Thursday, 1 August 2019

MRE Menu 21: Tuna

Let's have a look at another MRE, and when I say "look" I mean "eat", although you have to jiggle the words around before the whole sentence makes sense. Today it's Menu 21: Tuna, Chunk, Light, Water Packed, Lemon Pepper, e.g. tuna. Not the most appealing menu, and I have to say it wasn't very good, although one element of the MRE exceeded my expectations. Which one? Read on, dear reader, read on.

Let's empty it all out:

Menu 21 has tuna, some tortillas, baked snack crackers, cheese spread, a pound cake, and the typical accessory packet. It appears to be aimed at soldiers who are on a diet. Ordinarily the first thing I do is start cooking the main course, but Menu 21 doesn't have a flameless ration heater - you're supposed to eat the food cold.

I wrote this while listening to Arovane's Tides, which was released back in 2000 by City Centre Offices. At the time it was lost among a flood of classic electronic albums from the likes of Autechre, Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin and the like - Warp Records was on a roll - but history has been kind to it. I'm ambivalent. It feels as if Arovane's true passion was ambient music, but he felt the need to throw in some beats to spice things up, but he didn't have Autechre's knack for glitchy beat programming, so the result feels like a set of ambient tracks with simple drum loops overlaid on top.

"Seaside" doesn't have drums, and it's one of the album's highlights. It's nice, in a way that would have been mocked relentlessly by hipsters in 2000, but I like it:

For the most part each of the nine tracks introduces a single musical idea that doesn't change over the course of four minutes. In that respect it's a lot like Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume One, and it's just as frustrating, because the ambient tracks aren't long enough to be hypnotic and the beaty tracks feel aimless. "Theme", for example, has a neat built-up, but it turns into harpsichord noodling and never goes anywhere. It reminds me of "Kristallo" from the proto-Kraftwerk album Ralf and Florian, which was released in 1973, when Kraftwerk was a two-piece. Just like that track it would have benefited enormously from musical variation. "Eleventh!" has a similar problem; it begins with a poignant electric piano figure that doesn't evolve, it just repeats.

In 2000 Tides was nowhere near commercial enough to challenge the likes of Apollo 440 or Sash! and not experimental enough to excite the writers of The Wire, and Arovane eventually vanished into obscurity, along with Plone and Mira Calix and so forth. After a long hiatus in the 2000s he made a comeback in 2013 and is still going, although - breathe in - I think the general critical consensus is that Tides is his most distinctive work.

That's enough about music. What about tuna?

The tuna packet is unusually vivid for an MRE. I would be wary of opening it in a war zone because the bright colours are bound to attract enemy bullets. As far as I can tell StarKist is a regular store brand tuna in the United States. Lemon pepper is available on the civilian market but the MRE version has a camouflage colour scheme (ordinarily the packet is bright blue).

The accessory packet has nothing special. As always the toilet paper is useless unless you're on a strict diet and you need to lose weight, in which case you should throw away the rest of the MRE and eat the toilet paper. The gum is a weak minty flavour, the moist towelette is merely hand-sized, there's far too much salt for one meal, and at this point I now have half a dozen MRE spoons.

Let's try the raspberry drink:

I've had some before. It's a pink powder that turns an alarming blood-red colour when you add water. As always with MRE drinks it's better than you might expect - instead of being a chalky sugary mess it's surprisingly subtle. Let's try out the tortillas:

They have a nice wheaty smell, and fresh from the packet they're reasonably moist and tasty. At this point I admit I wasn't sure how to prepare Menu 21. Are you supposed to put all of the food in the tortillas, or just the tuna? Do you mix the cheese with the tuna? In the end I had a pair of cheese tortillas:

The MRE was packaged in 2017, which puts the food two years into its five-year shelf life. The cheese spread resembled cheese triangles, but thicker; it tasted of cheese flavour, i.e. it wasn't cheese. Let's wipe the taste away with some baked snack crackers:

I've had them before. They're just like McVitie's Mini Cheddars, not necessarily a bad thing. Let's try out the meal's other drink, which is apparently fortified with carbohydrates. It has natural and artificial flavor with other natural flavor, which is baffling (I get that orange is one of the flavours, but what's the other? The ingredients list doesn't say):

It wasn't as good as the raspberry. It's palatable, but my standards are higher when it comes to orange juice.

At this point it struck me that the meal didn't have a hot drink. There's no coffee. Cold tuna and no coffee. It's not the most appealing MRE. As mentioned earlier I wasn't sure how to present the tuna, so I just squeezed the fat-free mayonnaise onto it:

What was it like? Well, it was tuna. Moist, bland, largely tasteless, no bad smell. I couldn't detect any lemon. If I had put it in the tortillas, what would I have done with the cheese? If I had added the cheese to the tuna, what would I have done with the mayonnaise? It can't all fit into the tortillas, surely?

People with dementia eventually forget how to eat food. They don't know that they're supposed to chew and swallow because their minds are gone. There's no "them" any more. When they die, do they go to heaven with dementia? That would be cruel. No, the reality is that they don't go anywhere, they just die. Food is supposed to distract me from the inevitability of death, not remind me of it.

But there is hope, although really there's no hope, none at all. Hope, in the form of a trans fat free lemon poppy seed pound cake:

It was the best thing about the meal, nay it was objectively good. Unlike the lemon pepper tuna, I could taste the lemon, but it wasn't too sweet. The mouthfeel was crumbly and moist. It wasn't enough to redeem the MRE but I'm glad I left it for last, because it sent my tastebuds away with happy little smiles on their faces.

In summary MRE 21 isn't very good. No coffee, the meal is cold, it's tuna. You can make your own version of the main meal by combining a small tin of tuna with a spoon of mayonnaise, a couple of tortillas, a cheese slice, plus a packet of McVitie's Mini Cheddars and some Ribena and/or orange juice. The only standout is the pound cake, which is genuinely excellent, but it's not enough. I imagine that soldiers in the field fight over the pound cake and give the tuna to their cats, the end.