Friday, 15 January 2021

MRE Menu 9: Beef Stew

Let's have a look at another MRE. This one is Menu 9: Beef Stew. It's one of the oldest MRE menus, dating back to the very first MREs issued in 1981. The details have changed since then but the basic food payload has always consisted of beef stew, a cracker of some kind, a snack sweet, a slightly more substantial sweet, peanut butter, and some drinks. It's very generic but there's nothing wrong with that.

Beef stew in the name of the law! No, that didn't work. I just don't have a gift for comedy. I'm sorry.

Clockwise from top-left there's a flameless ration heater, strawberry jam, a muffin, a spoon, pretzel nuggets - they're pretty good - the main meal, the accessory packet, a powdered juice drink, peanut butter, some hot sauce, and a nice thick slice of Thin Lizzy snack bread. There's a lot of plastic!

MRE pouches are frustrating. They look as if they should be useful, but there's no gusset, so you can't use them to store water, and the top doesn't reseal so you can't store things in them. And yet they feel too thick to just throw away. They're like those little glass pots you get with Italian puddings. Too good to throw away, but what can you do with them? Put socks in them? But why?

The accessory packet has the standard sub-standard toilet paper, a moist towelette, and iodised salt (not pictured), plus a decent cup of coffee, in this case Coffee, Instant, Type III. Some MREs have sugar substitute; this has actual sugar, and the coffee tastes better for it. The supplied ingredients are enough for a single cup of coffee. I assume US soldiers have ready access to coffee, otherwise the decision to include such a tiny amount of coffee is odd. As always it tastes hard rather than smooth.

While the main meal is cooking in the FRH let's try out the pretzels. They're a lot drier than Snyder's pretzels and not as tasty, but they're still pretty good:

A lot of MRE items come with a little sachet of Donot Eat, which I think is a type of seasoning. The first one I tried must have gone off so I usually throw the sachets away. Let's move on to the drink:

I've never had luck with this type of drink. No matter how hard I stir it or shake the packet it still doesn't mix properly. There are chalky bits left over. It tastes nice, but it doesn't mix. I wonder if I'm doing something wrong. Is it me? Let's wash that down with a peanut butter air quotes sandwich air quotes:

The snack bread smells bready, but it's actually a kind of cake. It's very sugary. If my kidneys had eyes they would probably have gazed at the image above with horror, but they don't have eyes. Perhaps it's best that they don't. It's hard to mess up peanut butter; it keeps forever and it's conceptually very simple. Top Youtube MRE reviewer Steve1989 has eaten MRE peanut butter from the 1980s without suffering any ill effects beyond those naturally associated with peanut butter.

By now the main meal has heated up. This time I cheated a bit. Usually when I eat an MRE I spread it over a couple of days and use the main meal as a snack, but this time I was hungry, so I heated up some rice and had the main meal as an actual main meal:

With the hot sauce drizzled on top.

One perennial problem of military meals is that they tend to have a meaty stew of some kind, but no chips / potatoes / rice to go with it, because there isn't space. It feels odd to eat meat stew by itself.

What was the beef stew like? Not bad. It's one stop above own-brand supermarket beef stew, two steps above the unknown brands that you find in the basement floor of a cornershop, e.g. Westlers, or whatever company makes Lidl's cans of bacon grill. There were no blobby bits of fat and it went well with the rice, although by itself it would have felt unsatisfying. The hot sauce was on the milder side of hot and gave the meal a decent spicy kick.

Let's wash down the stew with the chocolate and banana cookie and strawberry jam:

In general the people who make MREs have perfected cookies, cakes, muffins and so forth, and this was pretty good; moist, tastier than the typical muffins you find in a petrol station or make-your-own-breakfast buffet. There was a mild hint of banana. The jam was thoroughly anonymous. If the packet identified it as apple and blackcurrant I would not have been able to tell the difference.

Anything else? No, that's it. Beef Stew is one of the more bread-and-buttery MREs, with no quirks. It's designed so that you can combine the food in a couple of different ways - you could put the peanut butter on the muffin, or stuff the pretzels into the beef stew, use the snack bread to make a jam sandwich, heat the muffin in the FRH etc - and none of the ingredients are offensive or particularly bad. The fruit drink doesn't mix well and in my opinion standard MRE crackers are more versatile better than the snack bread but on the whole Menu 2 is pretty good.

