War Fare

Surviving for 48 hours on a diet of "meals ready to eat" gave me a taste of military life—and a new respect for Tabasco sauce.

January 2002By Comments

THE EDITOR OF THIS MAGAZINE is trying to kill me.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking: “Come on, that can’t be right. Why, Evan Smith seems so nice, a family man and all. Whatever could make you think he has it in for you?”

But I swear it’s true. How else am I to interpret his twisted response to the story idea I suggested a few weeks ago, not long after I saw a mention in the newspaper that a Texas business—the Wornick Company, of McAllen—is one of three companies in the country that assemble and package portable meals for soldiers in places like Afghanistan?

“I’ve read that story before,” Evan said.

“You’ve read about the humanitarian food,” I told him, a bit testily. “The military meals are different. And they aren’t made just for the armed services. Ordinary people can get them at military-surplus stores and over the Internet. Our readers could get them to take on camping trips; they could stock them in their basement survival bunkers; they could . . .”

Suddenly a wicked little smile began to play about Evan’s lips. “Okay, Pat,” he said. “You can do this story, but I want you to eat nothing but MRE’s for forty-eight hours. Review them like you would a restaurant and write them up.” And that is how I found myself sitting on the floor of a local military-surplus store in front of a bin of “meals ready to eat” (MRE’s, as they’re generally called), trying to decide whether I wanted to shuffle off this mortal coil with menu number 2 (boneless pork chop) or menu number 17 (beef teriyaki).

Meal 1, dinner. I have snipped open the 8- by 12.5-inch, tan, heavy-duty plastic pouch containing menu number 9 and arranged the contents on my kitchen counter: a packet of beef stew (moist, not freeze-dried); two large crackers (equal to eight saltines); jalapeño-cheese spread; an airline-size packet of dry-roasted salted peanuts; presweetened, lemon-flavored instant-tea mix; powdered cocoa mix; a tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce; a package of M&M’s; salt; an MRE heater pouch (more about this later); a tan plastic spoon (but no fork or knife); two pieces of green Chiclet-type chewing gum; a book of matches; a moist towelette; and a packet of toilet paper (22 sheets).

I heat up the beef stew, which looks like less-chunky Dinty Moore and—guess what—tastes like it too. Actually, it’s not bad but awfully bland. What this baby needs is Tabasco. Ah, yes—perfect. Along with crumbled crackers, that makes it absolutely, uh, inoffensive. For a side dish, I squeeze some of the cheese spread, which is practically identical to Cheez Whiz, onto the bland, nearly salt-free cracker. I don’t feel like having two beverages, so I just mix up the cocoa with hot water, and it’s great. The peanuts and M&M’s are the reward for cleaning my plate. One meal down, six to go.

Personally, I would have preferred more stew and fewer side dishes, but I’m not the target audience. “These meals are geared for a nineteen-year-old soldier running around all day carrying an eighty-pound pack and a rifle,” says Jim Lecollier, a contracting officer with the Defense Supply Center, in Philadelphia, part of the Department of Defense. “They’re nutritionally balanced and have about 1,300 calories per meal.” The moist components, like the stew, are precooked; sealed in a pouch—sort of a flat bag—made of bonded layers of plastic, nylon, and aluminum foil; and heat-sterilized the same way canned goods are. This explains why most of the MRE entrées I tried tasted canned. Stored at 70 degrees, they can last for more than eight years (frightening thought), although the DOD keeps them for only three.

Meal 2, breakfast. The military does not offer breakfast-type MRE’s. Soldiers need protein and a lot of calories three times a day, but the thought of something like pork chow mein at seven in the morning is making me bilious. Luckily, my lunch package contains two Nature’s Valley peanut-butter granola bars, crumbly and good. Yesterday’s instant-tea mix is great hot; it doesn’t even taste like instant. Somehow I feel guilty for enjoying this meager repast; maybe I should put on camouflage to eat this or dig a foxhole in the back yard.

Even though breakfast isn’t offered, there is variety in the selection of regular entrées—24 choices, including 4 vegetarian ones. For a reality check, the Department of Defense conducts focus groups and taste tests. “We’ll take some new entrées to, say, a base in Texas and ask the troops what they like,” says Frank Johnson, a spokesman for the Defense Supply Center. Each year, the two least-popular meals are dropped and two new ones are added.

