Wednesday, 11 December 2019

MRE Menu 23: Pizza Slice, Pepperoni

Let's have a look at MRE Menu 23: Pizza Slice, Pepperoni. It was introduced relatively recently, in 2018, because the scientists who develop MREs couldn't find a way to make pizza remain shelf-stable for five years without it going off or turning brown.

South is at the top

Because I'm a debonair international man of leisure I decided to test out the MRE in Hong Kong, specifically Lantau to the west of the main island, and so I transported an MRE from Britain to the Far East, because I had space in my bag, and why not?

Hong Kong has army surplus stores, but I have no idea if they sell American MREs. My hunch is that army surplus stores in Korea are full of them, Hong Kong not so much. Of course if you're camping in Hong Kong there are plenty of other options for food. Pocari Sweat and Pocky sticks, for example.

I drank the coffee after coming back to the UK - I didn't have a kettle in Hong Kong. It was Bill's Brew, and as with all the other MRE coffee I have tried it was "hard" rather than "smooth".

Hong Kong is famous for its skyscrapers but it has acres of relatively wild countryside as well. A lot of the islands were abandoned in the 1970s when the locals got sick of living in abject poverty. They moved to Kowloon or emigrated to Britain and beyond, and no-one moved in to replace them. You'd think someone would buy up all the real estate and build houses there, but they would just turn into empty ghost estates because the islands don't have an infrastructure or jobs. Perhaps the Chinese authorities could dump refugees onto Hong Kong's islands and just forget about them. If they thrive, tax them; if they die, the spiders will eat well.

Hong Kong's islands are a bit like those Scottish islands that go on the market every so often. The idea of owning an entire island for five million pounds is intriguing, but my hunch is that the novelty wears off, at which point you're stuck with an extremely illiquid asset.

For this post I attempted to hike from Shek Pik reservoir (pictured above) to an abandoned fort in Fan Lau, on the extreme south-west corner of Lantau, but incompetence and inexperience defeated me, so I gave up half-way there. My tip is that you if you plan to do some hiking in Hong Kong, don't do it on the first day after you arrive. Start early in the morning and rest during the middle of the day. I'll write about it at some point.

Fan Lau is off on the horizon to the left of the mountain over yonder in the hazy distance

I reached this beach, Kau Ling Chung, and decided to turn back because I ran out of water. OSMAnd correctly pointed out that there was a water source at the beach's campsite, but it was untreated spring water, and lacking any means of water purification I decided not to risk drinking it.

It looked clean, but a little voice in my head kept saying "you're in Hong Kong, you moron", and have you ever read about the Death Valley Germans? None of the decisions they made were especially awful, and they were reasonably intelligent, but they still died.

The beach itself has mixed reviews on the internet. The big problem is litter. When I was there it wasn't too bad, but it did feel a bit grotty so I didn't hang around.

The meal contains a slice of pizza, some cherry cobbler - e.g. cherry crumble, minus the crumble - plus a vegetable cracker, cheese spread with jalapeno flavouring, an oatmeal cookie, and a chocolate drink. The accessory packet had some gum that I munched on the walk back, and some coffee I drank at home. As I drank the coffee I wished I could go back to Hong Kong, but sadly I only have a limited amount of money so Hong Kong will have to do without my sweet love for a while.

Top YouTube MRE reviewer and general good guy Steve1989 has also reviewed this MRE. I generally agree with his conclusions although I wasn't as fond of the main meal as him. MREs are packaged by different companies and have minor variations - his was packaged by Ameriqual, mine by Wornick:

Whenever I look at MRE packaging I think of the Fallout games. Ameriqual presumably stands for "American Quality". It's one of those government contractors that exists and employs hundreds of people, but you've never heard of it.

Two hundred years after the bombs drop there will be a sidequest where you infiltrate AmeriQual's factory in search of preserved food, but there'll be a twist. The food will be made of people, or it'll make you turn pink, or it'll be full of amphetamines etc, nb I am not suggesting that the real AmeriQual adulterates its food. I'm digressing here. Let's try the chocolate drink. I've had it before.

I've never noticed the sugar grains before. You're supposed to add water and swish it around in the packet to mix it up, but it doesn't mix very well. Every time I've had one of these drinks the chocolate ends up in clumps. Perhaps it would mix better with warm water.

My impression is that MREs are generally thought of as not bad by actual soldiers. The early menus attracted a lot of criticism, and some of the later meals are infamous - the vegetable omelette and "four fingers of death" sausages in particular - but on the whole the only major gripe is that they're salty and monotonous. In the comfort of my own home MRE chocolate drink is fine, but in the humid, 30c environment of Lantau Island in October the sugary-sweet mixture was pretty revolting, so I had to wash it down with more water.

