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Sacrificing taste for durability, longevity

  • Anastacia Marx de Salcedo will be discussing her book at the Dickinson Memorial Library on April 14. Jorge Salcedo/For The Recorder



Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo has experienced a variety of jobs. She has worked in public policy, edited and published an English-language newspaper in South America, and headed up an agency that specialized in communicating with hard-to-reach populations.

While wearing these various hats, she has embraced certain constants: doing qualitative research, writing clearly and entertainingly, and looking at the broadest picture possible. She has also been an avid cook throughout her life — a passion that led to an additional career as a food writer.

“I started just as a cook and then I started writing about some of the products that I was probably a little bit reluctantly using with my kids, which began maybe with Annie’s macaroni and cheese,” Marx de Salcedo said.

She soon became fascinated by the idea of applying basic food science to everyday products, developing an interest in what she refers to as industrial food — trying to understand the science and technology that are behind the foods in the supermarket.

This passion led her to contemplate a simple sandwich she made for her daughter.

“I started making a sandwich and thinking about the individual ingredients in that sandwich and realizing that they all had a very long shelf life,” she said. “And that was very odd.”

As she researched each of those ingredients — sandwich bread, deli meat, sliced cheese, and commercial mayonnaise — in what she called her “take down of the all-American sandwich.” Marx de Salcedo noticed frequent references in documents to the United States Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick.

“I asked myself, ‘Why is the Army at the origins of the extended shelf life for two of these ingredients?’... And that set me off,” Marx de Salcedo said.

What it set her off on was the path to her book, “Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat.” Marx de Salcedo will talk about her book on Friday, April 14, at 6:30 p.m. at the Dickinson Memorial Library on Main Street in Northfield.

The book serves several purposes and serves them well. To a large extent, it provides a basic history of combat foods beginning in ancient times. It offers a glimpse into the edible provisions allocated to soldiers from the Roman Empire to contemporary Iraq.

It also discusses major technological changes over the centuries, from the invention of canning to 20th- and 21st-century polymer packaging. Above all, as its subtitle indicates, it describes the ways in which the government’s desire for military preparedness has influenced foods nonmilitary Americans eat.

Through a series of contracts with universities and American food manufacturers, and through experiments conducted at the Natick Center — at which Marx de Salcedo spent a lot of time — the Army has helped create commercial foods that come in lightweight packaging and last a very long time.

These items include sandwich bread that doesn’t go stale for months, processed and powdered cheese, compressed meat that lasts much longer than it would in nature, energy bars and much more.

“The Natick Center is probably the world’s great expert on extending the shelf life of foods,” Marx de Salcedo told me. She estimated that as much as 50 percent of the food in grocery stores reflects some form of government intervention and creation. She added that few Americans are aware of the government’s role in food creation and other fields.

“It’s really happening all around us. It’s astounding how much the military has affected us as a society,” she said.

Marx de Salcedo doesn’t argue, in person or in her book, that the military’s intervention in our everyday eating habits is necessarily pernicious.

She just wants Americans to know that it exists — and to spend some time questioning whether priorities for troops in the battlefield should necessarily be the priorities of civilians, nutritionists and farmers. Durability doesn’t make food good in nutrition or taste.

An example of trade-off came in the form of an eight-month-old breakfast sandwich Marx de Salcedo sampled at the Natick Center.

“It was very good,” she said and then quickly corrected herself. “Well, not that good, but OK. But if you were really hungry ...”

I asked Marx de Salcedo how her research has changed the way she shops and cooks for her family.

“It’s really clear to me that some things are really just bad food items,” she replied. “One of these is energy bars, designed as an emergency ration that is lightweight, durable, and nutritionally dense.”

She explained that her personal fight against energy bars has been met with limited success.

“I put healthier things in the shopping cart. My kids add energy bars and cheez-its,” she admitted ruefully.

Marx de Salcedo has been more successful in the area of bread. One of the scarier portions of her book in my opinion describes the efforts by the government and manufacturers to design commercial loaves of bread that would rise very quickly and last for a very long time.

Those two imperatives have put bread on grocery-store shelves that features bizarre additives and has lost much of its taste and nutritional value. Marx de Salcedo tries whenever possible to purchase her sandwich bread from a bakery.

In general, she explained, she feels fairly comfortable with frozen foods, which have limited additives. “I think that’s a pretty good solution when you’re short of time.”

She added, “Those bags of salad greens that you can get in the supermarket, those actually came out of military technology which was developed in the 1960s. They involve combinations of the same gasses that are in the air. It’s so easy to open up that bag and get your family eating a salad.”

Elsewhere she sees a lot of unknowns.

“What became very clear to me was that with many of the items that we get in the supermarket, part of them is real food. This is combined with an extended shelf-live system. The issue becomes what’s in the shelf-life system. There is very little work that has been done so far on what that may or may not contribute to our health.”

During her talk at the Northfield Library, Marx de Salcedo will perform a show and tell of sorts.

“I’m probably going to bring my daughter’s lunch box and unpack it for the audience,” she said. “I will also bring a couple of grocery bags so you can find out what you’re eating that has military origins.”

Marx de Salcedo will be signing copies of her book at the event. Books will not be available for sale at the event, so be sure to bring your own copy of “Combat Ready Kitchen.” For more information on this event, call the library at 498-2455.

Tinky Weisblat is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook” and “Pulling Taffy.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.