I know this guy who used to be in the U.S. Rangers. I don’t know if this is a soldier humour thing or what, but he recently gave the missus and I each our very own Meal, Ready to Eat. The MRE is the standard prepared field ration of the U.S. Military, eaten by soldiers when they have no access to a kitchen.
I’m told by various former military types I know that the Canadian equivalents, the Individual Meal Packs, aren’t too bad but that American MREs are disliked by many of their soldiers, perhaps unfairly so. They’ve earned such unkind nicknames as Meals Rejected by Ethiopians, Meals Rejected by the Enemy, and the ominous Meals Refusing to Excrete. The logistics people at the DoD have been trying to improve them for years, with varying levels of success.
Well it’s Monday, and I’m looking for something interesting to eat for lunch. I think the time is right — I’m going to eat one of the MREs and see if it’s really that bad.
Arranged just so, the cute little packages are like a tiny army of nutrition capable of supplying me with about 900kCal. My MRE is labled “Meat Loaf with Brown Onion Gravy”. Inside is a shiny, unmarked foil package of what feel like crackers, a box containing the Meat Loaf baggie, a box containing a Diced Pears baggie, something called “Beverage Base Powder Orange”, a baggie of “Nut Raisin Mix”, a packet with GRAPE JELLY printed in big, bold letters on it, and a Ziploc baggie containing little packets of coffee, coffee whitener, sugar and salt, as well as two candies, a book of matches, a moist towelette and a plastic spork.
What I seem to have is the civilian version of MRE No. 24, Meat Loaf w/Gravy, produced by the Wornick company, one of the actual military MRE contractors. They aren’t allowed to sell the real Military version for some reason, but they can sell a downscaled version for civilian use. Aren’t you also amazed there is an entire website devoted to these things?
The primary difference between a civilian MRE and a military one is the civie MREs do not contain quite as much food. NATO requires that all its soldiers in the field receive a minimum of 3200 kCalories per day so a typical military MRE contains around 1200 kCals worth of chow. If the soldier eats most of his three MREs he should be good. The trick, of course, is to get him to eat most of it.
The civie version also does not include the Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) and this particular one drops the noodle side dish and toaster pastry in favour of the nut mix and the diced pears (the menus are changed from year to year perhaps as a kindness to those eating them regularly). But still included is the infamous Meat Loaf with Brown Onion Gravy, complete with a curious “Caramel Color Added” subheading.
Upon opening the accessory bag I am greatly disappointed to discover that civie MREs do not include the tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce like the all the military ones do. I would have gladly traded the matches for the Tabasco. Meat loaf is good with hot pepper sauce. I guess they figure we civilian folk can handle fire but not firey.
The meat loaf baggie is squishy on the edges but has something strangely firm in the centre. It must be a slice of loaf! Yum.
I have no microwave at the shop but I have a kettle, so preparing the thing should be a snap. I put the meat loaf bag into a plastic tub I’ve got lying around and cover it with an inch of boiling water. In the field, the soldier would normally stick the meat loaf baggie into the FRH baggie, add water, and let the exothermic reaction do its thing. I figure the boiled water is close enough.
Uncle Sam deemed it necessary to include both whitener and sugar, so even though I take my coffee black, I’ll make an exception for the sake of a complete MRE experience. Waste not want not. If I was outside the wire in Afghanistan right now this would be all I get, so I should be thankful for its coffee bounty.
I start my meal with an appetizer of crackers with GRAPE JELLY. They taste a lot like Ritz crackers. You get three big wafers divided into four little cracker sections which you break off to eat. With a bit of jelly squeezed on they are most agreeable. Score one for the MRE.
It starts to lose a bit of appeal, however, when I take a swig of the coffee. I now seriously regret not leaving it black. The combination of instant coffee, whitener and sugar has produced what I believe to be the worst tasting cup of coffee I have ever had. I blame the whitener.
Well, the meat loaf is probably ready. I decant the thing into a used plastic salad tub I found in the back. Codesmith declares the smell of it is rank and decides to leave in search of “real” food. Bah! No sense of adventure.
I know it doesn’t look great, but it actually smells not too bad and the gravy is quite tasty. The boiled water has brought it up to a decent temperature. The slab of meat, if you can call it that, tastes beefy enough, but it looks like cat food and has the consistency of rubbery pâté. Or cat food. So I’m not sure what to think of the main entrée. Flavour is good, but the texture isn’t so appealing. I suppose I should still give credit where credit is due: they did find a way to preserve a slice of meatloaf in such a way that it would not require refrigeration for its entire three year shelf life.
On to the deserts and snacks. The Diced Pears in Thick Syrup look and taste exactly like diced pears in thick syrup. In fact, I happily ate them down and when finished I realised I had forgotten to take a picture. I didn’t quite get all of the meat loaf washed out of the tub though, so they had a slightly oniony flavour at times. Nevertheless, thumbs up to the fruit course.
The Nut and Raisin Mix turned out to be a great disappointment. For some reason they decided to put a little pack of desiccant inside, probably to help keep the raisins from spoiling, and as a result everything tasted dry and stale except for the scant number of raisins inside. The nuts were mostly peanuts and were unsalted. Not even the addition of the entire packet of salt could make them enjoyable. I ate about a third of them and eventually threw the rest away (thus depriving myself of a fifth of the energy the MRE had to offer). A big thumbs down.
Two thirds of a bottle of water is about 12 ounces so I took a bottle, drank a third of it and turned the rest into orange drink using the Beverage Base Powder Orange as per the instructions. Why they just didn’t call it “Orange Drink Mix” is a mystery to me. It tasted much like that boring McDonalds orange drink stuff you used chug when you were a kid. Given the choice I personally would have stuck with just plain water, but that’s a personal thing.
The candies turned out to be little Chiclets, a mint one and a liquorice one. It’s apparently considered bad luck to actually eat the candies by American troops in Iraq. Me, I chewed them up in minutes and accidently swallowed one of the tiny wads of gum.
So is it as bad as all the hype? Not at all. As unusual as the texture of the meat loaf was, it was not disgusting by any means. Some of the parts of the MRE were pretty good. The crackers were pretty decent and I’m curious to try them with the squeeze cheese found in other packs. Now, could I go for weeks eating three of these things a day? Well… after about a week I’d probably be really looking forward to that all-you-can-eat salad bar at the base at Kandahar. After about a three weeks I think I’d be seriously looking for some wild game to cook over all the packs of matches I’d been accumulating.
It occurs to me that it’s now very late and I’m extremely hungry. That MRE is the only thing I’ve had to eat today. I’m really hungry and really lazy… and I can see the corner of MRE No. 16, Chicken w/Thai Sauce sticking out from the shelf…