Life » Culture

Fiz 9.28.05

Ready to eat?

Meal, Ready-to-Eat: sounds pretty good, doesn't it? A little stilted, sure, but it has a competent, convenient ring to it.

MREs are military field rations, well-balanced meals in crush-resistant, waterproof plastic pouches. This is just-eat-it-you-need-the-fuel food. Disaster food. More than 5.5 million MREs were brought to New Orleans; people in the Astrodome waited in line for them. Survivalists have always advocated keeping a box of them around, and recent disasters (terrorist attacks, hurricanes) have only increased the MRE market. Gone is the bomb shelter of the 1950s: Now, buy cases of MREs, flats of bottled water, a generator, and duct tape and you're good to survive the worst. Some online vendors sold out of MREs after the recent hurricanes. What? You don't have food that will survive three years in your basement? You're doomed!

These meals are designed by the government to have a long shelf life and provide balanced nutrition. But let's take a look at that statement, "designed by the government." People in infomercials are always touting technologies designed by or for the military. Technology developed by NASA is in our expensive foam mattresses, and this signals something to our collective consciousness. It denotes quality and state-of-the-art thinking. Only the best for our men and women!

It's when governmental R&D brilliance is applied to cuisine that things get interesting.

Imagine being a Katrina refugee in the Astrodome and someone hands you a MRE Menu No. 6, Thai Chicken. This is what you'll find inside: two long, flat cardboard boxes, one with yellow and wild rice pilaf, the other with chicken in Thai style sauce; a flameless heater (just add water); nut raisin mix; crackers; a tube of peanut butter; cappuccino, French vanilla; creamer, non-dairy, dry; packets of salt, sugar, and a Lipton tea bag; matches; a teeny-tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce; a plastic spoon; a tiny roll of toilet paper, a moist towelette, and two squares of spearmint gum.

Almost everything is in generic, institutionalized packaging. The back of the entrée packages say things like "Nutrition: A Force Multiplier." The instructions for the MRE heater are confusing, but not as confusing as you'd expect. It's all food, it's all functional. There are 1300 calories (13 percent protein, 36 percent fat, and 51 percent carbohydrates) and one-third of a person's recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals.

But the little touches throw you. May I offer you dessert or a French vanilla cappuccino? Why thank you, let me just get my canteen cup. And, inexplicably, on the back of the rice box there are illustrations of a man and woman (maybe Asian?) deliriously eating some unidentified substance.

Please don't assume that all this appealing deliciousness just popped out of a DoD laboratory oven. Food technologists at the US Army Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts spend a lot of time slaving over these meals.

The first MRE was packed in 1981. But they found that troops were only eating about 60 percent of the calories provided. So, beginning in 1988, changes were made: entrées were replaced and made larger; commercial candy and hot sauce were added to several menus. After Desert Storm the coffee was upgraded, wet pack fruit replaced dehydrated, and more hot sauce and commercial candy were added. Slowly, over the years, items deemed "least acceptable" have been replaced and menus are varied to overcome monotony. Now, there are even vegetarian and ethnic meals (hence your Menu No. 6 Thai Chicken).

And don't underestimate the ingenuity of the recipients --- there are tons of MRE recipes out there. Peach cobbler, peanut butter cups, beef and dumplings, ranger pudding: With a little water and your trusty MRE, you, too, can enjoy these delicacies.

For more information, try these links:

--- Erica Curtis