs to complement each other,” then-project officer Michelle Richardson told New Scientist in 2002. “If the water activity of the meat is too high you might get soggy bread.”

The trick to stopping the problem is to introduce a humectant, a type of substance that reduces a food item's water activity without reducing the actual water content [PDF]. In the case of Raisin Bran, food scientists solved this problem by dusting the raisins in a fine coat of sugar [PDF]. For the Super Sandwich, military scientists introduced both sugar and salt as humectants that successfully curbed creeping moisture and prevented bacterial growth. To further combat spoilage, they placed packets of iron fillings inside the packaging, which helped absorb unwanted oxygen.

Today, the Super Sandwiches—part of the military’s “First Strike” rations—reportedly come in four flavors: Bacon Cheddar, Pepperoni, Italian, and Honey BBQ Beef. According to the BBC, when Richardson first ate a three-year-old sample, it was declared a ringing success.

Well, relatively speaking. She described the taste as … “OK.”

A Shrine to Brine: The Mysterious Case of Missouri's Highway Pickle Jar

iStock.com/MorePixels
iStock.com/MorePixels

No one knows how it started. No one knows who was responsible. Some may even have dismissed it as an aberration, a glitch in the scenery that would soon be corrected. But eventually, drivers in and around Des Peres, Missouri who took a highway off-ramp connecting I-270 North to Manchester Road began to notice that a jar of pickles was sitting on a dividing barrier on the ramp. And it wasn’t going anywhere.

Since 2012, the pickle jar has confounded drivers and internet sleuths alike, according to Atlas Obscura. Some have speculated that someone was trying to send a secret message or share a private joke. Perhaps someone pulling off to the side due to car trouble felt the need to place the brine-filled jar on the concrete wall and then forgot about it. Maybe someone thought it would be a kind of three-dimensional graffiti, incongruous amid the bustling traffic. Maybe it’s an indictment of commerce.

Whatever the case, once the pickles appeared, advocates refused to let them go. Jars that end up toppled over or otherwise damaged are replaced. Sometimes they reappear in protective Tupperware or with a holiday-themed bow. Sightings are photographed for posterity and posted on a Facebook fan page devoted to the jar, which currently has over 4200 members and has morphed from a place to theorize about the mysterious jar's origins to a place where people swap pickle-related recipes and stories.

There are dry spells—no one has posted of a pickle sighting in several months—but followers remain optimistic the jar will continue to remain a presence in Des Peres even if the motivation for placing them near the roadway remains as murky as the briny juice inside.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Why the Filet-O-Fish Sandwich Has Been on the McDonald's Menu for Nearly 60 Years

McDonald's has introduced and quietly killed many dishes over the years (remember McDonald's pizza?), but there's a core group of items that have held their spot on the menu for decades. Listed alongside the Big Mac and McNuggets is the Filet-O-Fish—a McDonald's staple you may have forgotten about if you're not the type of person who orders seafood from fast food restaurants. But the classic sandwich, consisting of a fried fish filet, tartar sauce, and American cheese on a bun, didn't get on the menu by mistake—and thanks to its popularity around Lent, it's likely to stick around.

According to Taste of Home, the inception of the Filet-O-Fish can be traced back to a McDonald's franchise that opened near Cincinnati, Ohio in 1959. Back then the restaurant offered beef burgers as its only main dish, and for most of the year, diners couldn't get enough of them. Things changed during Lent: Many Catholics abstain from eating meat and poultry on Fridays during the holy season as a form of fasting, and in the early 1960s, Cincinnati was more than 85 percent Catholic. Fridays are supposed to be one of the busiest days of the week for restaurants, but sales at the Ohio McDonald's took a nosedive every Friday leading up to Easter.

Franchise owner Lou Groen went to McDonald's founder Ray Kroc with the plan of adding a meat alternative to the menu to lure back Catholic customers. He proposed a fried halibut sandwich with tartar sauce (though meat is off-limits for Catholics on Fridays during Lent, seafood doesn't count as meat). Kroc didn't love the idea, citing his fears of stores smelling like fish, and suggested a "Hula Burger" made from a pineapple slice with cheese instead. To decide which item would earn a permanent place on the menu, they put the two sandwiches head to head at Groen's McDonald's one Friday during Lent.

The restaurant sold 350 Filet-O-Fish sandwiches that day—clearly beating the Hula Burger (though exactly how many pineapple burgers sold, Kroc wouldn't say). The basic recipe has received a few tweaks, switching from halibut to the cheaper cod and from cod to the more sustainable Alaskan pollock, but the Filet-O-Fish has remained part of the McDonald's lineup in some form ever since. Today 300 million of the sandwiches are sold annually, and about a quarter of those sales are made during Lent.

Other seafood products McDonald's has introduced haven't had the same staying power as the Filet-O-Fish. In 2013, the chain rolled out Fish McBites, a chickenless take on McNuggets, only to pull them from menus that same year.

[h/t Taste of Home]

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