Tuesday, 8 January 2019

MRE Menu 3: Chicken, Noodles and Vegetables, in Sauce

Apropos of nothing, let's have a look at an MRE. What are MREs? They're "Meals, Ready to Eat" developed for the US army. They were first fielded in the early 1980s but I didn't become aware of them until the Gulf War of 1991.

Do you remember the Gulf War? It was awesome. There was so much kit. Desert boots. Precision-guided weapons. Those new helmets that looked a bit like German helmets, but they were covered in desert camouflage. The Stealth Fighter. Humvees. 24-hour rolling news. Night vision. Tomahawks. Live reporting from the battle zone. MREs.

Chicken noodles. Neither rare nor infamous nor out-of-date. I picked something that I might enjoy eating.

The date code, 7305, indicates it was packaged in November 2017. They have a life of five years although people on the internet have eaten cold-stored MREs from the 1980s with no ill effects. I ate this packet in January 2019.

It came to pass that in August 1990 Saddam Hussein of Iraq sent his army into neighbouring Kuwait as part of a dispute about oil. This would not do, and after the necessary diplomatic formalities we bombed Iraq's army and military infrastructure into smithereens. But we didn't stop there. It wasn't like Yugoslavia or Syria where we just dropped bombs. We went all the way. When I say we I mean America, but Britain participated as well. We called it Operation Granby. It cost a few hundred million pounds and we got to show off some of our kit. At the time it seemed like the last chance we would have to participate in a proper war. And perhaps it was. The days when the other side wore a uniform and was at least aware of the Geneva conventions seem very far away.

Let's dump this out onto a table. Nice. You know Steve1989, he's fantastic. I have to discipline myself not to watch his videos late at night otherwise I get hungry.
This MRE(tm) has chicken noodles, applesauce with raspberry puree, peanut butter, apple jelly, some crackers, Skittles(r), a flameless ration heater, and an accessory packet. And a pretty good plastic spoon.
I can't help but say "accessory packet" in Steve's voice.

The ground assault was over in a couple of days. It was a walkover. Saddam's soldiers couldn't retreat fast enough to get away. Fortunately no-one was hurt, or at least I don't remember seeing reports of casualties at the time. The important thing is that Saddam Hussein was sent packing. There was something about the Kurds.

We let Saddam continue to rule Iraq because it would have been too awkward to remove him, besides which he might have mended his ways and offered to sell us oil cheaply. Perhaps we thought that it was better to have a maximum leader in charge of Iraq than nobody. A different world.

The accessory packet. Gum, hot sauce, sugar, salt, coffee, matches, a moist towelette, damp-proof matches, Lighthouse toilet paper. The meal is fairly salty as it is, but perhaps the salt makes sense if you're doing heavy work in hot sunshine, which is entirely plausible given that this is a military meal.
Sadly the Orwellian "coffee instant type I" and "coffee instant type II" have been replaced by a branded coffee, Genial coffee, whatever that is.
US military meals haven't had cigarettes since the early 1970s. Could you use the toilet paper as a tampon? I don't know.

About the MRE. They are sometimes called "meals rejected by everyone" or "mandatory rectal explosions", and a couple of menu items are infamously bad. The vegetable omelette and the frankfurter sausages in particular.

But the general consensus seems to be that MRES are, for the most part, perfectly okay in moderation; they are available in a wide range of flavours and there are even vegetarian options.

Moist towelette melts on your burning flesh - you can see your reflection in the luminescent dash

Newer MREs come with a beverage bag, which is essentially a substitute for a mug - US mess kits no longer include a canteen. The bag has a seal at the top and fits into the flameless ration heater. Unfortunately the bag doesn't have a gusset, so it doesn't stand upright. Soldiers seem to use it more often as a waterproof mobile phone bag.

General consensus also holds that Italian, French, and British rations are better than American, but that might be down to overfamiliarity. Most original content on the internet is made by Americans, and perhaps they're bored of their own meals. Compared to MREs, Italian rations have a little bottle of alcohol, British rations have more food, and French rations have gourmet options although sadly the tiny bottle of red wine is apparently mythical.

Let's try the coffee. It has a rich smell. Steve1989 often dumps his coffee into a big canteen, so I was worried that putting it in a small cup would result in overly strong, sweet coffee. As it turned out everything was fine.

Here in the UK I have easier access to European MREs - Latvian and Polish options are widely available - so perhaps in future I might try one. US MREs are not sold on the civilian market and so technically eBay sellers are breaking the law by offering them, although the US government doesn't seem to mind. I would be more than happy to shove £12 through the door of the US embassy.

The sachets of coffee, sugar, and creamer produce one pretty good cup of instant coffee. It has a hard, substantial, not smooth taste, but not a bad taste.

For the record my MRE cost £11.95. That's more than I have ever spent on a single meal in my life. Bear in mind that an MRE is a single meal, not a 24-hour ration. Soldiers in the field are expected to eat two or three a day, and only when they don't have access to a field kitchen; soldiers don't eat MREs all the time. The biggest criticism levelled at the meals is that after eighteen days of nothing but MREs they get monotonous.

Let's try out the flameless ration heater. The heating element is a kind of big teabag that contains particles of magnesium and iron. When exposed to water it heats up and gives off a distinctive metallic smell somewhat akin to fireworks. It's worth pointing out that MREs don't include water. You have to supply water yourself.

"or something"

As you get older your Christmas presents turn into socks and toiletries, because old people smell and their feet smell. I rested my MRE(tm) against a tin of Lynx shower gel and body spray.

