How did the U.S. military create a pizza that soldiers could eat on the battlefield? Our friends at the podcast Proof from America’s Test Kitchen follow the five-year journey to create the world's most shelf-stable pizza. In the process, they learn about ration bars made with ultrasonic technology, and how to keep cheese the right color in extreme conditions.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Nora Ritchie, Jared O'Connell, and Julia Russo.
Interstitial music in this episode by Bryan Campbell of Signal Sounds, Kyle Forester, Jordan Pierson, and Black Label Music:
- "Dreamin" by Erick Anderson
- "New Old" by JT Bates
Paul Ostby: I particularly was always a fan of the Chili Mac and Chicken noodle. Some of the people really like the breakfast meal. It has this granola in it, which is actually really good. So everybody has their favorites.
Dan Pashman: This is Army National Guard Captain Paul Ostby. He served three tours in Iraq. And he’s talking about MREs, which stands for Meals Ready to Eat. These meals are a big part of what service members eat when they’re on combat tours. And MREs have to meet very specific requirements. They have to stay preserved in pouches, without refrigeration, sometimes for years. So there are culinary limits. There’s only so many foods you can make into an MRE.
Paul Ostby: They're not too bad. Some are better than others.
Dan Pashman: But thanks to new technology, and evolving tastes, MREs are changing. In a big way.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. This week, we’re bringing you an episode from our friends at the podcast Proof, from America’s Test Kitchen. The show tells the weird, surprising, and funny backstories around food, and this episode is about a food that most of us are not exposed to in civilian life: MREs. Here’s the host of Proof, Kevin Pang.
Kevin Pang: MREs usually come in an eight by six inch brown pouch. In each pouch you'll find an entree, a side dish, a dessert, a cracker, a powdered drink, assorted seasonings and a flameless ration heater that warms up the food right inside the pouch.
Kevin Pang: While MREs have improved over the years, no one will say it's a four star meal. But that's not the goal anyway. In recent years, more MRE options have been developed to reflect the diverse backgrounds of its service members. Recent entrees include Mexican style chicken stew, cheese tortellini in tomato sauce and a beef goulash. The military updates its menu of 24 MRE options regularly and adjusts the selections based on surveys. But before 2018, there was one dish that came up again and again as the most requested MRE: Pizza. But how exactly do you make a pizza that can sit inside a pouch for years and still be served safely and deliciously?
Kevin Pang: Today on Proof from America's Test Kitchen, the five-year quest to create a battle ready pizza. We take you behind the scenes of a military facility to bring you a story of science, grit, and ingenuity.
Kevin Pang: Producer Alex Curran-Cardarelli brings us today's story.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Okay, rapid fire: What are the first three things that come to mind when you think of MREs? For me, I'm thinking Spam, beans, and soup. They're foods that you usually keep in your basement in case you're snowed in. Or worse to prepare you for the end of the world.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: For a long time. If you were a warfighter on the battlefield, you carried around food in cans. By the way, we'll be using the word warfighter instead of soldier throughout the episode, since each branch of the military has different names for their members. Warfighter is all encompassing. Anyway, these canned foods were known as combat rations or c-rats. Back in the eighties and nineties, the variety and tastes of these memories weren't exactly top of mind. In fact, their reputation was far from gourmet.
David: During the first Gulf War, there were only 12 MREs. So every third or fourth day you were going to have the same thing again. And that was provided you liked all 12 and there wasn't one that you despised and preferred a different one.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: That's David Accetta. He's the chief of public affairs at — here it goes — the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center. It's in Natick, Massachusetts. Thankfully, it's usually referred to as the DEVCOM Soldier Center. It's here where all the operational rations produced for the military are developed and approved under the Department of Defense's Combat Feeding Directorate.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: David served 21 years active duty in the U.S. Army, so he has firsthand experience eating MREs.
Lauren Oleksyk: So the name of the menu is really what the main entree is. They'll be a whole bunch of other things in it, but this one is beef in barbecue sauce.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Lauren Oleksyk also understands that lack of variety in MREs, but from a different perspective. Lauren recently retired as a team leader of food engineering at DevCom. She's had years of developing MREs under her belt. After the Gulf War, Lauren said that the soldiers feedback on MREs was so bad that word went all the way to the top of the chain of command — the very top.
