Monday, 16 November 2020

MRE Menu 10: Chili and Macaroni

Back in the 1960s rock and roll was only a decade old, and with a very few exceptions there were no old rock stars. Even in the 1980s, when it became impossible to hide the fact that the Rolling Stones et al were middle-aged men, they still weren't all that old in objective terms. Mick Jagger was only 43 in 1985; Don Henley was 38. Their voices had matured, but on the whole they still hadn't lost their range, in fact they were at an age when classical tenors (for example) are still in their prime.

However in the 1990s and 2000s it became obvious that the likes of Paul McCartney and the chaps from ZZ Top couldn't hit the high notes any more. Even in the absence of physical self-abuse the muscles in their vocal cords had weakened and their larynxes and grown stiff.

Some singers try to mask their decline with technology, or backing singers, but I've always been fascinated by musicians who try to adapt their style to work around their physical limitations.

Menu 10 includes the main meal, a beef snack, vegetable crackers, some peppermints (not pictured), trans-fat-free cornbread, a carbohydrate drink, and some cheese spread with jalapenos. And crushed red pepper.

Perhaps the most famous example is Billie Holiday. In her youth she was praised for the intimate character of her voice, and as she aged she managed to compensate for the loss of her upper register with clever phrasing and intonation. By the time of her last album, Lady in Satin (1958), the edges of her voice were ragged, but the album is widely praised as a classic because she picked material that complemented her vocal fragility.

A similar thing happened to Johnny Cash. As a young man he had a powerful baritone, but by the time of his late-90s American Recordings his voice was scratchy and hoarse. Nonetheless producer Rick Rubin resisted the temptation to mask Cash's rough edges with sampling and multi-tracking; instead the albums were recorded in a few takes with just a pair of microphones and a digital tape recorder.

The end result revitalised Cash's career. As an older man his gritty, lived-in voice exuded gravitas, and on the likes of "Hurt" and "I Won't Back Down" the contrast between his younger and older selves gave the songs an added layer of poignancy.

The accessory packet has the typical mix of gum, useless toilet paper, iodized salt, and coffee instant type II, plus some actual sugar (instead of fake sugar).

Some singers even embrace their physical decline. Mark E Smith of The Fall was never a conventionally skilled vocal performer, but as a young man he had an aggressive, sarcastic vocal style that cut through the two-drummer wall of sound of the band's early recordings. However he eventually developed respiratory problems, and for his last decade of recordings he adopted a strangled, hoarse growl of a voice that exuded defiant menace, and today we're going to have a look at MRE Menu 10: Chili and Macaroni.

Does it exude defiant menace? No, it's surprisingly good. Chili and Macaroni is one of the oldest MRE menus. It was introduced in 1995 and has been part of the repertoire ever since. There have been minor variations over the years but since 2015 the menu has stabilised around chilli, a meat snack, crackers, and a cake of some description, plus cheese. It's versatile enough to be eaten in several different ways, although in my opinion it would make more sense to have tortillas than crackers.

Of note the Americans call it chili. Here in the UK it's chilli. As a post-modern joke I briefly contemplated spelling every word in this post with two Ls, but thought better of it because people who start reading half-way through the text would be confused. I love you, dear reader. I want you to remember that I could have hurt you, but chose not to. I want you to remember that.

Let's try out the coffee, instant, type II. It's decent-quality instant coffee, hard rather than smooth.

The spoon had a noticeable curve. I placed it side-by-side with several other MRE spoons and none of them had the same curve. It was too pronounced to be a tolerance issue. Was it damaged in transit? Production variation? Was it the heat?

MREs are shelf-stable meals that are made for the US Armed Forces by Natick Labs of Massachusetts. They were first fielded in the 1980s, when they replaced canned C-Rations, but they didn't enter widespread circulation until the Gulf War of 1991. Several different companies package them, and each meal has some variation in terms of sweets and entrees etc. The very earliest meals had a lot of freeze-dried food, but modern MREs are all "wet", which is useful in the field because soldiers sometimes only have time to squeeze the packets directly into their mouths.

Early MREs had a reputation for awfulness, but as of 2020 they appear to be grudgingly accepted as decent albeit monotonous food mass. Service personnel don't eat them all the time; in fact they are apparently forbidden from eating them for more than twenty-one days in a row, presumably because they don't have much fibre.

Beef jerky. It tastes a bit like Pepperami, but less spicy.

It looks hideous. I would probably look hideous if I fell into a beef mincing machine. Somewhere in the universe there is a planet where cows eat people.

