Well over half a century ago the Aztec empire flourished in Mesoamerica, their soldiers marching on rations that included cacao (Coe 104). Some five hundred years later in North America, the United States military began developing chocolate rations which would stay in use from the beginning of World War II all the way into the 1990s. How is it that these two seemingly disparate cultures, separated by time, technology, and continents, chose to adopt cacao into their military rations?
There were fundamental parallels that cacao and chocolate had in the cultures and militaries of these two nations. Both nations were not growers of cacao themselves. The Aztecs relied on trade, or tribute, to acquire their cacao. US candy companies purchased foreign cacao from consolidators and became the conduit for chocolate in the States. This meant that cacao was distributed to the populace by a certain group. Whether it is an Aztec noble or a branded candy company distributing the cacao, they distribute meaning along with the chocolate. And those cultural messages are crucial to the morale of an army in wartime, it is meant to show the soldiers that they are honored, respected, and valued. This was transmitted, in part, through the nourishment their military command provides them with.
Cacao was a highly valued commodity in Aztec lands. The Aztec could not grow it themselves in their local frost-prone region of the Mexican highlands (Coe 79). But they eagerly sought it out through trade and tribute (Coe 79). Trade was done by a merchant class, the pochteca, who ventured out with their porters to trade for cacao beans as well as other products to bring back to the Aztec (Coe 79-80). Cacao was also acquired via tribute through the efforts of, or threat of efforts of, the Aztec military (Coe 79), and much was stockpiled in the hands of the ruling nobility (Coe 81-82).
Chocolate was also used to supply the Aztec military. Soldiers on the move were given ground cacao as a supplement to their rations (Presilla 19). Presilla mentions that this was “presumably easier to carry and prepare than whole beans requiring processing” (Presilla 19). Another important factor could be cacao’s resistance to spoilage over long periods of time. Armies of other empires have starved because they have extended too far and for too long outside the ability supply them with rations. For a more recent example, during the Spanish-American War, for every one soldier that fell in battle there were fourteen that died from insufficient provisioning or food spoilage (Hamilton 328), in part due to their dependence on herds of animals for food (Hamilton 327), and the vulnerability of meat to spoilage. While not a complete food source, the Aztecs’ ground cacao was light, non-spoiling, calorific, mildly stimulating, and could at least slow down if not prevent starvation on extended campaigns. As a supplement to the Aztecs staple ration of toasted tortillas (Coe 73) it fed the successful, mobile army of the warrior class.
Chocolate had a special place within Aztec culture, being both a sign of status and a reward. Its availability was funneled through the merchant and noble classes, and served as a payment and an honorific to other classes. Two thousand containers a day of chocolate drinks were given to Motecuhzoma’s guards (Coe 82). And they were not the only soldiers receiving cacao (Coe 82). Victorious soldiers were invited into the palace to be honored by the nobility, which included the drinking of cacao (Presilla 18-19). Chocolate’s place in the Aztec culture and consequently in the Aztec military was greater than its literal value through scarcity. In The True History of Chocolate, the Coes postulate that chocolate’s entrance into the military sphere may stem from the Aztecs associating it with the heart and blood, and their calling it a “right and true potion for Aztec warriors” (Coe 104).
Six hundred years later in North America, cacao had also found a valued place in US food culture. Cacao was not native to North America any more than it was to the Aztec’s Mesoamerican highlands. However, chocolate had become a widespread food treat in North America, associated with comfort, love, a special occasion, and any other identity the candy companies’ advertisers could attach to it. Chocolate was widely available, though wartime reduced its availability on the civilian market.
By World War II, the US’s army was capable of traveling vast distances very rapidly, and portable food was also essential to their success. In July 1936 the US Military’s Subsistence Research Laboratory (SRL) was formed to develop new rations for the US army (Hamilton 328). Initially they had a tiny staff and a $300 budget for researching rations (Hamilton 328). A, B, C, and K rations were developed over time, all designed to nourish troops, some with the facilities of cooking and refrigeration, some already fully prepared and ready to eat. These rations often included candy bars, such as chocolate bars, as treats.
While the Hershey Company was interested in the lucrative military rations business before SRL’s founding (Hamilton 329), but Hershey’s began working with the SRL in 1937 when the company was approached by Captain Paul P. Logan of the US Quartermaster Corps who asked them to help make “a kind of survival ration” (Burger). It was not until 1939 that Field Ration D was fully approved (Ration D Bars).
(Right: Jacobson, image of a twelve-pack of D Rations)
The D Ration or “Logan Bar” named after the aforementioned Logan (DeArmond 2), was a chocolate bar, but not a candy bar. Logan told Samuel Hinkle, an industrial chemist working for the Hershey Company, that the bar should taste “about like a boiled potato” (Bowers 10). The ingredients were “chocolate liquor, sugar, skim milk powder, cocoa butter, oat flour, vanillin” (Ration D Bars). These bars were designed to be light, easy to carry emergency food, allowing soldiers to remain mobile for extended periods of time without the need of resupply. What sets the D ration apart from the A, B, C, and K rations are that D Rations were intended to not taste good. It had to be edible but not desirable. It was important that soldiers weren’t tempted to eat their emergency rations until necessary. Despite this, D Rations were sometimes included as a supplement to or included in other rations such as the K Ration. Later in 1943 Hershey’s developed the tropical chocolate bar which was designed to resist extreme heats of up to 120F (Hershey’s Tropical Bars). Incidentally a version of this tropical bar would be brought aboard the Apollo 15 mission, probably the farthest a chocolate bar has traveled (Hershey’s Tropical Bars).
(Left: Jacobson, Image of a Tropical Ration)
Hershey’s was not the only chocolate company involved in developing and providing military rations. Nor was it the only candy company. For instance Mars, Inc. sold a variety of products, some of which, including M&Ms, were sold exclusively to the military, at least until the end of the war (Nieburg).