Lauren Oleksyk: Yeah, so my boss at the time, Jerry Darsh, he was the director of combat feeding and he was called down to the Pentagon, as the story goes, to see General Powell, who ….
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: As indeed General Colin Powell, he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time.
Lauren Oleksyk: Who said, “Fix it." Those were his two words, "Fix it.", meaning fix the MRE, fix the combat feeding staple, you know, as far as your rations go.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: And that was that. In 1991 and into 1992, DEVCOM launch the MRE Improvement program. As part of this program, warfighters were asked: What kind of MREs would you want to eat?
Lauren Oleksyk: Pizza was number one. We heard it all the time. We'd love to have pizza in the MRE. They have it in training facilities. They have access to pizza all the time. What they didn't have was pizza out in the field.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: But this pizza couldn't just be your standard frozen or delivery pizza. MREs have a specific list of requirements to meet.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: They need a shelf life of at least three years. They need to be accepted by all six branches of the military, and they need to withstand parachute airdrops from over a thousand feet. To tackle this, DEVCOM formed what they called "The Pizza Team". It was a group of 12 people which included microbiologists, nutritionists, and a chemical engineer. And the person who would lead this A-team? Well, she was made for the job.
Kevin Pang: When did you realize you wanted to become a food scientist?
Michelle Richardson: When I was two. No, just joking. Could you erase that?
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Michelle Richardson is a senior food technologist at DEVCOM, and in the 34 years she's worked there, Michelle's changed the way the U.S. military eats. Some of her food innovations include different types of shelf stable sandwiches. There's barbecue chicken, Italian, as well as a barbecue beef and nacho beef. Michelle is hilarious and disarmingly modest. The way she talks about these scientifically impressive innovations is the way someone else might talk about what they had for breakfast that morning. These innovations were just something she did. She's also a perfectionist.
Michelle Richardson: My overall goal is not only to make the pizza taste good, but to make sure bacteria can't grow. So you have to be a perfectionist when you're dealing with safety.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: But in spite of her and the pizza team's credentials, their mission to create a shelf stable, ready to eat pizza was more difficult than they ever could have imagined.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: A few months ago, Kevin and I headed to DEVCOM headquarters. It's about a 45-minute drive from America's Test Kitchen in Boston. DEVCOM is a U.S. military facility, so security is tight. Kevin and I stood outside and the first thing we did was dig into our bags. We added new batteries into our recorder and removed the shotgun mic we'd be using for the interviews. And the thing to know about a shotgun mic is that, well, it looks a bit like what it's named after.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Immediately, two guards with M-4 rifles jumped out of their post and told us to stop what we were doing. But after they realized we were harmless podcast producers, we were allowed past the gate.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Inside the secured facility is a massive kitchen that reminds me of the TV studio where we shoot episodes of America's Test Kitchen.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: I mean, it really reminds me of the ATK general kitchen. There's a scale there. It looks like a big mixer there. There's dough, obviously, on the counters. [LAUGHS]
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: This, though, was America's Armed Forces Test Kitchen. The DEVCOM crew, which consists of David, Michelle and Loren, who you heard from earlier, let us sample some of the food they've helped create over the years. We tried these ration bars which come in a variety of flavors, including coconut key lime, s'mores, and cookies and cream. They're usually given to warfighters as a meal replacement bar. The silver packaging label read: Sound Ultrasonically Formed Bar.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Sound waves to create food? This absolutely blew my mind. Instead of adding binders, like sirups, to hold ingredients together, DEVCOM uses a tool called an ultrasonic agglomerater. From a distance, it looks like a fancy microscope. This ultrasonic agglomerator uses the energy from sound to hold all the particles of the ration bar together in a compact block. So that's pretty cool. And it's only a sample of just how complex MRE engineering can be. Loren, the retired team leader, explained that when it comes to the food warfighters carry, every ounce matters.
Lauren Oleksyk: We're trying to make rations smaller and lighter. So if you can compress all those ingredients into a very compact bar, you get more nutrients, more calories in a smaller space, and then you can put more into a ration bag, and they can take a lot more fluid and calories with them.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: It was actually a senior food engineer named Dr. Anne Barrett, who came up with this idea to apply this technology to ration bars. Lauren explains.
