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The Morale Meal: When Good Food Is A Bad Omen

How do you win a war? I’m certainly not a military expert, but before Russia invaded Ukraine, I would have assumed that it all came down to military might. However, Ukraine’s impressive resistance against one of the most powerful militaries in the world is an indication of the power of morale. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s show of courage and conviction—what Gen. David Petraeus described as “Churchillian leadership” —is undoubtedly to thank for inspiring some of the bravery that the Ukrainian military, and now, normal citizens, have displayed as their country is plunged into chaos.

But as powerful as eloquent speeches and impassioned proclamations can be, humans (and soldiers) cannot be fed on words alone. Napoleon said, “An army marches on its stomach.” In fact, he offered a prize to whoever could preserve food well enough that he could feed it to his troops “when an invaded country was not able or inclined to sell or provide food.” Nicolas François Appert developed the method of canning just fifteen years later, bagging the prize. During World War II, the culinary landscapes of several countries completely shifted due to rationing, which was put in place to ensure that military personnel abroad received the sustenance they needed to win the war. As David W. Brown for The Atlantic writes, “food and war have a fascinating history together.”

The money that governments pump into their militaries doesn’t just pay for weapons research and the generally measly salaries of those who are tasked with defending their countries—it also pays for food: a lot of it basic and utilitarian, but some better than you may assume if you’ve never frequented a military mess hall. These meals, aptly named “morale meals,” have been shown to have a tangible effect on morale by supplying soldiers with a sense of comfort and nostalgia for home, reminding them what they’re ostensibly fighting for. But for some, a good meal served up by Uncle Sam can have ominous implications.

Just a few days after Russia’s invasion on Ukraine began, TikTok user @chellmaticc posted a video of the food that the United States Army was serving. Fried chicken, oxtails and even crab legs were shown stacked on trays in front of soldiers who were marveling at their good luck. The voice in the video says, “This shit is an anomaly. I ain’t never seen no… crab legs at basic training.” But since the video went viral, other TikTok users have stitched the original creator, sharing their own experiences with so-called “morale meals.”

One user, @babayaga1983, gave his camera a knowing smile and said, “We call that a ‘morale meal.’ Give it… well, when we had ours, it was about two weeks later. If you know, you know.” Another user, @heyheychristinarenee, simply said, “We’re about to go to war.” Other videos and hundreds of comments seem to agree that an extravagant meal in a mess hall can indicate that troops are nearing a deployment. And considering that security in Europe hasn’t been as threatened as it is now since the Cold War, it clearly has some people worried.

I talked to Craig Kelley, who served as a Marine Infantry Officer, who told me that in his experience, morale meals were not uncommon. He said, “If you’re getting a morale meal, you know, something that’s genuinely outside of the expectation range, and… there’s no particularly exciting reason that you’d have some sort of special meal, but folks double down on giving you this, it may very well be because this is the last time, or getting close to the last time, they’ll be able to feed you the way they’re able to feed you now.”

Partially, he says, this is due to logistics. When troops are on the move, it’s often difficult to prepare hot meals that are actually enjoyable. Kelley told me, “There is that whole history of getting a hot meal before you go out on an operation because once you start moving, it’s very difficult to get the same sort of attention to food that you can get in a more static base. And especially if you’re moving fast and your supply lines are difficult, you’re going to be eating often the MREs, and those get old really, really fast.”

But it’s about more than just filling bellies. Being fed, and being fed well, can give troops a boost of moral support: a tool that might be largely intangible but is undoubtedly powerful. As Kelley says, “The idea that someone thinks that what you’re doing is special enough to put in a little extra effort, maybe a lot of extra effort, to get you some food that’s special means a lot… We eat, we all eat, we all know that when someone does something special in the nourishment arena for us—it’s not just a bag of chips, someone put a little extra effort into making me feel welcome—that, more than anything else, is what’s appreciated.”

As of the time of writing, the United States doesn’t appear to be doomed to war just yet, but in Kyiv where active warfare now dominates the lives of the military and civilians alike and people are just trying to survive in extremely perilous conditions, the idea of the morale meal, a beautifully and lovingly prepared meal destined for those on the front lines, has not yet succumbed to absolute practicality.

In a video posted by Brut Media, civilians, including a woman named Daria, are using the basement of a restaurant as a bomb shelter. She and eleven others are supporting the fighters by cooking. “I just want to explain why we are doing such amazing, beautiful food during the war. It’s because we are here in the basement of a restaurant and they have the provisions for cooking these exact things,” she says as she brushes what appears to be an egg wash over intricately twisted balls of dough. “This is, I don’t know, a luxury maybe, at some point. But we are doing this very well and using the best ingredients here because we want to feed our soldiers and bring them joy.”

Daria’s service to the people in her country serves as a reminder of the power and strength of feeding and caretaking. Fighting isn’t the only action that wins a war—care, compassion and nourishment are invaluable weapons that may not often appear in history books but are always there on the front lines. The food she makes—not just the basics, not just what is required to power a tired but resolute body, but the luxurious, the sensual, the joyous—is a testament to the power of food, a power that is sometimes overshadowed by the darker elements of the world.

But I have to wonder: Will with specter of war change how the people of Kyiv see their favorite dishes? Will these foods, like crab legs for some in the American military, one day be enjoyed with a sense of unease for what is to come?