Top | Features

Chow time

(article, Bonnie Powell)

Developments in food processing have always marched in step with the military. 

Napoleon rewarded Nicholas Appert, the Frenchman who in 1809 invented the first system of hermetically sealing food in jars, with 12,000 francs, then jealously guarded the technology as a military secret. At that time, having a reliable, portable, safe supply of troop food was as valuable a weapon as, well, weapons. 

In their 1976 book [%bookLink code=0880013990 "Eating in America"], historians Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont tell how the outcome of the U.S. Civil War was in part decided by which side could adequately feed and supply its troops. The North had the edge, thanks to the nascent tin-canning industry — pioneered by inventor Gail Borden — which supplied Union soldiers on the march with condensed milk and canned vegetables. The Confederates, meanwhile, had plenty of fresh produce, grains, and meat from Southern farms, but no easy way to transport the barrels to the battle sites once the railroads were destroyed. 

Modern American soldiers, or warfighters as the military prefers to call them, have been eating shelf-stable Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) since they replaced C rations in 1981. MREs are safe to consume for up to three-and-a-half years, stored at 80 degrees or lower. They have been sterilized at high temperatures and then vacuum-sealed into plastic pouches, which can be reheated in the field with the flameless chemical heater included with each MRE.

[%image promo-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo courtesy Bonnie Powell" caption="Dinner in a bag."]

Each MRE provides 1,300 calories in the form of an entrée (such as Chicken With Salsa or Vegetable Manicotti), often with an accompanying starch (Mexican Rice), a carbohydrate (crackers, bread), a "spread" (cheese, peanut butter, jam, or jelly), a dessert or snack, beverages, and a packet of salt, sugar, and spices. 

Given that Americans' ever-bulging waistlines are frequently blamed on the popularity of heavily processed convenience foods, I was surprised to read a Chicago Tribune article stating that Marines on foot patrols in Afghanistan had lost as much as 40 pounds each on a diet of just MREs.

My first thought was that perhaps the MREs were just too gross to eat, even for ravenously hungry soldiers. After all, the acronym has lent itself to many mocking alternate definitions, including "Meals Rarely Edible" and "Meals Rejected by Ethiopians." Then I remembered I actually had two MREs in a cupboard at home. I could find out for myself what they taste like. 

h3. Mostly real edible

The National Guard distributes MREs to civilians during emergencies like Hurricane Katrina. (You can buy them on eBay, although the packages plainly say, "Commercial Resale is Unlawful.") Mine dated from September 2004, when Hurricane Ivan devastated Pensacola, Florida. I flew there to help both my grandmother, who lost part of her roof, and her longtime neighbors, some of whom were left with nothing but a concrete slab. 

With no electricity for her stove, we cooked eclectic, defrosting-freezer feasts for the neighborhood on an electric wok plugged into a gas generator. Some octogenarian family friends reported that their Chicken Tetrazzini MREs had gone rather well with a glass of room-temperature white wine, but my two MREs came home in my suitcase as a souvenir of a sad time. 

I talked my husband into taste-testing the Thai Chicken and the Vegetarian Pasta with Vegetables with me. Typically, the only processed food we eat is canned soup — and we're trying to phase out even that. So I confess my expectations for the MREs were very low. 

The MRE ingredient lists themselves didn't look too bad. The Yellow and Wild Rice Pilaf that accompanied the Thai Chicken comprised just "water, white rice, wild rice, carrots, food starch-modified, peas, mushrooms, soybean oil, salt, onion powder, spice, and turmeric." The list for the Sterling Pound Cake was the scariest, with plenty of preservatives and stabilizers that gave the lie to the “Fresh Baked Quality" logo it bore. 

It took us a while to figure out the instructions — both dire and funny — for the flameless MRE heater. First came a warning that "vapors released by activated heater contain hydrogen, a flammable gas" and that unactivated heaters should be disposed of only in accordance with environmental regulations. (I wonder how that's working in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Near the bottom, a diagram told users to prop the carton up on a "rock or something." 

[%image package float=left width=300 credit="Photo courtesy Bonnie Powell" caption="Making dinner requires a 'rock or something.'"]

After much checking and rechecking the directions, I finally inserted my plastic pasta pouch properly inside the pouch with the heater and water, then stuffed it in the box as directed. Steam immediately began shooting out, which was gratifying. 