I was taken aback by the nutrition facts box - it's exactly the same as the boxes on British food, the same font and layout and highlighting and everything.
Although the ingredients list is very long it's not particularly offensive. It could so easily have been stuffed with E-numbers but it's not.

It's tempting to turn this post into a mass of sarcasm, but my impression is that the people who design MREs really do know what they're doing, and care about making decent meals that stay edible in adverse conditions. A difficult task.

Before MREs existed US rations were mostly canned, although special forces soldiers in the 1970s had access to a prototype of the MRE called the Long Range Patrol Ration. MREs were introduced in 1981 and have been in continuous development since then. Last year they introduced a pizza MRE, with a slice of cold pizza that can be reheated in the flameless ration heater. In this video Steve1989 checks out MRE #16, introduced in 2017:

The spoon, hot sauce, moist towelette and gum are identical to my own.

While my main meal was cooking I decided to try out the crackers. You get two, scored in a way that suggests they're supposed to be broken into quarters, but when I tried it the first cracker just disintegrated.

The crackers are unsalted and not as dry as I expected. I think you're supposed to put peanut butter on one and apple jelly on the other but I'll save the butter and jelly for later.

Instead I spread some of the raspberry applesauce on the cracker. It was really good!

I think you're supposed to heat it in the FRH, but I didn't want to burn my mouth so I didn't. The pack is designed so that you can rip off the end and suck the puree straight out of the bag. The crackers are like a cross between floury biscuits and crackers with all of the flavour removed but the puree was excellent. It's slightly too watery to stick to the crackers so I ended up with my fingers covered in puree. Luckily I wasn't ambushed at that point, otherwise my rifle might have slipped through my hands.

I don't want to give the impression that I'm copying this chap, but for the first split-second after I tasted the puree I was expecting it to be a horrible sugary mess that would leave my mouth feeling furry. But it's not, it's much more subtle. It tastes like runny jam with half the sugar and lots of fruit; it was refreshing and overall I was pleasantly surprised. Imagine a kind of light fruit juice jam.

"I was also pleasantly surprised by the lemon-lime cordial" said Piglet.

"I vanted orange! It gave me lemon-lime!"

Fresh from the udder the cordial is pale yellow:

But once you add water it turns into a radioactive neon green:

Again, I was expecting this to be awful. I've read that it doesn't mix well, so I used slightly warm water. I expected it to be a chalky, gritty drink that would either be liquid sugar or alternatively far too weak. In practice after a couple of minutes it mixed thoroughly, and the taste was a bit like the raspberry applesauce - strong enough to leave an impression but subtle enough that it wasn't offensive. With cold water and/or some vodka it would have been really nice.

I was doubly surprised because I'm convinced that Americans have duff taste buds. I tried a Hershey bar once and it tasted like sick. It really did. It tasted like vomit. And root beer tastes like mouthwash. I'm not exaggerating for comic effect; both of those staples of American cuisine were awful, inedible. And yet pizza here in the UK presumably tastes the same as pizza from its original homeland of America, so perhaps only some of their tastebuds are defective.

At this point the meal was ready. The flameless heater warmed it up nicely although I wouldn't trust it to cook raw meat. You have to shake and knead it a bit, otherwise only the bottom part gets hot. I should have put the meal out onto a tray - nice! - but I don't have a tray. I used a plate instead.

Let's pretend that I've survived a plane crash in the Bolivian jungle, and I just happened to find an intact plate in the wreckage.

It looks okay. The noodles are chunky and short rather than long and stringy. The vegetables are mostly carrots and mushrooms.

The chicken was tender, not stringy, and overall it tasted no better or worse than a typical canned all-in-one brunch, less sugary-er. I didn't bother with the salt or hot sauce; without seasoning it was slightly saltier than I would like. It didn't leave an aftertaste and didn't feel greasy.

Perhaps the only problem is that it could have done with more noodles - or a small portion of rice, or some bulk. MREs contain 1,200 calories but they are mostly peanut butter calories rather than potato calories, e.g. they don't make you feel full. Only a couple of MREs include rice, apparently because it doesn't heat up well in the FRH.

After drinking the coffee, the cordial, eating two crackers plus the main meal I was ready to do fifty press-ups and climb up and down some obstacles, but just for today I decided to relax in front of the computer and play Cookie Clicker instead. What's the point of cookie chains? The rewards are paltry for the work you have to put in.

Of note the Skittles were Skittles; they should really have included a half-sized packet, because if you have two MREs a day you'll end up with more Skittles than you can eat. The salt is iodised, which means that it has a tiny amount of iodine; it's added to salt in the US, but here in the UK we get iodine from milk instead. If only I had bought the MRE before visiting Chernobyl! I could have dabbed the salt on my thyroid glands.

Closing thoughts? MREs make sense in a military context but aren't really practical otherwise. The one I tried was tasty, but £12 for a single meal is expensive. If you're just sitting at home an MRE is a novelty.

If you're hiking or camping an MRE makes a bit more sense, but the accessory packet would be a waste of space, as would the FRH if you're taking your own stove. My MRE was surprisingly large and heavy; dehydrated camping rations are much lighter albeit that you have to get hold of water. But if you're hiking, you probably do have lots of water.

Furthermore as a civilian you're free to pick whichever foods you want. You don't have to carry around things you won't eat. I reckon that with a bit of ingenuity you could make an MRE more to your taste from things you find in Lidl or Aldi. I have managed to scavenge enough food from Lidl or Aldi to survive sometimes for weeks on end, you might have better luck.