In her award-winning book "H Is for Hawk," Helen Macdonald tells the story of training a vicious predator after her father's death.
Pizza is an American favorite, with 93 percent of Americans eating pizza at least once a month. In Natick, Mass., researchers are using cutting-edge technology to creating state-of-the-art slices for the U.S. military.
From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Bruce Gellerman of WBUR delivers our report.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, on the lighter side of things, Super Bowl Sunday is always a big day for pizza makers. Pizza Hut and Dominos alone will sell nearly 30 million slices during the game. Just regular slices, though, not the state-of-the-art slices that they're making for the U.S. military out in Natick, Massachusetts. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WBUR's Bruce Gellerman delivered a report.
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BRUCE GELLERMAN, BYLINE: You'd think he would have figured it out in basic training. But no, Napoleon had to learn it the hard way. In 1812, his invasion of Russia reached as far as Moscow. But Napoleon's supply lines were stretched too thin. With his army starving, he beat a hasty retreat too late. Hundreds of thousands of French troops died of hunger.
DAVID ACCETTA: An army marches on its stomach, so you have to feed the soldiers.
GELLERMAN: U.S. Army combat vet David Accetta should know. For a quarter of a century, Accetta ate Army chow while serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo.
ACCETTA: You can't expect soldiers to move on the battlefield, move to the battlefield without having the right kind of food at the right time.
GELLERMAN: These days, David Accetta is public affairs officer at the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center. It's a mouthful, perhaps appropriate, because here, in a huge test kitchen, researchers whip up foods for future warriors fighting on land, sea and the air.
MICHELE RICHARDSON: If you want to walk over here, we can show you.
GELLERMAN: Senior food technologist Michele Richardson leads the way past researchers in white lab coats, armed with clipboards who peer into pots and pans.
RICHARDSON: OK. This is a pilot plant and this is where we do our product development.
GELLERMAN: Nobody knows the GI's GI tract like the military food techs at Natick. For 50 years they've been developing special MREs - meals ready to eat - foods for special missions. New are the first-strike rations - low weight, nutritionally dense, high-energy finger foods designed to sustain troops on the front lines - in jungles, deserts and mountaintops. To pass muster, foods have to stay fresh and have a shelf life of three years at 80 degrees, and six months at a hundred without refrigeration.
RICHARDSON: We do have a shelf-stable bagel, and it's actually part of our first-strike ration. And so we have an asiago cheese, we have a plain. We also have a blueberry bagel.
GELLERMAN: Creating a first-strike bagel was tough. But the real challenge, the holy grail of military MREs and the most requested, is pizza. It's deceptively simple: dough, sauce and cheese. But senior food tech Michele Richardson says making a slice to military specs has been elusive.
RICHARDSON: When you combine all of these ingredients, they all have different characteristics. Sauce has more water than dough. So if you put a sauce on a dough and it has too much moisture, the moisture is going to migrate to the dough, making it very soggy. So one of the things we have to do is manipulate what we call the water activity by adding specific ingredients to the dough, to the sauce, get a specialized cheese. And we have to make sure these water activities complement each other.
GELLERMAN: A key to perfecting pizza that stays fresh even after sitting on a shelf for a thousand days was the invention of a proprietary packet filled with iron filings. It soaks up moisture and rusts so the pizza doesn't become a moldy Petri dish. Again, David Accetta of the Natick Research Development and Engineering Center.
ACCETTA: We have professional taste-testers, but we also test extensively with the soldiers because they're the ones who are going to be consuming these, out in the field, in the cold, in the rain, sitting on a mountainside in Afghanistan. And it has to be good and it has to be something that they're going to want to eat and enjoy eating.
GELLERMAN: For the military, food is far more than fuel. It's a taste of home, a morale booster. In Pentagon speak, a force multiplier that can amp up a fighter's effort. And because variety is the spice of life, especially at the front, the prototype pizza comes in plain cheese or topped with pepperoni. It's made from turkey, says senior food technologist Michele Richardson.
RICHARDSON: There are some war fighters who do not want to eat pork. There are some countries that won't allow you to bring pork in. So turkey is an option. It's just an alternative.
GELLERMAN: You guys think of everything.
RICHARDSON: Yeah. We kind of have to.
GELLERMAN: This smells good, actually.
The Army will begin field-testing its pseudo-pepperoni pizza in August. I got an early sampling.
It's good. Not big enough though.
RICHARDSON: It's not big enough?
GELLERMAN: It's not big enough.
RICHARDSON: Oh, yeah. That's not the final. I'm just doing the product development. Eventually, this is going to transition to an end-item team, and they're going to determine the size and shape and things like that.
GELLERMAN: And, of course, if you're going to make pizza for the military, you have to deliver. David Accetta.
ACCETTA: These may be airdropped by parachute in remote location, or they may be dropped from a helicopter from an altitude of, you know, 50 feet without a parachute.
GELLERMAN: Pizza a la Pentagon. Hopefully, our troops will love it. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Bruce Gellerman.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMORE")
DEAN MARTIN: (Singing) When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.