Lauren Oleksyk: And I would say Ann’s claim to fame is that she has a knack for taking technologies that aren't necessarily developed for the food industry and seeing where there's application in the food industry. So this is not a new technology itself, but it is for food compression.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: As I unwrapped the ration bar, I noticed that the texture wasn't dense or heavy. It was loosely held together. It'd break apart if I squeeze it too tightly. It was flaky and ...
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Oh my God. This is my favorite.
Lauren Oleksyk: I think it's my favorite too.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: If it tastes like a mocha I could get at Starbucks. This is incredible. I'm going to have another bite.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: After our tasting, we went to a room called the Warfighters Cafe. It's not so much a cafe as it is a conference room with MRE paraphernalia. There's a display of boxes containing rations from over the years, and each pile of boxes is smaller than the next. Loren again reinforces the importance of size.
Lauren Oleksyk: This is only intended for 5 to 7 days of supply, but that — I showed you the compact ration — the CCAR is much smaller and more compact than the first strike ration, and that is where the technologies of compression and drying allow that to happen. So all the agglomeration, the compression, the drying technologies are intended for that ration because we're trying to make it smaller and lighter. Everything needs to be more compact so that they can carry more with them.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: There's all kinds of rations that are highly specialized for certain situations. They even come in different colors to camouflage the environment they're in. Tan for when you're in a desert and white for cold weather locations. Everything about the MRE, down to its packaging, is engineered for a competitive edge.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: So what went into developing and engineering the MRE Pizza?
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: In order to create an MRE pizza, the pizza team would need to overcome three important obstacles. First, they would need a shelf stable bread that could last up to three years without going moldy. Second, they would need to ensure that over time the tomato sauce didn't seep into that bread, making it soggy. And finally, they would need a cheese that not only tasted good, but maintained its yellow hue. The first task of developing shelf stable bread had actually started in the 1980s. In fact, it was one of the first projects that Loren, the previous team leader of food engineering, had worked on. She first joined DEVCOM.
Lauren Oleksyk: Well, for bread to become part of a field ration, we had to meet that three-year shelf life requirement. And as you know, with bread, you're lucky to get a week out of a loaf of bread.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Developing a standalone shelf-stable bread was challenging, but Lauren had several breakthroughs.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: First, she discovered that she would have to use unleavened bread. That means bread that doesn't have any rising agents, like yeast. Second, she found the exact measurement of ingredients that would control the moisture, so it wouldn't get soggy. And finally, she realized you need an airtight environment to hold the bread. To make that happen, Lauren's team sealed the bread in foil packaging while it was still warm. This creates a vacuum that reduces the amount of oxygen in the packaging. They also add a little iron packet, like the ones you see in a bag of chips to keep them from going stale, which absorbs any oxygen that's left over. This configuration left no room for chemical reactions to take place, meaning no stale or moldy bread.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: With those three elements combined, Lauren arrived at the perfect formula. This shelf stable bread was even patented. Now that a shelf stable bread had been created, DEVCOM wanted to use that bread to develop an MRE pocket, or a hot pocket like sandwich.
Michelle Richardson: The one that our team developed was an Italian pocket and it contained Italian sausage and pepperoni.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: The challenge of combining bread with other ingredients like meat and cheese is that the water within them wants to migrate. It just wants to move. This tendency happens when something called "the water activity" is high.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Water and food can be in two states: bound water, which is when water is attached to molecules in the food, and free water, which is when the water isn’t attached, so it's available to evaporate and travel within the ingredients. And because free water can travel, it will migrate into a neighboring piece of food until the two ingredients’ water activities are the same. So when the water activity is high, it means that there's lots of free water mingling throughout the food. This can increase the likelihood for the food to grow bacteria, yeast, molds — and we really don't want that. So in an Italian pocket, like the one Michelle was developing, the moisture in the toppings will travel to the bread and that also makes the bread soggy. But Michel says:
Michelle Richardson: If they have the same water activities, then you won't get that migration.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: To keep the water activity low and stop the ingredients from mushing together, you have to use what are called humectants.
Michelle Richardson: Humectants are food ingredients that bind water very tightly. And so a typical humectant would be salt, sugar, any types of sirups. They bind water really nicely.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: But in order to make sure the bread didn't get soggy, it wasn't as simple as just adjusting the amount of salt, sugar, and acidity.