MREs don't make any sense on the civilian market. They're designed to last for five years, perhaps longer in cool conditions, but dried rice will last even longer. For camping or hiking they're too bulky and generate too much plastic waste (more of this later) and just as an occasional treat they're too expensive. They are however a fun novelty.

I've covered the coffee and the beef jerky. Now I'll get the main meal cooking in the FRH:

While that's hissing away I'm going to try out the cornbread. I'll also switch back to the past tense.

Cornbread isn't part of the British diet. I assumed it was a bun of some kind, but it's actually a sweet cake. It's surprisingly good. Not too dry, not too sweet, and it actually tastes of something. I dunked some of it in the coffee, taking care that it didn't break apart. It would go well with cream or jam. If nothing else the MRE people have worked out how to preserve cakes.

I had a poor initial impression of the fruit punch. I've tried it before, and as pictured above I was unable to get it to mix properly. Stirring it just moved the clumps around. However I tried pouring water into the fruit punch packet and shaking it around, and that mixed it up nicely.

Perhaps you're supposed to put it in the otherwise-useless beverage bag. The end result was a nondescript, pleasant fruity drink. The packet doesn't have room for much water so I probably didn't dilute it enough. Would it go well with ice-cold vodka? Probably.

I mentioned plastic waste up the page. Menu 10 also includes peppermints which are all individually wrapped in plastic, despite also being vacuum-sealed in a bag which is in turn sealed into a bag which is sealed into the MRE:

Perhaps the MRE people were worried that a rip in the packet would make the entire meal taste minty. The mints are Life Savers, which are popular in the United States. I learn from the internet that they predate Polos. They're larger than Polos. I tried one of them. It was a Polo.

The meal includes vegetable crackers instead of the more normal wheat-based variety. The last time I tried one was on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, but it was too hot to eat dry crackers so I only had a small bite. They're not bad - imagine a cross between an oatmeal biscuit and a cracker, but unsalted and unsweetened - but they're far too crumbly to eat by themselves, so I ended up mashing them into the main meal.

By now the main meal was ready, so let's decant it onto a plate, along with the cheese and the red peppers:

The red peppers were bland; I was worried I had overdone things, but their influence on the meal was minimal. Overall the end result was pretty decent, bearing in mind that it was gloop. It would have been awesome post-pub food with chips. I piled some of the food onto what remained of the crackers:

It might not look like much but it was one of the best MRE meals I have had. In a civilian context it was superior to canned chilli macaroni, but not as good as a plastic-tray pop-in-the-microwave don't-forget-to-pierce-the-film does-anybody-leave-it-to-stand-midway-through-heating-it meal, although it's close.

One thing Menu 10 has in common with other MREs is that the main meal is unusually small. European military meals tend to have fewer sweets and a larger main meal, but perhaps MREs are designed so that soldiers can quickly wolf the food down in case of artillery attack. Who knows.

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Rollei Retro 80S II

Have you ever heard Tom Heasley's On the Sensations of Tone? It's an album of solo tuba pieces played in a big echoey room so that the tuba becomes a big wash of formless sound. It's not a million miles from Steve Roach's Structures from Silence, but with a tuba. Not an instrument I have ever associated with ambient music.

The album had a limited release on compact disc in 2002 but nowadays it's also available on iTunes. It has nothing to do with the subject of this blog post but I like it a lot.

Let's move on.

Last month I popped off to Pisa. At the time it was one of the few places British people could visit without having to quarantine after coming back, although sadly the rules have since changed. I took along some of the Rollei Retro 80S I wrote about a couple of months ago, because otherwise it's just going to expire. I bought a batch of it earlier in the year for another trip that had to be cancelled.

Retro 80S is a contrasty black and white film derived from aerial surveillance film. It has extended red sensitivity in order to cut through haze and is presumably meant to be used with a dark red filter, but for the images in this post I didn't bother. It's sold by the entity that owns the Rollei brand name in Germany. I have no idea if Rollei still manufactures it, or if instead they bought the Czech Air Force's last million feet of the stuff a decade ago and have been putting it in 35mm film canisters ever since.

I also took along my Pen F and a telephoto lens, viz:

I've written at length about the Olympus Pen F before. It's a half-frame SLR system from the late 1960s, early 1970s. Olympus also sold a modest set of lenses, ranging from 21mm at the wide end to something around 200mm at the long end, with a couple of zooms. The lenses are tiny little jewels and the camera bodies are among the most attractive cameras ever made, sleek and smooth in a slightly 1950s space-age style. There was also a range of half-frame Pens with built-in lenses.

