Military food scores on taste, variety, nutrition

They’re the first to awaken, the last to go to sleep and usually the last to get fed.

Wisconsin Army National Guard cooks provide a different kind of fuel and ammunition that’s just as important as bullets, mortars and diesel, perhaps even more so.

If it’s true that an army marches on its stomach, then Wisconsin National Guard units are well-equipped.

“How many restaurants do you know that can set up out in the woods at a moment’s notice and feed a couple hundred people?” said Maj. John Koeppen, the second in command of Oak Creek, Wis.-based Headquarters Co., 257th Brigade Support Battalion.

Though Army cooks over the decades have gotten a bad reputation — remember Hawkeye Pierce continually complaining about the food on the TV show “M*A*S*H”? — today’s military chow actually tastes good, offers a variety of menus, scores points for good nutritional value and has adapted to accommodate the calorie-conscious as well as folks in uniform who are vegetarian, diabetic, pregnant or can’t eat gluten.

The people who prepare the meals work long hours with little reward except for smiles on the faces of hungry soldiers, thanks from grateful troops and emptied pans signifying a particular entrée was a hit.

Award-winning cooks

There is one way Army cooks measure their value, though — by competing against each other.

Wisconsin Army National Guard units have fielded the best food service section in the entire Army National Guard in two of the last three years, competing against culinary teams from throughout the U.S. in the prestigious Philip A. Connelly Awards.

Winning the contest isn’t simply preparing a great meal. All teams are required to create a field mess operation and prepare the same meal, which means they’re judged on food safety, setting up kitchens and dining halls in tents and making sure food service equipment is properly maintained and clean. The food must taste great, too.

The Wisconsin Army National Guard had not participated in the Connelly awards for 16 years until the 257th Brigade Support Battalion decided to compete in 2013 and won with its menu of braised pork chops, mashed potatoes, creamy onion gravy, peas with mushrooms, Texas tortilla soup, salad and oatmeal raisin bars.

The following year, Portage, Wis.-based 132nd Brigade Support Battalion was named the Army National Guard’s best food service section with a menu that included spaghetti and meatballs and broccoli Parmesan.

“For this competition it’s the best of the best,” said Sgt. Kyle Edwards, a member of Headquarters Co., 257th Brigade Support Battalion. “This competition isn’t how great a garnish you can make. It’s how best you follow the standard. Everyone in the country follows the same menu and same score sheet.”

Edwards is the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s state food program manager, which means Monday through Friday he manages the food budget and training for the entire Army guard in the state. One weekend a month he drills with his unit in Oak Creek unless they’re at Fort McCoy for annual training.

The Army uses a three-week menu, meaning there are 21 different entrées that unit cooks can choose to make for their troops. Among the options: spaghetti and meatballs, beef stew, pork chops, barbecue pulled pork sandwiches, baked chicken, beef stroganoff, meatloaf, veal steaks, barbecue chicken and Reuben sandwiches.

The menu changes from year to year, with soldiers allowed to comment on their favorites and least favorites. New menu options and recipes are released by commanders at Fort Lee, Va., where all Army cooks are trained. Actually, they’re no longer called cooks; instead, the position is now culinary specialist, or in military parlance — “92 Golf.”

Controlled portions, costs

Portion sizes and recipes are strictly controlled by the Army with input from dietitians. Units can only make food from the approved list, but it’s up to individual groups to decide what to make depending on the mission requirements and taste buds of soldiers, said Edwards. While National Guard units from Southern states typically serve sweet tea and spicier dishes, in the Wisconsin National Guard “we add cheese to everything,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Koch of Brookfield, Wis.

Units are allowed to spend $4.20 per soldier per lunch and dinner and $2.18 for breakfast. That incorporates the basic daily food allowance and allows for local adjustments of food prices. Units buy their own spices with money left over in their budgets, which they bring to Fort McCoy when the group leaves their home station for training. A vendor — Reinhart Foodservice — is used at Fort McCoy, while at their home armories, Wisconsin National Guard units can either buy ingredients at local grocery stores or purchase from Reinhart.

While meals can make all the difference in a fighting force’s spirit, they also can swiftly bring down a battalion if E. coli bacteria, salmonella or some other illness spreads through the ranks.

“It’s cold, it’s rainy and you just got off a firing line and to get a nice hot cup of chili or hot meal in your gut is such a morale booster. If everything is going well and you don’t serve anything exceptional, it gets taken for granted, because it’s food,” said Edwards.

“But I get phone calls to my office when it’s not good, like raw spaghetti. A food-borne illness can cripple a force. Food safety is very important.”

