The struggle to make the classic peanut butter and jelly combination battle-ready for soldiers in the field highlights an effort by top Army scientists to develop pocket sandwiches that will keep without refrigeration for three years.
Researchers working on the latest innovation in "meals ready to eat," army lingo for anytime, anywhere munchies, were drawn to the stuffed bread rolls now in supermarket frozen food sections. Convenience is the attraction: no utensils, not much to open yet makes for a satisfying meal, at least in theory.
"The trick was to get rid of the 6,000 mile extension cord to the freezer," said Jerry Darsch, who directs the Defense Department's feeding program in Natick, Mass.
Four years later, the Army has come up with formulas for two sandwiches - pepperoni and barbecue chicken - that use chemical and natural preservatives to lock moisture in place and inhibit the growth of bacteria and mold.
Darsch said his sandwiches are designed to be as resilient as the troops they feed. "This bad boy will last a minimum of three years at 80 degrees, six months at 100 degrees. They will travel to the swampiest swamp, the highest mountain, the most arid desert."
Some of the stabilizing agents are manufactured, others are intrinsic to the sandwiches - the bread in the pepperoni sandwich is more or less left alone by the sausage, which lacks moisture; in the barbecue chicken sandwich, acids in the sauce's tomato, vinegar and lemon naturally bind moisture in place.
Still, soldiers aren't likely to take a bite until 2006 because more research is needed - principally, the researchers confessed, on PB&J, the sandwich most demanded by troops in focus groups. Other sandwiches in the works include pizza-flavored and ham and cheese.
Food science takes time, Darsch said - "I don't even want to tell you how long it took to develop the McNugget."
The fare currently bouncing around kit bags in Afghanistan includes pasta primavera, beef stew and seafood jambalaya. Water is added to heat pads inside plastic pouches - a heating process more convenient than old flame-based methods, but one that sucks out much of the flavor.
Sandwiches are as easy as ripping open a plastic bag - no need for the clumsy little spoons that now go with the MREs.
Peanut butter has so far proven too unstable to last three years in battlefield conditions, said Michelle Richardson, a food technologist who has worked on the sandwich.
"Peanut butter tries to suck the water out of the bread, the same way it sticks the roof of your mouth," she said. That leads to the growth of bacteria and mold and makes the sandwich inedible.
Richardson says her team is closer than ever, and has found ways of stabilizing the peanut butter - but not without killing its stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth qualities, a sensation she says no soldier under fire should miss.
"We don't want to change the texture, we want it to act and feel like peanut butter."
The sandwiches won't replace what's out there - at 325 calories, they provide just a quarter of the 1,300 calories provided by existing meals - but their convenience makes them useful on the run.
Not everyone cherished that prospect.
"I don't think I've ever wanted a sandwich that's that old," said Master Sgt. Kelly Tyler, based at Fort Campbell, Ky. "That won't be one I'd take out of the box."
She might be surprised by the pepperoni offering: The bread roll, in this reporter's opinion, is a little chewy, but the pepperoni stick is a sharp, spicy riot - less greasy and much tastier than the plastic-wrapped stuff that lurks in the darker recesses of convenience stores. Also, it has just the right texture, each bite a satisfying tug.
The barbecue chicken sandwich is another matter: Its sickly sweet sauce overwhelms the chicken, but considering its dark, mystery-meat color and texture, that may be a good thing. It leaves a lasting chemical heaviness, although Darsch emphasizes its natural ingredients.
"There are no chemicals you can't pronounce," he said.
Sure enough, the back of the packet - dated five months ago! - is easy enough to decipher. Some ingredients - honey molasses, yellow mustard - even flirt with appetizing, depending on how hungry you are.
Other ingredients - like "chicken water" - make a case for long chemical names.
By Ron Kampeas