Just as our meals were assembled, some friends stopped by. One of them had been in the army "a billion years ago," back when rations came mostly in cans, he said. He marveled at the current generation of military grub. "This looks so much better," he declared. 

We all grabbed forks and sampled. The pasta was mushy, but the sauce was not unpleasant. The rice on the Thai chicken was crunchy — in a good way — but could have benefited from a way of heating it, as the hot chicken on top didn't melt the gluey clumps quite enough. Everything else tasted more or less like their civilian counterparts. 

"It's as good as any airline meal I've ever had," shrugged my husband. 

[%image dinner float=right width=400 credit="Photo courtesy Bonnie Powell" caption="Thai Chicken with Yellow and Wild Rice Pilaf, dished up hot on a plate."]

I'd say it was better. 

h3. Weighty matters

So were the shrinking Marines just expending so much energy hiking through Afghanistan's hills that nearly 4,000 calories of MREs a day couldn't keep up? 

Not exactly. It turns out that the Marines were worried about their weight, but not in that way. The problem with current MREs is that the tan bags themselves weigh too much, averaging about a pound and a half each, so warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan have been "fieldstripping" them and discarding what they dislike or what they find hard to eat on the move.


h1. Changing tastes

The list of MRE entrées year by year reads like a slightly lagging timeline of evolving American tastebuds. Chicken à la King, Frankfurters with Beans, and other staples of Middle Americana dominated the menu offerings until the first major overhaul, in 1996, when the tan bag was debuted along with two vegetarian pasta options. 

The next year saw a Jamaican pork chop, and in 1998 the MRE went truly international, with entrées such as Thai Chicken, Chicken w/Cavatelli, Bean & Rice Burrito, and Beef Teriyaki. The 2007 menu has four vegetarian offerings — widely considered to be the most edible of the selections — including a veggie burger. 

What's driven the changing menus? "We've got to please 18-to-24-year-old soldiers used to the food court in the mall," says a representative for the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, which develops all of the military's food offerings. "They're used to a lot more ethnic-type, spicy foods."


"The Tribune article hit us hard," admits Stephen Moody, the team leader for the Individual Combat Rations Team of the Combat Feeding Directorate at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, which develops all of the military's food offerings. "At Natick, we’ve gone to great lengths to design the rations to meet warfighters' needs. We get feedback every year. Any components that they don’t like, we remove."

To decrease weight and increase convenience, the Combat Feeding Directorate has developed a new meal option called First Strike Rations. Expected to be available in September, FSRs offer twice the calories of an MRE, but in a package that's half the weight and volume. They'll include three "eat out of hand," shelf-stable pocket sandwiches (barbecue beef or chicken, currently), two HooAH! nutrition bars, two energy beverage mixes, a dessert bar, crackers or bread, cheese spread, two sticks of beef jerky, dried fruit, and amped-up "Zapplesauce.” All ingredients were selected to provide maximum endurance, Moody says. The Zapplesauce is sweetened with maltrodextrin, a carbohydrate that gets metabolized more slowly. The FSRs will also include Stay Alert caffeine gum. 

Army nutritional regulations specify that the FSRs are a restricted ration, meaning that soldiers can eat them for no more than 10 days in a row. After that, they should be fueling up in the mess halls. The chow in the dining facilities (DFACs), catered by contractors in Iraq's Green Zone and other big bases, is so plentiful and rich that some soldiers not on patrol are actually "gaining weight during their one-year tour here," writes a reporter for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution who’s stationed with a Georgia Army National Guard company. "If the United States loses this war, it won't be for want of nutrition for the soldiers."

No, feeding its soldiers is something that this country mastered long ago — although its efforts are somewhat lacking when it comes to its schoolchildren and low-income families. Like condensed milk and canned peas before them, MREs and the new First Strike Rations serve their purpose of capably and safely nourishing troops on the move through foreign territory. They’re also ideal for distribution as emergency food during natural disasters. 

While MREs are the opposite of the locally, mostly organically grown fresh food that makes up the bulk of my diet as a Bay Area resident, I’m sure I’d be happy to have them following a serious earthquake. But I will not be trying to buy a stash of them from eBay.

p(bio). Bonnie Azab Powell cofounded the Ethicurean, a food-politics blog. Her father, grandmother, and both grandfathers served in the military during wartime.

reference-image, l

feature-image, l

promo-image, l

package, l

dinner, l