This article is about describing food in fiction in a realistic way. In this post, we look at describing different country’s military rations in particular.
So, let’s just say I stumbled across a strange but charming part of the internet during the pandemic. Apparently, there are people who review military rations (sometimes called rat packs) on YouTube. And, some of them have millions of subscribers.
I’m not a military person, but I still found their content strangely engaging and satisfying. Probably because it is about people in a tough situation making the best of limited food choices. Anyway, please join me in my madness for this brief jaunt down an oddly charming path.
Describing Food In Fiction
Food is something we can all relate to and it should carry weight in a story. It is also the most fascinating aspect in describing a world.
- The Harry Potter series has magical food that is almost alive, like chocolate frogs that jump and candy beans that come in literally any flavour.
- Game Of Thrones is notorious for its double-page descriptions of feasts.
- The Lord of the Rings has magic elf bread that does not go stale.
But, I have noticed that most war stories that I read will just say: “They took out their rations and ate.”
This is a missed opportunity!
Everyone can relate to food and it should be used as an easy way for us to identify with the characters of any book. (It is also a good way to include the five senses.)
I will give two examples of military rations (rat packs) to show you how this works.
Modern Warfare Rations
What a country feeds its soldiers tells you everything you need to know about the psyche of that country.
You can tell by a modern South African Rat Pack:
- That the country is strapped for cash. With packaging being kept to a minimum and luxuries such as chocolate and coffee being cheap and nasty.
- That they expect their people to be in hot places with bad water. Thus 10 water purification tabs and 6 electrolyte drink mixes are included.
- That this is a peacekeeping and not a war time ration. Why? Because all the main courses need 45 minutes to heat and prepare. But it’s not a bad meal once it’s hot – lamb stew and chicken biryani are on the menu.
Read the example of how to use this ration pack in fiction at the end of the post.
While an American MRE (Meal Ready To Eat) tells you:
- This is designed by a runaway budget. The MRE comes with self-heating, flameless ration heaters. It has 23 menus. Each contains enough calories to feed two people, has a main, a desert, and snack foods, and it also has chocolate bars and protein drinks.
- Science is the driving force of this army. There is a MRE developed pizza that can be kept at room temperature for years. Its drinks and foods are designed for the optimal comfort of its soldiers so that they can perform well in the field. Their meals are well thought out and are able to be eaten warm or cold in a short period of time.
- It is designed for a mobile active military. MREs are light and easy to transport. They are waterproof and last years of rough treatment. They can be deployed to a jungle or a desert. They also have cold weather variants for winter operations.
Read the example of how to use this ration pack in fiction at the end of the post.
Note: Both of these are actually quite good rations. Unlike the Israeli rations, which are basically just cans of tuna and halva spread.
In these images, you can see that modern armies have modern-looking rations.
- Most don’t have cans of food. Why? For weight reasons, although poorer countries still do. And, countries like Spain do due to higher demand for better-tasting canned foods.
- They come with matches and spoons and waterproof bags.
- The American MRE has a sturdy spoon that can be used for anything while Eastern European countries use cheap, brittle ones that will break if you look at them wrong.
- The Australians have rations that are tough and built to withstand extreme heat. They have freeze-dried foods that won’t go off.
- On the other hand, Canada gives its armed forces Kit Kats and Nestle cappuccinos.
- Communist China and its People’s Liberation Army have Spartan meals that are science-based and are apparently among the worst in the world. But, they do provide perfect nutrition if you can stand the taste.
Think about how long the troops would have to prepare and eat these meals. Would it be like camping or would they be eating an energy bar on the run? Describe what they taste, smell, hear, touch, and see.
Words To Use
American and French rations are amongst the best. The only way to describe some of the items on the MRE is “decadent”. While French rations are “gourmet”.
You may want to describe luxury items like candy as “morale boosting” and meals as “savoury” and “comforting”. On the other hand, with some rations, you could say it was “utilitarian” at best, and perhaps “barely adequate” in some cases.
Early Modern/Colonial Rations
Early modern rations were mostly concerned with foods that would last on long journeys.
For sea voyages, foods like sauerkraut and ship’s biscuit were used. Grains like oats, rice (in Asia), and ground corn (in America) were carried in quantity.
Ship’s biscuits were not nice, fluffy, sweet butter biscuits. They were just flour and water (and salt if it was available). They were packed into a dense dough and baked as many as four times to kill all the germs in them.