(Left: Mirrer, M&M propoganda poster)
The SRL consulted with these companies extensively (Backer 52). These companies got some input in the specification of the food that the army received. But candy manufacturers managed to exempt themselves entirely from specifications for sales via commissary (Backer 65-66). Both through the rations and through the discretionary candy available for purchase by soldiers in the commissary, the power of branding in this captive market was something the candy companies competed hard for. And even the candies in rations were allowed a bit of variety as long as they met certain specifications (Backer 66).
The SRL not only was making military rations, but also was shaping ”the consumption of food” in the culture at large (Backer 52). The SRL researcher’s perception of what constituted an “American” food was determining what the soldiers were provided (Backer 52). When the SRL gave soldiers a HERSHEY candy bar in their K rations, or a D Ration, or sold branded items in their commissaries, they were defining and promoting what was an American food. This also shaped others’ perception of an American food. Around the world people were exposed to US soldiers eating branded foods and discarding wrappers, etc. Finally it also shaped what the American industry could produce for civilians. For a company to get a contract it had to be able to produce food to specification in large quantity, which meant, for practicality, when a factory produced food for civilians it would be of a similar kind. Chocolate became strongly identified with US soldiers through WWII, and US brands traveled with them.
In turn, the SRL, was also influenced by the tastes of soldiers. In the words of one of the SRL’s consultants Dr. Ancel Keys: “A ration that will not be eaten is worse than useless” (Hamilton 333). After long periods of consuming K Rations, soldiers were eating only the items the liked, the chocolate bar for instance, and discarding the rest (Risch 186). This created a three way cultural interaction where the SRL had to meet the requirements of the Army, the limitations of the companies, and the tastes of the soldiers. But as the focal point, the SRL also had direct influence on all three. Companies would have to adjust their manufacturing infrastructure; the Army had to adjust its specifications; and soldiers in the end would have to eat at least in some part what was given to them.
Despite all the complication involved with ration-making, Hershey’s was fairly successful with the D Ration. Over the course of WWII more than three billion D Rations were produced and the Hershey Company received five ‘E’ awards (Ration D Bars) which are awarded to plants that have met and surpassed expectations and obstacles (Army-Navy E Award). However, while the D Ration and Tropical Rations variations would continue to be produced into the early 1990s, the entering of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) into service in 1981 (Doona 15.2) began a slow replacement process.
During World War Two, so much chocolate was being used by the military that chocolate was harder to acquire for civilians (Jacobson). This is illustrated by a 1944 Wall Street Journal Commodity Letter which, when commenting on a large shipment of cacao arriving in the US, states: “Civilians won’t find chocolate more plentiful, but the rise in shipments is expected to stave off a further cut in home front quotas” (Commodity Letter). The result is a kind of artificial hierarchy where the military and those most able to afford it have easier access to chocolate than civilians.
The type of battles fought by the US in WWII and by the Aztec empire could not have been more different, in everything from equipment, to objectives, and scale. But cacao, in the form of chocolate or ground cacao, was considered a necessary source of sustenance for these soldiers separated by 600 years and a continent. This is despite chocolate’s seemingly contradictory place within the two societies. The Aztec held cacao as a drink for the rich and powerful, and the beans were used as a currency (Presilla 18). In the States, industrialization made sweet chocolate relatively easy to acquire and eat, while chocolate nevertheless accumulated special meaning via corporate advertising and its association with the military during WWII.
In both cultures, chocolate had a dual purpose of both being ration and reward. Especially when you consider cacao’s monetary value in the Aztec society, their soldiers were, in a sense, consuming money. For American soldiers the D Ration may not have been much of a reward, but the chocolate bars included in other rations were intended as treats and were valued as familiar comfort from home, perhaps the most familiar food in their ration. One of the issues with the K and C Ration was that it required a instructional video for the soldiers to understand how to use some of the unfamiliar ingredients (Hamilton 335). Chocolate bars add a certain level of familiarity to these sometimes unfamiliar food substances. Additionally, these candy bars would be available to be purchased from commissaries and were sought after.
As quoted previously, in The True History of Chocolate, Coe suggests that chocolate carried ritual significance for the Aztecs (Coe 104). It is more than a ration; it has a place in the creation of morale. Advertising did not present US military rations as having any overtly mystical associations, but they were branded as special power foods. For example in the short propaganda film Food for Fighters,
emphasis is made on the scientific efforts that went into developing the meals as well as the nutritional value of it, all while demeaning the value of the Axis forces’ foods (Food for Fighters). Nestle ran an ad campaign on behalf of their rations for the US Military which produced this poster touting the value of chocolate as a ration (Chocolate is a Fighting Food!). And, while postulation is not fact, as Coe acknowledges, given the amount of ritual surrounding chocolate it is not an absurd conclusion that the Aztecs intended a morale lifting result from the honors bestowed by cacao.
(Left: Chocolate is a Fighting Food!, Vintage Ad Browser.)
All armies require good morale to be effective. In The Quartermaster Corps: Organization, Supply and Services, Erna Risch describes how important food is to morale: “The regular serving of palatable food is the greatest single factor in building and maintaining high spirit and morale” (Risch 174). While military use of cacao/chocolate offered a great deal of logistical utility and efficiency, the Aztec and US militaries used cacao/chocolate as rations, rewards, and also a sort of power food, distributing special status upon their soldiers.
These messages of status were channeled through the distributors of the resources, Aztec nobility and US chocolate industry brands in conjunction with the SRL. And thus, chocolate, a non-native food product became an essential wartime ration, delivering not only nutrition but also positive messages of strength, support and honor to soldiers 600 years apart.
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