Michelle Richardson: You can only add so much salt to the product. You only can add so much sugar to an Italian pocket because you don't want it to be sweet. And so we had to balance the concentration of the humectants.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: After many trials and errors, Michelle nailed down the perfect formula of humectants for the Italian pocket. This assured that there would be no room for bacteria to grow and no soggy bread. This innovation laid the groundwork for the MRE pizza. In 2013, the pizza team took a similar approach to control the water activity in the MRE pizza. They needed to get the ratio of acidity, sugars, and sirups right, so that the sauce wouldn't seep into the bread.
Michelle Richardson: When you have five different ingredients with different moisture contents, different water activities, different pHs, like how do you mix them all together and hope that the sauce doesn't run into the cheese, coloring the cheese. So I think that was the most challenging.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Finding the perfect balance of humectants for the pizza required a lot more work. Unlike a sandwich where all the elements are covered by bread, a pizza is open faced. So if the sauce seeped into the bread, it would turn red. The team also needed to make sure that the ingredients would play nice with each other in the packaging. After all, the MRE pizza had to be shelf stable for three years. After each analysis, Michelle and her team would packaged the pizzas, go back, make adjustments and try again and again, just like we do in our test kitchen.
Michelle Richardson: So there's a lot of iterations of making the pizza. You know, you make it every day and you think, okay, so maybe I need to increase my cheese by 25% because when it's this, I'm not meeting my water activity or I'm not meeting the pH target.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Cindy Walker, a research biologist on the pizza team, estimates that she made about 400 pizzas during the development process.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: And the — do you have to taste test them yourself?
Michelle Richardson: Yes.
Cindy Walker: Yes. Every single one. If I won't eat it, I won't expect anyone else to. So that's why it's taken so long. I would go back and tell Michelle, "Ehh something isn't right. It's missing something."
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: After hundreds of pizzas, it seemed like they were getting closer to solving the water activity issue, but it still needed to pass the storage test. Remember, it needs to be shelf stable for three years.
Michelle Richardson: We can't do three years all the time, but we do what we call a accelerated. I'll put the product in for four weeks at 120.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: That is 120 degrees Fahrenheit. These accelerated storage tests at higher temperatures were a way to mimic the pizza lasting at longer periods of time at 81 degrees.
Michelle Richardson: I'll have people evaluate it, give me feedback and make changes based on — they may say, "Oh, it's too acidic," you know, or it's, "the sauce doesn't have the flavor balance," you know? So maybe I might need to add more Italian spices or something like that?
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Michele sent pizza after pizza through these storage tests.
Michelle Richardson: If I made pizza once a week, I probably had somebody evaluate it once a week. If I did four weeks at 120 in storage, I would have them tasted at time zero, two weeks in four weeks. And I probably did that like several times. I can't give you a number, but — I don't know if I can give you a number.
Lauren Oleksyk: Hundreds?
Michelle Richardson: Hundreds? Yes, it was definitely hundreds.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: The final and last storage test that the pizza had to clear was six months at 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But there was one problem standing in the way.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, the pizza team fights to get their MRE pizza over the finish line. That’s after the break. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. On last week’s show, I talk with chef, recipe developer, and YouTube star Sohla El-Waylly. Her whole life, she knew that she wanted to be a chef. When she started in culinary school, she said she was the most intense person there. And that intensity stayed with her when she opened her first restaurant with her husband, Ham. One of the most popular items on the menu was artisanal pop-tarts that Sohla made by hand.
CLIP (SOHLA EL-WAYLLY): The filling was like, jams made from fruit from the market that cost so much. You know, each pop tart had probably $10 worth of jam in it, and we charged $5 for the poptarts.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): [LAUGHING]
CLIP (SOHLA EL-WAYLLY): And then sprinkles that I piped one at a time — handmade sprinkles.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): You made sprinkles one at a time?
CLIP (SOHLA EL-WAYLLY): I did, because, you know, like, you could make them faster if you just make like, lines and break it.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Right.
CLIP (SOHLA EL-WAYLLY): But I wanted them to have rounded ends.
Dan Pashman: Here’s producer Alex Curran-Cardarelli.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: At this point, the pizza team had perfected the bread. They also were able to get it so that the tomato sauce wouldn't seep into the bread or the cheese. This version of the MRE Pizza tasted good. It met nutritional requirements. But after putting the pizza through the six-month storage test ...
