Sunday, 1 December 2019

Eating a 17-Year-Old MRE: Menu 4, Country Captain Chicken

Let's have a look at another MRE. This one is Menu 4: Country Captain Chicken, but to make things real spicy-like the MRE was made in 2002. It's now seventeen years old. In theory it's old enough to get married, if it had parental consent, but that's impossible because MREs don't have parents. They're food, not people. You can't eat people.

MREs are only designed to last five years or so. Even if an MRE is refrigerated the dairy products become noxious within a decade. I have no idea how well my MRE was stored - I bought it from eBay - but I can confirm that it was not a delicious tasty crunch.

The date code on the toaster pastry is 2029, which means that it was packaged on the twenty-ninth day of the second year of the decade, 2002 in this case.

What is Country Captain Chicken? I learn from the internet that it's a curry-style dish popular in America's southern states. It's not widely available here in the UK. I've never had it before.

The meal includes country captain chicken, some noodles in butter flavoured sauce, a cappuccino mocha drink, a toaster pastry - e.g. a Pop Tart - a pair of crackers (not pictured), cheese spread, some M and Ms, a spoon, and an accessory packet.

Country Captain Chicken was added to the MRE menu pool in 2000, apparently as a tribute to General George Patton, who was a fan of the stuff. It was discontinued after just four years, but its time in the sun coincided with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, so a lot of soldiers experienced it. It regularly appears in "worst MRE of all time" lists, which is why I wanted to try it out. How bad could it be?

The accessory packet has some Taster's Choice coffee, a teeny tiny Tabasco sauce bottle, some gum, salt, sugar, non-dairy creamer, matches, a moist towelette, toilet paper.

How bad could it be? Well, the universe is an entropic system inexorably degenerating into a state of uniform disorder. Our sun has a limited lifespan, as do all the other suns in the universe. New stars are created all the time, but more stars die than are created, and eventually the universe will consist of ashes floating in darkness. Even if we could extend the lifespan of our bodies and escape the death of our sun we would eventually find ourselves alone in the universe.

We could conceivably approach the problem of immortality from another direction. What if we could alter our perception of time, so that subjectively our lives would feel as if they lasted millions of years?

There are two problems with this. The practical problem is that time proceeds in discrete quanta. It is not a smooth, analogue flow. Instead it ticks and tocks like the second hand of a wristwatch, and as a consequence we cannot completely stop the subjective flow of time, we can only slow it down. We would still be mortal.

I assumed that sealed coffee would last forever. That it might lose its taste but still be drinkable. Internet sensation Steve1989 regularly drinks coffee from the 1950s, but this packet of Taster's Choice did not last.

The creamer looked okay but smelled odd, so I threw it in the bin.

The second barrier to an escape into dreamland is more philosophical. Imagine if the world around us was a simulation created by people who only live for six weeks, for whom three score years and ten is an incredibly long time. Imagine if their planet - in the "real" world - only coalesced from interstellar dust six hundred years ago, and that it will be consumed by its parent star in just two hundred years' time. Imagine if our world was their escape. Imagine if we already live incredibly long lives. The problem is that our perception of time is elastic, and if we could extend our lives so that they appeared to span millions of years it would still feel inadequate. It would all be over in the blink of an eye.

There is no future for any of us. No hope, no salvation. Even if God were real, it is just wishful thinking to suppose that he created an eternal afterlife for us. Why should he? Did he create an eternal afterlife for mosquitoes and viruses? Why us, and not them? No, there is no hope. The only escape is the oblivion of alcohol and drugs, and compared to that horror the unpleasantness of my 17-year-old MRE was relatively mild, although still bad.

I've shown you the coffee. Now you are forever broken. Let's have a look at the M and Ms, which I have to write as "M and Ms" because the Blogger platform messes up ampersands.

They look okay but smell wrong. I tried one. Just one. It was no good. The sugar coating was still edible, but the chocolate inside tasted stale. It tasted like a Hershey bar. Hershey bars are supposed to taste horrible but M and Ms are not, so I decided to throw the rest away.

I could conceivably take some along to London Zoo and test them out on the monkeys, but what if it takes several days for them to fall ill? How could I tell that it was the M and Ms, and not something else? What if the guards apprehend me and force me to eat the M and Ms? Too risky.

The packet's "Hit the Code" promotion apparently finished in April 2002. The grand prize was $1,000,000 in yearly $50,000 instalments for twenty years, so whoever won is still receiving cheques. Sadly the competition expired in 2003 and the website is long dead. The Internet Archive has a backup; it had a spy theme. It looks unusually bad even for 2002.

Let's try the cappuccino mocha, and remember that cappuccino is two-two, and Mississippi is three-three, and accommodation is two-two, and Philippines is one-two, and cappuccino is two-two. I didn't expect much of it so I put it in a bowl, which saves me having to sterilise a mug.

The powder smelled okay. The sugar must have kept. But when I added water it smelled off. I tasted a little bit and it was indeed off, in fact it tasted a little bit like the M and Ms. Down the sink it went.

