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Feeding the body and the mind – a history of food in the Swiss Armed Forces

Despite Switzerland's reputation for being a cheese-loving country, dairy products were absent from Swiss soldiers' meals for much of its military history. Nevertheless, it was the Swiss Armed Forces that would help fondue to become a national dish.

14.06.2019 | Manuel Bigler, Library Am Guisanplatz

A chef wearing a white shirt and matching apron, cutting a block of cheese into smaller pieces. (Source: EMC)
Cheese was finally added to soldiers' meals in the 20th century. (Source: EMC)

To keep troops ready for action, proper nutrition is obviously key. However, 150 years ago soldiers had to make do with a very one-sided diet. Their meals' nutritional value and tastiness would improve gradually over time – and so did the general health and mood of the soldiers serving in the Swiss Armed Forces.
In 1870, every soldier received a ration of at least 300 grams of beef and 750 grams of bread – and this every day of his service. From 1880, even more meat was added to soldiers' meals, but their rations also became more varied with the addition of 150 grams of so-called 'vegetables' – an at the time loosely defined term that included legumes, pasta, rice and potatoes. Another new addition detailed in the regulations was that servicemen now received 15 grams of coffee and sugar, as well as a whopping 30 grams of salt per day.
A balanced diet and tasty recipes to boost troop morale
On top of a lack of variation, soldiers' meals may not have tasted particularly good, either. In 1900, the armed forces for the first time issued instructions on how their food should be prepared. And so the foundation was laid for what would grow to be today's extensive armed forces cookbook (regulation 60.006).
Interestingly enough, the old armed forces regulations made no mention of a regular use of dairy products, even though cheese, for example, had for centuries been appreciated by militaries because of its preservability.
It was not until around 1930 that the armed forces, responding to mounting outside pressure, started to improve the nutritional value of their meals – for example by adding more vegetables and fruit to their meal plans at the initiative of Dr F. Bircher.

How fondue became a national dish
At the same time, the Swiss Cheese Union was actively promoting dairy products. When cheese exports collapsed during the Great Depression, the union launched a national fondue programme, encouraging Swiss soldiers to try this melted cheese dish.
And with that, fondue took the leap over the Röstigraben and began to develop into a Swiss staple, with different regions putting their own spin on the recipe. The spread of this dish had another interesting and at the time rarely seen effect: it brought men to their kitchen stoves, where they would prepare fondue for their families – a meal they had grown to love during their military service.
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