Michelle Richardson: As soon as you look at it, you'll see that the cheese is brown.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Michelle and Lauren call this effect "browning". Browning occurs when food turns color as part of the aging process. Browning can be a positive thing in cooking, but in the pizza team's case, they did not want to see it happen to the cheese. Throughout the development process, a panel of sensory technologists are brought in to evaluate and rate things like the appearance, texture and overall acceptability of the pizza. Even though the pizza may have passed the health and safety tests, in the end, it still needed to smell, look, feel, and taste like a pizza. These technologists would then rate the pizzas on a scale of 1 to 9, one being the worst and nine being the best. The pizzas are scoring below a five.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Lauren and Michele remember it like this.
Lauren Oleksyk: Michelle and I were ... She had solved so many other problems with the moisture migration and the — just the microbiology of it was where we wanted it to be. Everything was good except for that browning. And we were very frustrated ...
Michelle Richardson: And I think at one point we were deciding not to actually field it because the cheese was browning.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: It seemed like such a minor detail. But for Michelle and her team, this was something that had to be addressed.
Michelle Richardson: I think when people — they look at food, right? And sometimes when you look at it, that's going to decide whether you like it or not. So if you have something that has nice, bright, typical colors, you're going to gravitate towards that. And the soldiers require nutrients and the only way they're going to get it if they consume it. And if it doesn't look good, it's less likely that they're going to consume it.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: The development of this MRE Pizza was so much more than just making a safe shelf, stable food. It was about developing a pizza that could do all of that and bring the satisfaction and comfort that a pizza can offer. It was about creating a food that the warfighters would want to eat after an exhausting day, offering them calories and nutrients, but also a little slice of home. Paul Ostby, the Army captain from earlier, says that's vital out in the battlefield.
Paul Ostby: High levels of stress can actually make people not want to eat. So there is a comfort factor, I think, that plays a part here. So I think it's incredibly important, which is probably why you see fairly popular items in a MRE, right? It's to, you know, not only like feed the body, but that maybe like feed the soul a little bit, too.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: This is why the pizza team continued to test. After a third failed attempt, Michelle and Lauren called in the pizza team to put their brains together. How could they stop the cheese from turning brown?
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: And then a seemingly simple idea was raised. What about a different kind of cheese?
Michelle Richardson: We had been working with Bradford and they had a company that actually made a low water activity shelf stable cheese that underwent less browning than the cheeses that we were using at the time.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Hoping it would produce less browning, the team sent the pizza with the new cheese to the storage test and hoped that the fourth time would be the charm.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Another six months of waiting until it was finally time for Michelle to check on the pouch.
Michelle Richardson: I didn't want to open the pouch because my fear was that it wasn't acceptable. Maybe there was just too much browning, and after doing it several times and not meeting your goal, it gets to be defeating. Yeah. So, you know, you open up the product, you looked at the product, you actually smell it to see if it has any storage odors and any off odors. And as a rule, I taste everything, you know?
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: And then the moment of truth arrived.
Michelle Richardson: I was pleasantly surprised.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Laura remembers when Michelle came to her right after the inspection.
Lauren Oleksyk: It wasn't the browning that she had seen prior, so we knew that that final special cheese was the solution to the browning of the cheese, and that was one reason why it wasn't passing. She was very relieved and I knew she could do it. I could see that look on her face at every withdrawal, like that's why when you asked if she's a perfectionist, she is a perfectionist. I'll tell you right now. And if it wasn't perfect through that product development process, it takes a toll, you know? She wanted it to be just right and it finally was.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: After five long years of testing, the pizza team now had a working prototype. In 2018, the shelf stable MRE pizza was finally put into circulation.
Kevin Pang: Well, I feel like we've arrived at the moment of truth. We're here for — it's lunch time, right?
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Kevin and I finally got to try the MRE pizza. It comes in two flavors: cheese or pepperoni. We ate a cheese pizza, which was made in 2021. David pours room temperature water into the flameless heater pouch. Inside the pouch is a small bag that looks like a hand warmer. It's filled with magnesium and iron, and once the water hits it, a chemical reaction occurs, which heats up the pouch to 140 degrees. Almost immediately, we start to see steam. David then slips the MRE pizza into the pouch.