The Pen F used standard 35mm film, but the frame was half the width. Essentially it was the same as 35mm motion picture film, specifically Super 35. It had a cropping factor of around 1.4x, roughly the same as APS-H. The 21mm lens acted a bit like a 28mm in full-frame terms; the standard lenses were 38-40mm. The 70-210mm lens pictured above acts like a 100-300mm, give or take a few mm.

One of the great things about the Pen F is that it could use lenses from other SLR systems, which extended the range of focal lengths greatly and allowed the use of exotic optics such as fisheyes and tilt-shift lenses. The Nikon F adapter is particularly useful because Nikon still uses the F-mount today. Here's my Nikon F adapter. in the middle:

The only major limitation is that it's manual stop-down, e.g. you have to focus wide open, then stop the lens down yourself when you shoot. I generally left the 70-210mm at f/4, which is a half-click down from wide open.

The telephoto lens is a Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5 Series 1, a classic old zoom from the 1970s. In its day it was hot stuff. Slightly faster and longer than the 80-200mm f/4 lenses sold by Nikon and Canon, with a separate macro mode that went down to quarter life size. All of the photos in this article were taken with this combination of lens and camera body. The macro mode compensated for its only major limitation, which was a relatively long minimum focus distance of around 2m/6ft, which isn't disastrous but feels awkward.

Optically all of the 70-210mm f/3.5 lenses I have used - there were several models - are similar. Decent wide open until 150mm, albeit with purple fringing and soft corners; sharp across most of the frame at f/5.6 from 70-150mm; you have to stop down one more stop at 210mm; the colours are muted; the bokeh isn't great.

Manual focus zoom lenses are awkward to use on modern camera bodies. They were awkward even in the 1970s. There's a reason why there are so many boutique manual focus prime lenses but no boutique manual focus zoom lenses. The 70-210mm Series 1 is also a push-pull-twisty-turny zoomy-focusy lens, although thankfully mine doesn't slop back and forth.

At left 70mm, at right 210mm, after stepping back several paces. I think it was f/4. Film doesn't have EXIF information. Even in this small photos the image is obviously softer at 210mm.

With 80-speed film f/3.5 isn't very fast, but the Pen F has a smooth shutter, so I aimed for 125/s or 1/60th at a pinch and it seemed to work.

The Pen F is still an eccentric choice as a telephoto camera. On the positive side half-frame squeezes 72 shots out of a 36-shot roll and the camera itself was smaller than the lens - I essentially carried the lens around with the Pen F hanging off the back - but against it the viewfinder is relatively dim, it doesn't have a split-image focusing aid, and the resolution of half-frame is modest.

As mentioned up in the page half-frame uses almost exactly the same frame size as Super 35mm motion picture film, so in theory a professional scanning bureau should be able to squeeze roughly 4K of resolution out of it, but I only have a flatbed scanner.

It was a melancholic experience, wandering around Pisa and Florence and the Cinque Terre in late 2020. There were still crowds, but the museums had reduced opening hours and some of Florence's central market had been closed off. For the avoidance of all controversy I wore a facemask almost all the time, so my enduring memory of Italy in 2020 is the smell of chewing gum and not having to shave.

Italy was hit by coronavirus hard and early, but by September it had recovered. However as I write these words there is a second wave and British people can no longer go to Italy without quarantining on the way back. I flew with Easyjet from Bristol Airport, taking along the Brompton folding bicycle mention in this post; Bristol Airport was like a military checkpoint and for the first time ever the passengers didn't leap out of their seats the moment the pilot put on the parking brake, but apart from that the plane was packed and the experience of travel felt relatively normal.

Over the last decade or so there has been an attempt to turn airports and railway stations into boutique shopping hubs. Even before coronavirus it was a hard sell - airports and train stations tend to either be in the middle of nowhere or at least out of the way - and I pity anybody who opened a shop in one of these places. Bristol Airport's entire landside area was closed and the airside shops were struggling with crowd control.

Imagine if birds could spread Coronavirus. We'd have to tape their beaks shut and feed them intravenously.

Coronavirus is a thief. It has stolen some of the time we have left. It has pushed all of our plans into the future, leaving us with blank empty space to fill. Obviously that's not a problem for me, dear reader, because I'm a mentally hyperactive creative genius, and you're pretty good yourself, but what about them?

Usually disasters have a definite end, sometimes definite enough to celebrate with a great big party, but this time there will never be an end. Eventually coronavirus will eventually recede from the public consciousness but it will never go away, and perhaps one day the blind watchmaker of the natural world will engineer a virus that spreads faster than COVID and kills more certainly, and our dreams of conquering outer space will come to an end. Until then, dear reader, you are still alive.