In 1943, the war in the Pacific was in full swing. Japanese forces had swept across Asia, invading The Philippines, Thailand, Burma and Singapore and engaging in a brutal conflict against America’s major continental ally, China. Outgunned and out-maneuvered by the far superior Japanese military, China were dependent on American aid to keep the fight alive. However, surrounded on all sides by Japanese controlled territory, it became increasingly difficult for America to smuggle supplies through to the ailing Chinese fighters. The Americans needed an edge. In desperation, they turned not to weaponry, but to baking.
George Kistiakowsky was a Ukrainian immigrant and a chemical engineering expert. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he innovated several new types of plastic explosive and became a key member of the Manhattan Project that designed and built the world’s first nuclear weapons. When it came to thinking creatively about bombs, there was no one better. It was to Kistiakowsky that the military turned to solve their smuggling conundrum.
Almost by accident, Kistiakowsky noticed that a by-product from one of his other explosives could be packaged as a fine, grey powder. The substance, known as HMX, was light, gritty and highly incendiary after exposure to heat. Intrigued by the possible applications for such a substance, Kistiakowsky began to experiment with a variety of transportation methods, hoping to discover some way to get HMX to the Chinese. Then he noticed a packet of pancake batter.
The contents of the box were a perfect match for the powdered HMX. This was all the inspiration Kistiakowsky needed, and he quickly mixed his new explosive in with regular bread flour, ready for the transportation. The military were hugely enthusiastic. After the pancake batter brand which had inspired the scientist, the top secret project became known by the affectionate code name, “Aunt Jemima”.
The beauty of Aunt Jemima was that it could still be used to make an array of baked treats. Everything from loaves of bread to muffins was used to disguise the secret explosives as it was smuggled across the border into China. Numerous Japanese searches reported nothing suspicious, and approximately 15 tonnes of Aunt Jemima was used without ever being detected.
To make the explosive bread even less conspicuous, it could even be eaten. However, this was only a feature of later batches, as too much unrefined HMX did not agree with the digestive system. One contemporary account tells of a Chinese baker who, convinced Americans were trying to con him out of a delicious freshly baked batch of muffins, proceeded to eat a whole batch. The consequent bowel trouble nearly killed him.
Fortunately for bakers and soldiers alike, the formula was soon perfected and Aunt Jemima could soon be used without fear of digestive reprisal. Today, the success of Aunt Jemima has been relegated to all but the most obscure history books. Nevertheless, the story of George Kistiakowsky just goes to show how a little bit of culinary imagination can have an impact far beyond the kitchen. Modern generals would do well to remember that it’s perfectly possible to make bread, as well as war.