David: You can see it's steamy, you can feel it down here. It's starting to get hot. Be careful
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Oh, my God! It's actually really hot.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: It takes about 8 to 10 minutes for the meal to heat up. And to ensure that the water stays in the bag, you have to lean up against the rock or something. These were the actual instructions that were on the MRE package: Lean up against a rock or something. When Lauren and her team were writing the directions on the MRE packaging, they wondered what warfighters could lean the MRE pouch against to activate the heating mechanism. And one of her colleagues said …
Lauren Oleksyk: He said, "I don't know, a rock or something."
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: And the designer took it and ran with it. And it's been on all MRE packaging ever since. The Army captain, Paul, was tickled we told him that I'd met the team who coined those instructions.
Paul Ostby: That's awesome. [LAUGHS] Yeah, that's always been a running joke because everyone thinks that's hilarious.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: David, DEVCOM’s chief of public affairs, added this tidbit.
David: An interesting note. When we deployed to Saudi Arabia and then later to Iraq and Kuwait in 1991 and the first Gulf War, there were great stretches of desert where there was just sand and there were no rocks. [LAUGHING] No, so you had to find the "something" which might have been your helmet to lay this on.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: So after leaning it against the rock, or in my case, a water bottle, it was time to dig in.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Oh my God. It's so chewy and soft. Kevin, go for it. Try a bite. It tastes like cheese. Tastes like bread. Tastes like tomato. It tastes like a pizza.
Kevin Pang: And Alex just pulled off like a piece of the crust. I mean, it is just — it's really tender, like shockingly tender.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: This pizza's two years old that we're eating. That's insane. [LAUGHS]
Lauren Oleksyk: Yeah, March of 2021.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: I'm going to have another bite because I'm actually hungry.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: The MRE pizza does indeed taste like a pizza. And of course, we had to take some back to the test kitchen in Boston. We asked our America's Test Kitchen colleagues, David Yu, Olivia Counter, and Kellie Song, to join our tasting.
David Yu: I'm excited. I've heard a lot about these MREs. I've actually watched a decent amount of stuff. I've never tried them though, so ...
Olivia Counter: I'm a little scared. I guess, I'm I'm ready for it. [LAUGHS] I've been prepared.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: They take a bite.
Olivia Counter: It gives — it's all the pizza flavor I want. The texture is comforting. It's like a soft piece of bread with a little tomato and cheese on top. And it's not as dry as I thought it. It looks very dry, but it's so moist. My mouth is like — I'm, like, drooling.
Kellie Song: It reminds me of one of those lunches. I had an elementary school where the pizza's in a cardboard box and it's in a plastic bag, which I guess doesn't bode well for the elementary school pizza. But it's good. It's like it's like a Lunchables, you know? It's it's hitting the spot. I think if I really wanted pizza, this would do it for me.
David Yu: Yeah. So okay, it reminds me of pizza flavored things like combos, Lunchables, things like that. But the flavor is there. It definitely — you know, you got that cheese, a little of that tomato sauce. Yeah.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: We also had our PR director, Brian Franklin, try the pizza. He's in charge of publicity for one of the most iconic food brands in America, and ironically, in his words, is one of the world's pickiest eaters.
Brian Franklin: It's not bad at all. It's rare for me that I try stuff that I actually like, but this — look, compared — is it the best pizza ever? No. Is it the worst pizza ever? No. And I'd like to think if I were out in battle or in the field somewhere, this would be a welcome thing to eat. I didn't know what to expect, but it's decent. And it would definitely for me — yeah, I could definitely eat it.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Would you eat it for lunch today?
Brian Franklin: If it was between this and, like, a plain salad? Oh, my God. I'd have this all the time.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: After I turned off the mic, Brian actually went in for another bite by choice. I turned the recorder back on.
Brian Franklin: Yeah, I'm having another bite. I like the cheese a lot. They should sell this because I would buy it.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: And there you have it. America's Test Kitchen most notorious picky eater was a fan. But in the end, it didn't matter what our test cooks, Brian or even me and Kevin thought of the pizza. What mattered was whether or not this pizza made you want to eat and get those calories and whether it boosted morale for the warfighters.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Once the pizza received the official stamp of approval, it was sent off into circulation. DEVCOM conducted a series of field tests and asked the warfighters to rate the pizza on a scale of 1 to 9, one being the worst and nine being the best. The pizza consistently received above a seven.
