The military was hungry for new ways to store, ship, and eat cheese. All foodstuffs except meat were run through the drying chambers and squashed into bricks-fruits and vegetables, flour, potatoes, eggs, and cheese. As would become its historic pattern, the military funded or supported a variety of efforts, some of which were destined to die a quiet death and others that would garner glory, becoming wartime staples and the basis for future consumer products.
Unless a food has a strong and flexible internal structure-think cellulose, the long chains of sugar molecules that give plant cells their rigidity-it crumbles when it dries out, something food technologists call fines. One can imagine the first experiment in drying and pressing a proud block of Wisconsin cheddar: cheese dust. This ruled out eating reconstituted cheese out of hand in slices or chunks.
But for cooking, the granular form would be an advantage. The first real cheese powder was developed in 1943 by George Sanders, a USDA dairy scientist. Once sufficient water had been evaporated, the cheese was ground and dehydrated at a higher temperature. The final step was to form it into what the patent describes as cakes. That has meant many headaches for the Army Quartermaster Corps and the food processors who supply them. For emergency use in arctic and tropics, National Dairy laboratories developed a dehydrated, compressed cheese that keeps well anywhere and takes less shipping weight and space.
In the summer of 1945, Little Boy and Fat Man were detonated in Japan, ending the war and leaving the Quartermaster Corps with warehouses full of food as well as an elaborate manufacturing and distribution system still churning out goods for millions of troops. This would take years to redirect or dismantle. Fearful of the effect of the sudden withdrawal of its huge wartime contracts, the government propped up the dairy business first by buying their excess product and then, in some cases, by selling it back to them at lower prices. Perhaps instead of real cheese, the food corporations could mix in the cheap powder to add flavor.
These ration conversions inspired a flood of fledgling products, particularly in the new and growing categories of convenience and snack foods. In 1948 the Frito Company it merged with Frito Company founder Charles Doolin had been a military supplier, even building a facility in San Diego, where there is a naval base, to service his contracts. This venture helped put the company over the top as a nationwide business. Excerpted from Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the Military Shapes the Way You Eat, in agreement with Current, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
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