For this review I ate part of the meal, then walked on a bit, then ate more of the meal. Hong Kong has tonnes of enormous spiders and other creepy-crawlies, and eating food is awkward because as soon as you put something on a surface ants crawl all over it. There isn't much shade, and in any case I don't trust the trees because they harbour giant spiders. The trees have no mercy.

Next I tried the cherry cobbler. You're supposed to heat it up, but before coming to Hong Kong I opened up the MRE and took out the flameless ration heater. British Airways' guidelines (PDF) implicitly allow FRHs - they mention MREs by name, and forbid the use of FRHs in flight, which implies that they don't mind if you simply transport them by air - but I didn't want to risk it. However the cherry cobbler was just fine cold:

It looked like the aftermath of a shotgun blast to the face but tasted pretty good, and the moisture was nice. Unlike the chocolate drink it wasn't overpoweringly sweet. In my experience the fruit flavours in MREs are surprisingly subtle.

Let's try the main event. The pizza:

It was surprisingly small, although in its defence it was chunky. Was it any good? Erm. It was thick and doughy and very dry. Perhaps if I had used the flameless ration heater some of the grease would have moistened up the pizza base, but it tasted like doughy bread with pizza flavour on top. It didn't taste bad, it just didn't feel much like pizza. In the end I had a few bites and tossed it into the undergrowth, because it was just too dry. This was a common theme running through the bulk of the meal.

Next up, the oatmeal cookie:

It was a big cookie, slightly larger than the pizza slice. I debated whether I should press it a few times or go for a true neverclick run, but after waiting a few minutes there were no golden cookies so visions of Dragonflight click frenzies receded from my mind. Then it struck me that the heat must be getting to my mind. Cookie Clicker isn't real life, besides which it's not even the right type of cookie. It doesn't have bits of chocolate in it.

It was perfectly fine but again very dry and sugary so after a few bites I donated it to the local wildlife. I threw it into the undergrowth and then tried very hard not to look in case I saw a swarming mass of giant spiders tearing it apart. For some insects on Lantau the day I decided to try out an MRE may have been the difference between life and death; for me, it was Wednesday. I am worried that I will find out that sugary cookies and MRE pizza are lethal to wildlife and that by introducing foreign foods to Lantau Island I have destroyed the local ecosystem, but on the other hand the beach had lots of rubbish so I suspect Lantau has already been damaged beyond repair. Aren't we all, eh? Damaged beyond repair. We're all damaged beyond repair. You can't mend people.

Let's try the vegetable cracker. It doesn't sound very appealing. Vegetables are vegetables and crackers are crackers and never the twain shall meet:

At this point I was in no mood to eat a dry cracker, so I took a bite and then threw it away. It didn't taste of much at all. It was a slightly different design to the cracker in Steve1989's meal. His was designed to break into four fingers, mine was just a big cracker.

I kept the cheese spread for later, and after carefully packing the plastic wrappers into the MRE bag - take only photographs, leave only footprints - I staggered up a bunch of rocky steps and then walked back to the bus stop and went back to Tung Chung.

Tung Chung, which is essentially the gateway to Lantau - you get off the MTR and get on a bus to explore the rest of the island

I necked down some Pocari sweat and made my way back to Kowloon on the MTR. In the end I put the cheese spread over some McDonalds fries, thus making cheesy chips. When people ask me what I ate in Hong Kong I tell them I gorged on street food in between trips to La Vache, and I was treated to some home cooking from friends of mine in Fanling, but in reality it was McDonald's five times a day 24/7 because Hong Kong's Big Mac index is highly favourable. As long as you promise to keep quiet no-one need ever know. I wonder if there's a connection between my prodigious McDonald's intake and the difficulty I experienced hiking in what were pretty mild conditions. Surely not.

In summary MRE Menu 23 is disappointing. The cherry cobbler is nice. The cookie has nothing wrong with it, but it's just a big cookie. The vegetable crackers are bland, and the pizza itself is a thick doughy pizza-flavoured slab of bread with pizza topping. I think the problem is that pizza's appeal comes from the mixture of melted fat and melted cheese, but neither of those things can be preserved, so MRE Pizza is doomed to be a compromise.

Perhaps if they included a sachet of cheesy sauce that you could soak into the pizza to give it moisture it wouldn't be so bad. But they don't, so MRE pizza is essentially a novelty. It might be more palatable if you were in a cold weather climate - Norwegian MREs have had pizza for several years, and their pizza looks nicer - but not on Lantau island at the beginning of Hong Kong's autumn, the end.