Saturday, 16 March 2019

MRE Menu 16: Chicken Burrito Bowl

Let's have a look at another MRE. This one is Menu 16: Chicken Burrito Bowl. It was introduced in 2017. It's essentially chicken chilli with rice, plus a couple of tortillas. It's not bad! Not bad at all. I was inspired by Steve1989, who reviewed this very MRE shortly after it was released:

MREs are designed so that the main meal is the same, but the puddings are different. Steve1989's MRE came with a red-coloured fruit punch drink, a cinnamon bun, and roasted snack nuts, but mine had an apple turnover, baked cheesy snacks, and "orange flavored no fruit juice":

Why didn't they just call it orange-flavoured drink? I don't know, and I shouldn't criticise, because if it was British it would probably be called drink, flavoured, orange, fruit, no or something like that.

Let's scatter the contents onto a desk:

It's like Christmas, but for grown men

MREs are US field rations introduced in the early 1980s. They replaced canned rations that were essentially spam and beans. MREs are "meals, ready to eat", although soldiers took to calling them "meals rejected by everyone" because soldiers complain a lot. Some of the older MREs have a poor reputation but modern MREs are apparently pretty good, at least for boil-in-the-bag-style packaged military meals - the problem is that eating them for weeks on end gets monotonous.

Some armed forces give soldiers 24-hour ration packs, but MREs are single meals. They're designed to be eaten hot or cold. They come with a flameless ration heater that can heat up the main course, but soldiers have to supply their own water if they want to have coffee as well. Next paragraph.

This main course was packaged on 27 March 2017. I ate this meal on 14 March 2019. That's almost two years later. I have no idea how it was stored. It smelled and tasted perfectly fine.

In a civilian context MREs don't make a lot of rational sense. They take up more space than freeze-dried food and have a much more limited shelf life, apparently five years at ambient temperature, longer in a fridge. They're expensive, running about £12-15 a meal, partially because they're not sold to civilians and partially because I live in the UK so they have to be shipped across the Atlantic. Perhaps they're cheap if you live next to an airbase in Wyoming. The food in this MRE was made on the far side of the world, and two years later I am eating it in the United Kingdom. What a world we live in.

Each MRE comes with an accessory packet, which is fun the first time but a waste of space if you pack several MREs. A lot of the calories come from sugar and fat, so they're not healthy. They're basically novelties, but what's wrong with that?

Let's examine the contents.

This meal comes with two tortillas. I put them in the flameless ration heater. Here in the UK tortillas are novelty food. We eat bread instead.

British military meals are infamous for having food made by companies that no-one has heard of, e.g. Westlers, who make those awful canned hamburgers. US MREs are no different.

That's a lot of sodium.

And the accessories. A huge packet of salt, plus artificial sugar - the last MRE I ate came with actual sugar - a moist towelette, and coffee creamer. The gum was okay. Genial-branded coffee. Sadly I have yet to try "coffee, instant, type I".

Without further ado let's cook the main meal.

The flameless ration heater has a mixture of salt and aluminium - when you add water it acts like a short-circuiting battery. It gets hot enough that you can't hold it, but not hot enough to boil water.

Let's leave this to cook. This FRH wasn't as good as the others I have used - the meal was lukewarm so I popped it into the microwave to give it an extra kick.

While the meal is cooking away let's have a look at the snack. As mentioned up the page each MRE of a certain type has the same main meal, but the other bits are picked at random from a short list. Steve1989 had a cinnamon bun. Menu 16 can also come with a slice of filled french toast or an apple turnover. They all look the same. I had the apple turnover, which came out of the pack with an oxygen absorber embedded in it.

It was sugary and dense and felt very stodgy. There was a slight, vague cinnamon taste, and on the whole the apple filling was more of a generic sugary fruit flavour than true apple. I should have dunked it into the coffee, but I forgot. In retrospect I wish I had kept the turnover for later, it's overkill with the baked snack crackers.

Here's the coffee:

It's a generic roast with a hard rather than smooth taste. I've always wondered why they only put one coffee sachet into the MRE. If I was in charge I would throw in two or three. They are the most space-efficient part of the ration.

There was a second pudding, a cheesy snack:

I'm fairly certain this MRE has more than a day's worth of sodium in it, and that's without counting the salt packet. The amount of salt probably makes more sense if you're doing hard work in a hot environment.

The baked snack crackers tasted exactly like McVities Mini Cheddars. Jacob's Mini Cheddars. Whatever they're called now. Do they have them in the United States? As you can see I ate them with a spoon, because I'm a gentleman.

My hunch is that solders in the field simply cut off one corner of the bag and pour the whole thing into their mouths. That would also save having to lick the cheesy dust off their fingers. Imagine getting cheesy dust all over your M16! It would smell of cheese.

"I Could be Happy" was Altered Images' fourth single. It got to number seven in the UK all the way back in early 1982. Listening to it nowadays I'm struck by how much it sounds like New Order. It has the same guitar sound. In terms of vocal technique Bernard Sumner and Clare Grogan are pretty much on a par, e.g. they have trouble hitting the notes, but they're expressive. None of this has anything to do with the rest of the article, but I don't care because these are my words and this is my truth and I can do whatever I want. Let's have a look at the tortillas. Even after running them through the FRH, the tortillas don't look great:

But they tasted okay. They're just "mass", really. A kind of wheaty, slightly artificial taste. Surprisingly small. There was a crease down the middle and they looked as though they would break in half, so I folded them double instead.

As mentioned my FRH wasn't working at full power, so the meal came out lukewarm. I ran it through the microwave instead. It came with a packet of cheese spread that was essentially a solid lump of cheese, which worried me for a moment - cheese goes off - but it smelled okay, so I dumped it onto the main meal.

I put some of it in the tortillas and ate the rest. It was nice! The snack crackers were okay and I wasn't keen on the apple turnover, but the main meal was pretty good. Imagine a can of Stagg chili, but it's chicken instead of beef, and then drain off most of the liquid. I could easily have eaten more of it, and if I was designing the MRE myself I would eliminate the apple turnover, add more coffee, and make the main meal 150% larger. I would swap the two small tortillas for a single, thicker, large-sized tortilla.

Oh yes. There was a sachet of hot sauce. I added it to the last bit of the meal. It didn't have a distinctive taste and it wasn't particularly hot. I wouldn't have missed it if it wasn't part of the MRE.

One thing remains. The orange-flavoured no-fruit juice. Judging by the text on the packet the drink exists solely to mask the taste of water purification tablets.

I used slightly warm water so that it would dissolve quicker. You know how Steve1989 always fast-forwards the video when he mixes drinks? It's because it takes a few minutes for the powder to fully dissolve. The orange flavoured no fruit drink wasn't as good as the lemon beverage in the last meal I ate. That had a surprisingly subtle taste; the orange drink was artificial, basically just weakly sugary water, with a slightly chalky aspect. To paraphrase Douglas Adams it had a taste that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike orange.

And that's MRE Menu 16. Despite being called chicken burrito bowl it didn't come with a bowl. Here in the UK Mexican food is one of many novelty foods that people try out occasionally, but it's nowhere near as prevalent as Indian and Chinese food; there are only about two dozen Taco Bells scattered across the country and we don't have many Mexicans. They can't come to the UK because there's a massive ocean in the way.

If you grew up with Mexican food I suspect you'd be horrified by this MRE - it's pleasant, fills a hole, but leaves no aftertaste - but I didn't grow up with Mexican food. I grew up with British food. Literally anything is a step up. Imagine sucking a cowpat through a hollowed-out legbone. That's what British food tastes like, the end.