A Can-Do Attitude

During World War II, some MIT scientists turned their talents to preserving apple pie.

  • by Hannah Krakauer, SM ’12
  • June 19, 2012
  • Food, glorious food: Harold “Doc” Edgerton, SM ’27, ScD ’31, photographed these World War II soldiers eating in a mess tent in 1944.

In September 1943, there was a flurry of activity in MIT’s biological-engineering research labs. In the midst of battle in North Africa, 20 German prisoners had been taken by American forces. They were first shipped to a holding facility in Cameron, Virginia, and then to researchers in Building 35 at MIT. Starting up spectrometers and microscopes for a thorough analysis, the scientists eagerly examined their captives: 20 samples of German military rations—ingredients, main courses, and desserts.

This was part of a wartime project at MIT that happened just down the street from the physics labs where scientists created battle-winning radar technology and the chemistry labs where researchers analyzed chemicals for the Manhattan Project. From July 1942 to October 1945, MIT scientists commissioned by the Office of the Quartermaster General in the U.S. War Department researched and designed rations for soldiers. Researchers in the burgeoning food technology program put their academic work on the back burner, throwing themselves fully into finding the best ways to feed troops overseas.

The researchers first turned to designing a more condensed soda cracker, a concentrated food product for mountain troops, and an all-purpose emergency food capable of sustaining an isolated individual for an indefinite period of time. In addition to creating the foods, they devised new ways of protecting them from combat conditions. They investigated how to insect-proof containers, dry whole eggs for high-temperature storage, and stabilize milk powder.

But this ultra-practical research made up only a small portion of their work. While they strove to maximize calories per gram of highly stable nourishment—the only real, tangible measure of their success—the researchers also put a great deal of creativity and ingenuity into creating foods more palatable than mere ration crackers. During the war, they focused on developing entire meals that could be cooked, packaged, and frozen. This broadened the variety of foods the scientists could send off to ships and base camps equipped with freezers, and it meant they could address more than just the physical needs of soldiers abroad. Now the diet of the American fighting overseas could resemble what his wife or mother might have served him: beef steak, beef stew, pot roast, roast beef hash, creamed chicken, apple brown betty. Large swaths of MIT’s military food research records read like cookbooks from the 1940s, complete with instructions for browning the meat and stewing the vegetables until tender. This easy familiarity is disrupted only in the final step of each recipe, which calls for processing the finished meal in an industrial-strength freezer.

In their effort to give soldiers something that reminded them of home, the researchers also developed a range of canned comfort foods, including meat loaf, bread, and scrapple (a mixture of sausage and cornmeal). Perhaps their most ambitious project of all was to tackle making a canned apple pie that would give the real thing a run for its money. Soggy crust was not an option, regardless of the harsh conditions required to preserve the treat. The researchers attempted two crust arrangements within the can—one version with crust only on the top and bottom, and then another in which it also lined the sides. They experimented with different lengths of time between baking the pie in the can and processing it further, to see if letting the crust set before preserving would help maintain the flakiness.

The results were inconclusive. But the researchers ended their report by optimistically asserting that a high-quality canned apple pie seemed possible, given a new, as-yet-undeveloped recipe.

Underneath the researchers’ highly technical language—the discussions of albumin pH and vitamin B fortification—is an unmistakable soft touch. They spent months and sometimes years tinkering and experimenting and reëvaluating in order to give a young man—cold, scared, and far from home—not just what his body needed but what his homesick spirit craved. Soda crackers and subsistence rations were one thing. But crisp, flaky-crusted apple pie? Now that was a wartime assignment worthy of pursuit.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Listen in as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.