Michelle Richardson: Seven, above seven. I want to say 7.5 — is pretty good for a savory entree. You know, because M&Ms will be, what, eight and a half, probably?
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: Per usual, Michelle was underselling it. Receiving a seven was a huge deal.
Michelle Richardson: Matter of fact, I was speaking to one of the psychologists that run the field test, and he told me this last year, he's like, "Yeah, I think the pizza was one of the top rated items, one of the top three items." And I'm like, yeah, don't think so. And he's like, "Well, let me go check." And so he checked and he said it was definitely the top five.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: David adds:
David: And it was called by some of the folks, who worked here in combat feeding Division, the Holy Grail of MREs.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: After five years of work implementing new technologies, facing obstacle after obstacle, the pizza was finally a success.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: So much so that it won the Major General Harold J. Green Innovation Award. The award is given out every year to new and innovative technologies from across the Army. It's usually won by teams that designed life saving tourniquets or ballistic combat shirts. Everyone on the team was shocked that their pizza won.
David: One of the other winners was for an Army scientist who developed improved body armor.
Lauren Oleksyk: Wow.
David: So that shows you how important this award is and the recognition of the achievement.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: And so do you think this was kind of a recognition that food is just as important as the weapons and the gear and everything else?
Lauren Oleksyk: Absolutely. It won the award. It was that important. Yep.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: But for Michelle, the award wasn't the true victory for her. It was the feedback from the warfighters.
Michelle Richardson: I was talking to a new recruit and he said that he had the shelf stable pizza and he really liked it. And, you know, a coworker said, "Oh, Michelle, developed that," and so there was a sense of pride there.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: But the innovation doesn't end at the pizza. They're continuing to build off the technological advancements of the pizza to improve other MREs. Inside DEVCOM’s Test Kitchen. We met with Matt Kaminski, the food technologist who developed an MRE dessert recipe alongside food scientist Tom Yang.
Matt Kaminski: I brought the flavor and he brought the food science aspect to it, and we were able to kind of create something.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: And that something was a shelf, stable cheesecake that tasted like a cheesecake.
Michelle Richardson: You can eat the cheesecake as is, and it's still moist and it's using intermediate moisture technology.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: That intermediate moisture technology is the same technology they used in the MRE pizza. So what's next for Michelle?
Michelle Richardson: I always wanted to work for NASA in the food arena, and so now what I do is I actually provide them with irradiated entrees 2 to 3 times a year. So something that I have made is out in space being consumed.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: To me, the creation of this pizza and the other MREs is a true scientific feat. And the folks who select the Major General Green Innovation Award obviously agree with me. But for Michelle, this was just another day at the office.
Kevin Pang: I don't know if you feel like numb to it because it's just like your job, but like it is so cool.
Michelle Richardson: I do. [LAUGHS] Because — yeah, when I tell it to other people they're excited and I'm thinking, oh, I thought this was just normal.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: But the rest of us know this isn't normal. It's extraordinary.
Alex Curran-Cardarelli: How did you all celebrate? Did you have a pizza party?
Michelle Richardson: No.
Dan Pashman: That’s an episode of the podcast Proof from America’s Test Kitchen. If you liked this episode, make sure to check out some of the other episodes from Proof. There’s an episode about the chicken tender capital of the country, and the first butter sculptor at the Iowa State Fair. Just search for Proof in your podcasting app.
Dan Pashman: I also want to mention that Proof Host, Kevin Pang, friend of The Sporkful, has new book out! He actually co-wrote it with his dad, Jeffrey Pang, and it’s called A Very Chinese Cookbook: 100 Recipes from China and Not China (But Still Really Chinese). I was happy to write a blurb for this book. It is really excellent and it available now, wherever books are sold.
Dan Pashman: On next week’s show, I speak with Tiffanie Barriere, an award-winning spirits and cocktail educator. She rose to fame in the bartending world for her work at One Flew South, a famous bar and restaurant that happens to be inside the Atlanta airport. She tells me about the unique challenges of working at an airport bar, and working on a new book she contributed to about African-American bars and bartenders. That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: While you’re waiting for that one, check out last week’s episode with Sohla El-Waylly. She tells me why her latest cookbook is like an antidote to culinary school and why she thinks culinary school is a scam — even thought that's where she did meet her future husband over a pile of chicken carcasses. That episode’s up now, check it out. Now back to Kevin one more time for the Proof credits.