PEORIA -- Food preparation in the U.S. Army has come a long way since the metal trays that had different colors of slop around the plate.
Now, soldiers can expect to eat such items as bison meatloaf with cactus, corn O'Brien and a fancy kind of brownie/cookie mix. And they can expect it piping hot even if it's cold and raining outside.
That's the dish that some 30 reservists with the 724th Transportation Co. hope will earn them top honors in the Army's 50th annual cook-off. The Philip A. Connelly award is given to the top units that are the "personification of food service excellence executed by culinary specialists resulting in the presentation of extremely gratifying dining experiences across all Army food service platforms in garrison and field environments." The unit should find out this spring if it won.
Second Lt. Andy Hegg, the 724th executive officer, said the 724th is in the final round of the annual competition, having survived two earlier rounds and beaten out about a dozen other units. Win this weekend, and its cooks are the best in the Army Reserve. That score will then be matched up against the winners in the active duty units and the National Guard to see who are the best.
It's like an Iron Chef but in the mud, in tents and with a kitchen that also doubles as the serving area. Two military judges and one civilian judge grade the teams on their food, the preparation and the cleanup. Sam Stanovich, who operates Firehouse Subs franchises in the Chicago area, said it's important to the military's ability to respond to have good food.
"Food is a big part of the morale and welfare of a soldier," he said. "Feed a soldier well and they will fight better."
To that end, the platoon of soldiers "deployed" to a farm just south of Hanna City, set up their tents, established a series of "fighting positions," lingo for fox holes, and went about their business. It's a way, says Sgt. 1st Class Terea Thompson, the farm's owner and also a 724th member, to do their jobs more realistically. The mini tent city was complete with a dining hall, an administration tent for logistics and a tent for cleanup and dish washing.
"You can do a lot of things here that you can't do on a military installation, such as digging," she said. "This is a way for us to do things in way that is more like when we go downrange."
The idea behind the drill is to get back to basics. Iraq and Afghanistan had their large, sprawling bases that had modern dining halls and even fast food chains operating out of storefronts. But with possible adversaries in the Far East and possibly in the Balkans, the need for the military to get back to expeditionary or mobile operations was critical, the reservists said.
The kitchen, in a tent, was raised about five feet off the ground. Inside were stoves, heaters, ovens and a half-dozen cooks making bread, desserts, meatloaf and corn.
As for the cactus? That's a nod to their higher command, the 103rd Sustainment Command, which is based in Des Moines. The 103rd was originally an infantry division back in World War II and mustered many men from the southwestern United States.
Andy Kravetz can be reached at 686-3283 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @andykravetz.
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