Steak Or Lasagna, Private?

`Cookie is dead." That's the catchphrase at Fort Lee, Va., where I'm sitting in the woods of Training Area 42, eating a tasty steak. Cookie is the mess sergeant in the Beetle Bailey comic strip--a slack-gutted slob perpetually smoking a long-ashed cigarette above the pot he's stirring. Cookie's cuisine is so wretched it makes even the gluttonous Sergeant Snorkel gag. Until recently, the food in the real U.S. Army wasn't much better.

Back when I joined the Army 25 years ago, the meals were heavy on starch and grease, light on taste and nutrition. I remember a stomach-churning repast of rubbery cream-chipped beef on toast, dried-out lima beans, and overboiled potatoes. In the field, we'd get hot meals, brought in insulated containers, that were usually tasteless and slimy. When that wasn't available, we'd eat canned C-rations, or "C rats," which bore an uncanny resemblance to dog food. Only on rare occasions did we get steak or anything appetizing.

I always thought the term "mess hall" referred to the swill served there. Steven E. Anders, historian at Fort Lee's Quartermaster School, which oversees food training, says the derivation is from the French mettre le couvert, to set the table. One of the few people who ever went on record saying he enjoyed Army meals, Anders says, was Elvis Presley, during his military stint in the 1950s.

VEGETARIAN VITTLES. But these days at Fort Lee, where the Army's cooks learn their craft, the emphasis is on preparing chow that actually tastes good and offering a choice of dishes, often three per setting. Over the past two decades, the Army has made major efforts to upgrade the food, on which the service spends $291 million yearly for active-duty soldiers. Since the post-Vietnam army is volunteer, it's worth pleasing their palates. After all, as Napoleon said, an army marches on its stomach.

O.K., the Army isn't serving four-star fare. With 1.1 million mouths to feed, that's impossible. Back in the mess hall on main post, you get school-cafeteria quality; out in the field, the vittles are on par with a company barbecue. You can eat a vegetarian meal, or you can opt for burgers and fries. While fast food doesn't make for a perfect diet, the Army feels compelled to offer it to keep people happy. Most troops, many of them in their late teens or early 20s, aren't required to eat at the mess hall anymore except during basic training and the like, so they could easily decamp to Wendy's.

At Area 42, I line up with other camouflage-clad reservists and pass through an olive-drab trailer where we receive steak, salad, bread, string beans, and mashed potatoes. Nearby are lines for lasagna and pork chops. We're served by student cooks (in current Army parlance, "food-service specialists").

Peering over the food preparers' shoulders is the chief instructor, Master Sergeant Vito Rocco. Breadstick-thin, Rocco, 49, bounces among the lines, issuing a stream of orders with buttinsky elan: "Clean that pot before you put something in it, son." "Give me more fire in those burners--now!" "Keep that hat on when you're serving, we don't want your hair in the food."

This whole operation, an alfresco lunch for 100 troops willing to serve as guinea pigs (or just pigs, judging by the repeat trips many take to the chow line), is under my command. I'm Director of Enlisted Courses for the 1154th U.S. Army Reserve Forces School, which is running this course during its two-week summer camp at Fort Lee. At home in New York, we teach Army reservists a whole range of military subjects, ranging from truck driving to nuclear warfare. At Fort Lee, we offer just two courses--supply and food service. Since I'm a barely competent backyard chef, I serve as principal, letting Rocco and his eight instructors teach 40 student cooks.

Army food-service ranks constantly need to be replenished as enlistments elapse. The Army has 10,000 active-duty and 17,000 reservist cooks, and Fort Lee trains 4,000 new cooks yearly. The education they get easily equals that of a civilian culinary school, covering everything from menu planning to cake baking.

TRANSFERABLE SKILLS. For our students, reservists drawn from all over the country, the school is a good deal. The Army has long taught skills that later turn into civilian careers. And since reservists are part-time soldiers, they can start applying things learned in the military to civilian life sooner than active-duty people. Private Janice Smith, who shovels French fries at a McDonald's in a run-down part of Philadelphia, dreams of becoming a well-paid chef at a prestigious restaurant. Rocco, a uniformed officer in the Brooklyn criminal courts, knows he always can have a second career in the kitchen.

Fort Lee teaches something you wouldn't expect from a military organization: service. Here, food-service gurus refer to the hungry souls in the chow lines as "our customers." The choices in mess halls, now called "dining facilities," are free for enlisted personnel; officers pay about $2 per meal. Calorie, sodium, and cholesterol levels appear on cards above each offering.

Historically in the Army, you ate what they told you to. During the Civil War, soldiers sometimes lived on nothing but "hard tack," a three-inch-square crackerlike ration that often had to be broken with rifle butts and softened in boiling water. In the Spanish-American War, the bulk of U.S. casualties came from disease, and bad food was a factor.

The upshot was that the Army created its first cook schools and put a heavy stress on hygiene. In World War I, rolling kitchens pulled by mules ensured that doughboys in the trenches got hot meals. In World War II, the nation's best nutritionists invented an array of ingenious, if bland, ready-to-eat rations for different conditions--on a plane en route to a D-Day drop zone, or a tank crossing the North African desert, for example. And in Vietnam, helicopters ferried fresh food to the most isolated fire bases.


Truth to tell, you can't please all, and the American soldier has a sacred tradition of griping about the grub. I find the new portable rations, called "meals ready to eat," or MREs, are not bad--and far superior to the old C rats. The Swedish meatballs are as good as I've found at many wedding receptions. And MREs, which come in pouches, are easier to tote than canned Cs. Still, our wags call them "meals rejected by everyone."

Back at Area 42, I've cleaned my paper plate. Sergeant Rocco stalks over and squints at me. "You tried the lasagna, sir?" he says with a sly grin. "It's pretty good. And it's going fast."

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