On a recent day during weekend drill at Fort McCoy, the cooks for Headquarters Co., 257th Brigade Support Battalion prepared a breakfast of biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, hash browns, scrambled eggs and sliced fruit for 360 people. As soon as they cleaned up from breakfast, they heated 100 servings of tomato soup, 200 servings of chicken noodle soup — around 5 1/2 gallons — plus 12 gallons of coffee and another 12 gallons of hot water with packages of cocoa, which they transported to troops on firing ranges on the bitterly cold, windy day.

“If it were 70 and sunny, we’d send out Kool-Aid,” said Edwards. “But it’s April at Fort McCoy and if you’re lying on a concrete pad doing weapons training, you want something hot when you come off the line.”

Shortcuts when needed

It might be surprising to learn that many of the entrees are made from scratch, though cooks often rely on pans of lasagna or boxes of frozen cod cutlets to heat up for their troops. On this particular day, because several of the 257th’s cooks were on firing ranges qualifying on their weapons, Edwards chose a less time-consuming menu: fish cutlets already breaded and seasoned, rice, macaroni and cheese, mixed vegetables and chocolate chip cookies with store-made cream pies for dessert.

The 257th cooks knew roughly 180 people were likely to show up for dinner, and a computer program was used to plug in the number of diners and determine the correct amount of ingredients. All Army recipes are standardized to serve 100, but when the Oak Creek unit knew 360 people were coming for breakfast and half that amount for dinner, the cooks were able to quickly figure out how many packages of frozen vegetables to boil and how many cups of rice to steam.

Fortunately for the 257th cooks, on this day they could prepare meals inside a heated dining facility, known as a DFAC, and not in a containerized kitchen trailer, which opens out like a camper and can be towed anywhere into the far reaches of Fort McCoy.

Pfc. Pelaura Thorpe of Milwaukee and Pfc. Ermilia Arellano of Racine, Wis., joined Headquarters Co. in Oak Creek as cooks because they didn’t have many options for available jobs in the Army National Guard when they joined two years ago. Arellano could have been a mechanic, but she likes to cook at home, so she became a culinary specialist.

Like all Army cooks, they were sent to Fort Lee for training after they completed boot camp. They learned to make entrées and desserts from scratch, sanitation, food safety, knife skills, recipe measurements and Army regulations for food storage.

“A lot of people think, it’s just cooking. But it’s a lot more than that,” said Thorpe, adding that time management was a bit of a learning curve.

“We have to be up way earlier than everybody because we have to prepare everything before they get up for breakfast,” Arellano said.

They can’t relax between meals, either.

“It’s like — prep, cook, clean. Prep, cook, clean. We’re always cleaning. We’re cooking for a lot of people,” said Thorpe, who said her specialty is hash browns.

All in a day’s work

On this day the cooks started preparing breakfast at 3:30 a.m., which they served from 5:30 to 7:30. When they’re serving in the field in the containerized kitchen, they start at 2:30 a.m. Later in the morning they prepared the hot soup and coffee and then began prepping for dinner. Soldiers ate MREs for lunch and returned to the chow hall for dinner between 5 and 7 p.m.

In the afternoon, eight dozen chocolate chip cookies were baked as cooks placed 20 frozen cod cutlets on each aluminum pan, then covered them with plastic wrap and slid them into industrial-sized refrigerators. Edwards sliced 16 pies — French silk and cookies and cream. The salad bar was stocked. Thorpe scooped cups of rice from a box into large pans, boiling water separately and then ladling it over the kernels. As she carried the boiling water, Thorpe yelled “hot pan! hot pan!” per Army regulations.

Later the fish was placed in ovens and at 4:10 p.m. Edwards told them they had 50 minutes before the first ravenous customers would come through their line. Five-gallon containers of fruit punch and orange drink were made. As the fish came out of the ovens, food thermometers were used to check temperatures; a minimum of 145 degrees was required.

Cooks placed pans of fish, mac and cheese, steamed vegetables and rice on the serving station as bundled-up soldiers began to line up. First in line were Spc. Jocelyn Kopac and Pfc. Kendel Gustisha, both members of Whitewater-based A Co., 257th Brigade Support Battalion. They had been at Fort McCoy for six days and had spent this day outside loading ammunition in snow flurries.

“It made our week when I saw there were cooks. Whenever it’s cold out, it warms you up to get a hot meal,” said Kopac.

Gustisha had eaten a chicken and egg noodle MRE for lunch and was about to get a plate of fish and rice.

“It’s awesome. This feels so much better,” said Gustisha.

As Thorpe and Arellano dished up plates of steaming food for the soldiers, Kopac and Gustisha smiled and said thanks.