It would however get very boring, very quickly.

Friday, 1 January 2021

Accessorising a Brompton B75

Let's have a look at the Brompton B75 again. Brompton makes a range of compact folding bicycles; the B75 is their budget model, although it's still not cheap. As of early 2021 the price has risen to £795, but Brompton's website has been out of stock since June, so I have no idea if it actually remains on sale or not.

Brompton achieved the B75's low price by using older components and cutting out some of the standard accessories. There are no mudguards, for example, and the pedals are fixed instead of folding, but on the positive side the bike is £400 cheaper than the next-cheapest Brompton. £400 will buy a lot of accessories.

In September I took it to Lucca in Italy, with a combination of Easyjet and a pair of Ikea Dimpa bags. Plus a yoga mat and some padding. 2020 will not go down in history as a swell year, but at least I got to cycle around Lucca's battlements on a Brompton, so there is that.

On a personal level I don't have a problem with the lack of mudguards; I'm a fair weather cyclist, and I don't like the thought of subjecting my B75 to rain and mud. Brompton sells the mudguard and the mounting poles separately; a rear mudguard set totals around £40 or so.

Bromptons aren't widespread enough to have come to the attention of the Chinese clone market, but on the other hand if the market was flooded with Chinese clones there probably won't be a Brompton any more, so perhaps that's a good thing.

Folding pedals aren't essential. The right pedal is mostly enveloped by the frame when the bike is folded up. I find that the left pedal digs into my leg if I try to carry the bike in its folded state, but it's more an irritant than a deal-breaker. Brompton's official folding left pedal again totals around £40; I bought a second-hand set of MKS XP-EZY removable pedals instead, for around £25:

They're heavier than the standard plastic pedals and more awkward to carry around - the grease gets everywhere - and in fact they're more useful for transporting a Brompton by air, but for occasional use they're more compact than a folding pedal and less likely to snap off or rub against something. That's a running total of around £80 by the way.

Which reminds me of the Ikea Dimpa bag, which is exactly the right size for a folded Brompton, as if they were designed for that purpose:

It's an Ikea Dimpa with another Ikea Dimpa inside it.

The Dimpa costs £3 from Ikea. Inevitably people sell them on eBay for £12 + £1.50 p&p as BROMPTON BIKE BAG L&&K - MINTY! but they're £3. I bought a bunch of them. They double as floor mats if your bike has muddy tyres or indeed as long-term storage for the bike during the winter. They also carry a tonne of clothes as well. They're not airtight, so it's safe to transport people in them, but try to be inconspicuous because they're transparent.

Bromptons are held together with two clamps, which are screwed into place thus:

And before I go on there's another accessory I need to mention - grease. I use a greeny-yellow grease made by Shimano, which is apparently a licenced version of Motorex 2000, which gets good reviews on the internet:

Is it any good? I have no idea! I've probably used far too much. It smells manly and it has ruined one pair of trousers already, which is all I expect of grease. Top marks. It's around £10.

But back to the clamps. The clamps spin freely, so you have to hold onto them while screwing them into place, which is annoying if you're also trying to keep the bike upright. There are a wide range of solutions for this, ranging from replacement clamps to modified margarine tubs, but I bought a pair of EZ-Clamp springs. They're 3D printed bits of plastic that keep the clamps aligned with the hinge. A pair plus post and packaging came to £9.90 when I bought mine:

Is that a hair in the bottom-left? That's what happens if you use too much grease. Your hair falls out. NB the chipped paint is apparently normal.

Yes, that's too much grease. I'll wipe it down. It's a good job I took some close-up photographs of my Brompton in a well-lit studio. The hinge pins do eventually wear out and are not easily user-replaceable, but after riding several hundred miles by B75 is just as rigid was it was when new, so here's to another several hundred miles.