If packed well, they would last 10 years, but they usually began to show maggots after a few months.
In these times, sailors would either scrape off the maggots or they would just boil them with the biscuits. The biscuits were too hard to eat raw. They needed to be soaked in water to soften. Most often, they would just boil them into a porridge or “potage” as they called it.
Sometimes, they would grind them up into flour and use them to make a new bread with the texture of cornbread.
During the American Civil war, each troop was allotted one pound of salted meat a day. They almost never got it and, when they did, they complained about it being rotten or underweight.
The meat was tough and heavily salted. It would smell of ammonia. They would first need to wash it in water to remove the salt. There was too much salt for a person to eat without being poisoned. Often, they would boil it with sauerkraut and any wild herbs they could find. This would be the best they could hope for in the field.
Meal times would last hours. The troops would try to prepare what they could in advanced for the next day to reduce time, but it still took up a good chunk of the day.
Breakfast would be a cold porridge cooked the night before. It was probably salted but unsweetened.
Be sure to speak of the hardship it caused to supply troops. These meals were probably stolen from farms or taken from factories at cost.
The troops would need to spend a great deal of time on food preparation each day. They would need to build fires and boil water for drinking. They would have to roast coffee beans. if they could get them.
They would also need to make separate and higher quality foods for officers.
They used a great deal of camping equipment, like stand-pots, spits, Dutch ovens, and fire tongs. This needed to be cleaned and packed for transport.
Words To Use
“Tasteless”, “lightweight”, “soured”, “spoiled” and “poorly thought-out”.
For example: ‘The Italian army thought it was a good idea to take lightweight, tasteless pasta into a desert. The colonial troops had to put up with three-year-old spoiled sauerkraut, soured water, and spoiled meat. Neither had been well thought-out.’
Two Examples Of Writing About Rat Packs In Fiction
Below are examples of how you could use the American and South African military rations in a story.
Kosovo Jack sat by a stream in Kosovo. The Russians were after him, but he needed to eat. He had had his energy bar and drink mix on the go. And he only had two caffeine tabs left. He filled his flameless ration heater to the water mark, put in the packet, and let it boil with a small bag of water. He ate his “patriotic freedom cookies” while he waited. After 15 minutes he pulled out the retort pouch, flared the gusset, and let the now hot Apple Turnover stand while he mixed “Coffee Instant Type Three” into the beverage pouch. He ate his miracle shelf, stable, chemically warm pizza and washed it down with the hot coffee. For a moment, while he finished his apple dessert, he forget he was being hunted down. “Oh well, let’s move,” he said putting another stick of gum in his mouth. He got up, refreshed, and made for the border.
The Congo As one of the thousand-odd continental South African peace keepers, Lance-corporal Thabo felt singled out. Stationed on the border of a hot spot in The Congo Basin, he wondered what he and Private Jan were being punished for. His orders were: “Don’t let Jan shoot anyone. And wait for relief.” When Thabo wasn’t mediating in the village, he had the even tougher task of deciding what to make for dinner. The Sargent-at-Arms had left them 30 24-hour Rat Packs. Unfortunately, they were all the same and there was an upper limit to how many times a man can eat mutton stew (Dinner 250g) in a month. Thabo liked the Chicken Biryani (Lunch 150g) at first, but its side-effects were beginning to wear thin. Thankfully, Private Jan could be persuaded to swap his strawberry energy bar for a curry. And, with any luck, these bars could be traded for a kind of beer in the village. No amount of added sugar could make the porridge worthwhile, but it made the soupy beer sweet enough to drink. Jan swapped his coffee for the Rooibos Tea, which was good because Thabo needed at least twice the amount of the “coffee (5%)” to feel alive in the morning. Thabo wondered how processed cheese needed to be in order to survive a six-month trip in a jungle. Hey, at least the “Super Cee” candies were as disappointing here as anywhere else in the world and that was oddly comforting. On the 15th day when the relief showed up and Corporal Marvin tossed him a loaf of Saco white bread, it was enough to bring a tear to his eye. Thabo left for base but not before saluting the brave sacrifices their replacements were about to make.
I hope you’ve had fun looking at these rat packs with me. Whatever type of food you’re describing, take time to do some research.
If you’re looking for help with setting, buy our Setting Up The Setting Workbook.
Christopher writes and facilitates for Writers Write. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisLukeDean
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