I firmly believe that you have to face up to horror. You can cower and shield your eyes, but that will just make the horror more bold. At the very least people might be inspired by your sacrifice. Let's have a look at the cheese. The cheese. From 2002. Seventeen-year-old cheese.

Seventeen-year-old artificial MRE cheese. Let's do this. Rock and roll. Let's do this. In the pipe, five by five. No problem boss. Let's do this. One down, thousands to go. Even in death I still serve. Thank Mr Skeltal. Tryin to make a change. Let's do this. I'm psyching myself up by repeating internet memes. Let's do this. Dated internet memes from a few years ago. Mlem. Let's do this. But first the crackers.

The crackers smelled fine. Not even musty. I don't know if the recipe has changed over the years but these crackers felt tougher than modern MRE crackers - modern crackers tend to break into flakes.

The cheese smelled of feet, and not in a sexy way. It was slightly less bad than I expected. I was expecting an awful rotten room-filling stench of death, but it was no worse than some speciality cheeses I have encountered. It reminded me of those times I would take a week off work, and tell everybody I was going to the Cotswolds, but in reality I spent the week in bed drinking and occasionally rolling over to pee in a bottle. Was I happier then than I am now? The cheese did however give me a use for one of the MRE beverage bags I have accumulated, as an improvised body bag:

A body bag for cheese. MRE beverage bags are airtight and thus odour-tight. I don't like the idea of being assailed by the smell of cheese every time I open my pedal bin.

The crackers were just fine. Very mild wheaty taste. MRE crackers are light, dry, but a lot easier to eat than Polish hardtack. Let's drape a shroud over the corpse of the stinky cheese and move on to the next thing, which is a Pop Tart:

Or rather a "toaster pastry", but it's a Pop Tart. I assume it's supposed to be cooked in the flameless ration heater, but I microwaved it for thirty seconds instead. It tasted slightly off, but only slightly. Perhaps the apples had gone bad, but they made up such a tiny part of the ingredients that they hadn't ruined the rest of the Pop Tart. It was edible, not great, but edible, and I finished it off.

Moving on, let's heat up the noodles and the main meal.

There's a typo on the packet. Dehyrdrated.

My heart has a warning label on it as well. Do not overfill. No danger of that. No danger of that. The flameless ration heater had an unusual design. The heating element was in a little pocket that attached to one side of the bag. Modern FRHs have the heating element as a separate pad so that you can put it in between two packets of food - this FRH could only cook one thing at a time. It activated and got hot, but not hot enough to properly cook the meals, so I boiled them in a pan for a couple of minutes.

Consistent white balance? I've heard of it. The noodles smelled unpleasantly sweet but they tasted okay. There was a slightly strange aftertaste, but I couldn't tell if that was because they had gone off or if they were like that in 2002.

My impression is that modern MREs are of a consistently good standard. After thirty years of refinement the food technicians have finally cracked it. There have been a number of infamously bad MRE meals since their introduction in the early 1980s, but the most notorious - the vegetable omelette, the frankfurters, the country captain chicken - are no longer in production.

How would I describe the noodles? They didn't look like noodles. Here in the UK noodles are long stringy things. There was no buttery taste at all. Imagine really cheap pasta with a mild taste of plastic and cardboard. They were edible but I wouldn't want to repeat the experience.

Let's try the main meal. Let's try it. Let's try the meal.

Country Captain Chicken was widely disliked even when it was new, and this one is seventeen years old, so that's a double-whammy, but I was astonished, nay amazed to find that it smelled really nice. It had a distinctive, rich curry aroma, with a touch of southern-style sauce. Perhaps the curry preserved it. I stuck my finger in the sauce and it tasted great, so I threw caution to the wind and ate the rest of it. It was good!

It's essentially a piece of reformed chicken with a lot of curry sauce. Do Americans eat a lot of curry? Curry is huge in the UK. Perhaps it was unpopular because Americans aren't used to curry. Who knows. The sauce had raisins, bits of fruit, and almonds, although it all just tasted of curry.

Now, it's still MRE food. The chicken had the consistency of perished rubber, and without the curry sauce it would have been "food mass". There was enough sauce for two pieces of chicken; if I had designed the meal I would have added more chicken or taken away some of the sauce. It would have gone well with chips.

On the whole I liked the main meal. It's curry-lite with plastic chicken, on a par with a basic microwave meal from Iceland. I suspect that its infamy comes more from the target audience's unfamiliarity with curry than from its inherent naffness. Furthermore it survived to the present day without being frozen so the designers can congratulate themselves on a job well done.

Anything else? The gum took a while to dissolve, but it tasted okay. Vaguely minty gum, slightly better than modern MRE gum. From what I have read the little bottles of tabasco sauce tended to evaporate even though they were screwed shut and sealed. The MRE packet didn't smell of tabasco, and the bottle hadn't leaked onto the other meals. It had just dried up and evaporated into space:

And that was that. The main meal held up well, as did the crackers. The rest, not so much.