Imagine trying to feed literally tens of thousands of men. You and a couple of dozen others are in charge of buying all the food necessary fill all those bellies as they march across continents or charge from trench to trench and burned 4,600 calories per day, almost 30 percent more than a farmer would need. You would likely take whatever food was available in large quantities, and you might feed the men so much of it that they never wanted to see it again.
World War 2 propaganda poster shows soldier receiving a massive piece of freshly cooked meat under the slogan “After the fighters, you come first. SHARE THE MEAT.”
(National Archives and Records Administration)
That’s what, allegedly, happened with American troops and mutton in World War II. While troops got some meat from local farms and wild game when they were lucky or had particularly resourceful supply officers in the unit, most of their calories and most of their meat was shipped from the states.
American farmers generated as much food as they could, and it was canned, jarred, concentrated, preserved, and more and sent to the fronts. One of the meats that preserved and canned well and was widely available was mutton, and so it was shipped forward by the ton.
But while canned mutton was stable and safe to eat, it wasn’t exactly desirable. And that’s especially true since military buyers weren’t discerning customers, and so they were often delivered particularly gamy and poor meat. And so American troops ran into the MRE problem of today but on a much greater scale.
Mutton looks so delicious in the wild.
Anyone who has had an MRE can tell you it’s not that bad for food that can be safe on a shelf for years. Most of the components taste fine, the nutrition is pretty balanced for someone who is expected to work and sweat all day, and it can be transported easily.
But while an MRE tastes OK the first couple of times or first dozen times you eat one, eating one every day gets repetitive. Eating two a day becomes onerous. It becomes a task that you force yourself through, not a meal, not a welcome morale boost or a respite from the fear and monotony.
Now imagine that, instead of 24 separate meals like the MRE program offers, you had only a few meals, all of them based around meat. And so you would be eating that canned mutton multiple times per week, potentially as much as a couple of days a week. Poor cuts of meat, canned for weeks or months or years, and then delivered to troops that had been eating it repetitively for years.
Oddly enough, when troops got home from war, some of them told their families that they never wanted to see the stuff again.
And some allege that it’s because of this that mutton fell out of favor in the U.S. and, to a lesser degree, in Britain, after the war. The British drop off was even more noticeable because the country had been so culturally tied to sheep and the wool industry for centuries before World War II.
But there are some historians who allege that the story is overblown, that the damage to the mutton industry was already in the cards. Wool clothing gave way, increasingly, to cotton and synthetic fibers after the war, and so no one was raising sheep to adulthood for wool. That reduced the sizes of the herds that mutton was harvested from. And lamb, harvested from younger sheep, became more popular.
Here’s hoping the MRE pizza is properly rotated with other meals. We’d hate to have that ruined for an entire generation.