Lights. It's important to have lights, otherwise you'll be killed if you try to cycle at night. A Brompton is no use to you if you're dead, unless you're trying to dodge inheritance tax. Or perhaps you need a way to transport your soul through the underworld in relative comfort, but you only have limited room in your coffin. So, yes, there are a couple of niche cases in which a Brompton might be useful to you if you were dead start again

Lights. It's important to have lights. Luckily it's 2021 and tiny little sub-£20 USB-charged LED lights are widely available. I have two on my front handlebars, viz:

Why mount them at an odd angle? The B75 won't fold properly if both lights are attached to the middle of the handlebars. There's some debate on the internet as to whether dual lights is a good idea or not. The argument is that people might read the light signature as a distant car rather than a nearby bicycle. Luckily the majority of my commute is on a cycle path segregated from a main road, so that's not an issue; you might have better luck with just one light.

Rear lighting is more awkward. The EZ-wheel rods are too low for comfort, and the lights are fouled by the rear reflector:

Furthermore every time I fold the bike I bang the lights against the ground. In the end I bought a second brand of light for around £14 that had a long enough strap to go around the seatpost, which is 31.8mm in diameter:

The B75 comes as standard with an extended seatpost, which I find essential as I'm almost six feet tall. As such I can leave the light in place when I retract the seatpost, because there's enough length for it to remain outside the frame. The one downside of a seatpost-mounted light is that it gets in the way of Brompton's seat-mounted rear pouch.

None of these lights are bright enough to cycle across country at night in the Outer Hebrides, but they do at least warn pedestrians that I am moving among them at relativistic speeds.

How much is that? £120 or so? Less if you already have lights and don't need a folding pedal.

The B75's other big omission is the front luggage block, this thing here:

Bromptons have a luggage system that's somewhat akin to a proper hiking backpack. The luggage slides onto a metal frame, which slides onto the luggage block. The rack doesn't turn left and right as you steer the bike, which is initially disconcerting but helps keep the luggage from sliding off sideways.

Alternatively you can tie an ordinary bag onto the frame with string. I really need to work on this.

Why not just wear a small backpack? Bromptons are rear-heavy. The sit-up-and-beg riding position forces all of your bodyweight onto the back of the bike. Front-mounted luggage improves the weight balance. The arrangement above, with the floppy bag, is crude, but when loaded down with lunch and a can of fizzy pop the B75's handling is noticeably better. It feels more planted somehow. In theory a front-mounted bag creates more air resistance, but the B75 is not a speed demon.

I mention the luggage system last because it's the most expensive standard upgrade. The official Brompton luggage block is around £20; eBay clones are around £17 or so; the frame comes in a variety of sizes at around £35. Official Brompton bags are anything from £75 up but you might be able to improvise your own solution. Probably better than mine.

EDIT: Another simple upgrade is a titanium seatpost. In the following image it's in the middle, sitting on top of a titanium laptop, flanked by standard-length and extended-length steel seatposts:

It's the same length as the extended seatpost plus the stopper. On a personal level I prefer the extended post. I can't stretch my legs with a standard seatpost. The extended version also has a bit of space for a light:

The titanium seatpost with a light. Why did I even grease that nut? What for?

I'm old enough to remember when titanium was well rad. You could buy cameras, watches, bicycles etc made from titanium, although as far as I know only Apple went so far as to make a laptop out of it.

The problem is that laptops continually shrunk in size throughout the 2000s, so it was pointless shaving a few grams from the weight of a laptop by making it out of an exotic metal. In watches and cameras the weight savings were equally pointless, and furthermore titanium looks dull in comparison to stainless steel. And it's very expensive. It was overshadowed in the 2000s by carbon fibre, but there are still titanium bicycle frames on the market if you have coin.

Titanium is roughly the same strength as steel but half as dense, so for the same strength it weighs less. It's also more bouncy, so apparently it rides better. On a subjective level I haven't noticed a difference but of course it's just the seatpost; the rest of the bike is still steel.

I bought my seatpost from eBay for around £60. It's noticeably lighter than the extended steel model, to the tune of around half a can of Coke. When installed in the bike I can't tell the difference, but I suppose it compensates for the slightly heavier weight of my removeable pedals, plus the lights and luggage block etc, so it's not entirely pointless. If nothing else it's a conversation-starter.