RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
An army marches on its stomach - so the saying goes. And for decades, U.S. forces in the field have relied on MREs - meal ready to eat - for sustenance. The compact, self-heating rations are not known for their Michelin stars. And the military has been working to improve the cuisine. The holy grail of MRE development - a palatable pizza. And now after years of research, it is on the menu. Michelle Richardson is a food technologist at the Natick Soldier Systems Center outside of Boston. She helped create the pizza and joins us now. Welcome to the program.
MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: What is so tough about creating an MRE pizza?
RICHARDSON: I think it's tough because the pizza is made up of different components. It has sauce, cheese, pepperoni. And then it has the crust. And they have different amounts of water. And so what happens is when - water likes to move and be equal in all parts. So if you had a crust that has a little bit of water and you put sauce on it that has a lot of water, then the water from the sauce is going to move to the crust, making it soggy. And the eating quality is not going to be there.
MONTAGNE: I mean, that can be easily solved with a very hot oven, you know, for a fresh pizza. But this pizza, this MRE pizza, has to withstand - what? - something like freezing floods, blazing heat, maybe even a 10-story drop to the ground. And it's got to last for how long? - 36 months?
RICHARDSON: Yup - 36 months at 80 degrees Fahrenheit without refrigeration.
MONTAGNE: OK. Well, explain to us how a soldier would prepare it.
RICHARDSON: He can eat it as is. All the MREs come with a flameless ration heater. So if he decides that he wants to have a hot pizza, he can actually heat it up. In less than 10 minutes, he'll have a hot piece of pizza.
MONTAGNE: Of course, the key thing here is the taste. And I have to say I looked on YouTube and saw a critique of the pizza (laughter). And actually, it got high marks.
RICHARDSON: Yes, it did. And we've done some field tests with the soldiers. We actually go there and ask them, you know, how does this look? How does it smell? How does it taste? And they ask - we actually ask them for ratings. And for the most part, it always has gotten high marks.
MONTAGNE: So how much of that is psychological or context? - which - when a soldier is hunkered down someplace and bites into his or her pizza, it probably tastes sublime, given where they might be.
RICHARDSON: Actually, this pizza taste very close to the pizza that you eat. But I think that when a soldier's out in the field, they don't expect the pizza to taste like they would get from a local pizzeria. So it's all about the expectation.
MONTAGNE: Well, you know, I'm wondering now if there's any chance you'd be developing a dehydrated beer - hey - to go along with it?
RICHARDSON: Yeah, I don't think they'll be putting any alcohol in the rations anytime soon.
MONTAGNE: Maybe a non-alcoholic dehydrated beer.
MONTAGNE: Now that you've conquered pizza, which was such a high bar for getting right, what's left? - like, shrimp scampi or chocolate souffle? What are your limits?
RICHARDSON: Well, we really don't have limits because we're always looking for innovative technology. But they do like a lot of desserts. And so we're currently looking at a technology that will dry a cheesecake down so that it would last longer, number one, and that it won't be as heavy. And it still has the eating quality of a cheesecake that you can get at home.
MONTAGNE: And the look.
RICHARDSON: Yes, definitely the look. It has a nice color and texture.
MONTAGNE: Michelle Richardson is a senior food technologist for the Army. She has helped develop a slice of pizza that can go in an MRE. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
RICHARDSON: Thanks for having me.
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