Meal 3, lunch. Bunch of wimps, that’s what they are. Nobody in the Texas Monthly editorial department will so much as take a bite of my MRE. “Oh, no, that’s fine,” they say. “Er, I think I hear my mother calling.” Are they clairvoyant? The cheese tortellini with tomato sauce is a dead ringer for something out of a Chef Boyardee can. Happily, a fresh bottle of Tabasco is at hand. The sauce manufacturer, the McIlhenny Company, of Louisiana, should get a medal of honor from the DOD. As for the rest, the applesauce is fine, but the peanut butter isn’t salty enough. By the way, the toilet paper comes in handy for blowing your nose when it’s running like a faucet after eating a meal drenched in Tabasco.

As I’ve opened each new pouch over the past day and a half, I’ve been struck by how reassured I feel when I pull out a brand-name product and how dubious I feel about the generic foods. Lecollier explains that the military makes a point of including major labels: “If you were a soldier out in the middle of nowhere, wouldn’t it make you feel better to open up a package and find something that reminded you of home?”

Meal 4, dinner. I’ve conned my friend Robert into having supper with me. We’ll see whether he’s still speaking to me after tonight. We are splurging and having the “grilled restructured chopped and formed” beefsteak and the cooked ham slice with “natural juices” and “smoke flavoring.” Robert decides that they’re actually edible sponges. I think they’re more like a better class of Spam. The beef comes, oddly, with canned-tasting Mexican rice. The side dish for the ham is innocuous noodles in butter-flavored sauce. We split his hot cocoa and my lemon pound cake. He skips his two Tootsie Rolls. The cake isn’t homemade quality, but relatively speaking, it’s quite good. For once, I’m not tempted to add Tabasco.

The Wornick Company, the private business that makes and packages meal components under contract with the Department of Defense, has been turning out MRE’s for about twenty years (it also makes microwaveable entrées for 7-Eleven). At its branches in McAllen and Cincinnati, Wornick produced approximately 780,000 cases of MRE’s—twelve meals to a case—for the military last year, a fourth of the 3.1 million cases made nationwide. (The rest were made by companies in Indiana and South Carolina.) The DOD expects to buy 3.1 million cases of MRE’s again this year.

Meal 5, breakfast. Oh, groan. I guess it’s presweetened tea and a granola bar again. I would kill for a latte.

Meal 6, lunch. Today is the day that I attempt to heat my meal—chicken with cavatelli (shell pasta)—with the chemical heater included in every pack. Since I nearly failed high school chemistry, the prospect of accidentally setting the office kitchen on fire is filling me with angst. After reading the instructions five times, I pour water into the special heater pouch, slip in the chicken with cavatelli (still in its package), fold the top over, and wait while—miracle of miracles—the promised water-activated chemical reaction occurs (don’t ask me to explain it). The now-warm chicken patty looks like pressed meat but tastes okay. And the pasta with its tomatolike sauce is considerably better than yesterday’s cheese tortellini; only half a tiny bottle of Tabasco is required to make it palatable. Today’s drink is a cherry Kool-Aid-type beverage (a little weird with the tomato sauce, but my standards are eroding fast). Dessert is more pound cake, topped with good blackberry jam squeezed from a plastic pouch. My après-dinner beverage is Taster’s Choice instant coffee. Skittles fruit-flavored candies stand in for chocolate truffles.

Meal 7, dinner. Oh happy day! The West Wing is on, and I’m having my last MRE, chili and macaroni, in front of the TV. The chili—which contains soy protein as well as ground meat—is not as bad as the ham slice but not as good as the beef stew (did I actually say the beef stew was good?). I’ve started measuring quality in TS units—the amount of the Tabasco sauce that’s required to render a meal pleasantly palatable. The chili mac gets a 1—a whole bottle. Dessert is—please, not pound cake again. I know there are other desserts out there—fudge brownies and fig bars, to name two—but I didn’t happen to get them.

What’s my final take on surviving for 48 hours on MRE’s? I’m still alive (take that, Evan Smith). I didn’t get indigestion. I gained half a pound. And I realized how much I take for granted certain things that are missing from these hardy combat-food packets, like a variety of vegetables and fruits. I also developed a profound appreciation for what our soldiers in the field endure, culinarily speaking. To them I raise a glass of presweetened, lemon-flavored instant tea and say, “God bless America.”

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