Maudlin Recipe Envisioned
Food-addicted man-hog that I am, I somehow manage to miss key developments in industrial nutrition technology. I often fail to see the consumption-enhancement forest for the new-flavor-of-Slurpee trees, to put it another way; by way of example, despite its fascinating nature and evocative name, I only just yesterday found out about the “ready-to-use therapeutic food” known as Plumpy Nut.
What’s more, I have managed to live in San Antonio — home to approximately 6.2 kerjillion military personnel — for almost five years without dipping my taste buds into the high-protein swimming pool of MREs, a.k.a. “Meals Ready-to-Eat”, the staple food of our boys overseas. Although not normally commercially available, the Fort Sam Houston commissary, to which I have access via a nefarious series of market manipulations, offers MREs that have fallen off a truck, available for only $7.50 for those unlucky grunts who got addicted to them while serving in the Middle East and just can’t shake the institutional cuisine monkey off their backs. If there are three things I am famous for, it is eating garbage, co-opting items normally meant for military use in some disgraceful manner, and mocking my betters, so how could I resist the opportunity to do all three at once?
The history of military rations is actually quite fascinating. The necessity to feed a mobile force of thousands of people whose lives are already at constant risk has posed any number of compelling challenges, both nutritionally and logistically, and reading about it is a compelling study of human ingenuity. This post, however, will deal with none of that history and instead focus on the mildly amusing minutiae of my having purchased and consumed an Army MRE claiming to be “Beef Ravioli”. Because of the nutritional challenge of service in the Middle East, many developments in food technology are represented herein, from its innovative self-heating system (like atheists, microwave ovens are nowhere to be found in your average foxhole) to its high protein content, meant to sustain a supply of concentrated high energy throughout the day. Of course, it is meant to be eaten by fit, motivated soldiers carrying out a tense military mission in trying climactic conditions and not by fat slobs who spend all day on the couch watching reruns of That ’70s Show, but what would a government resource be if it wasn’t subject to egregious abuse?
These things are designed by high-powered military nutritionists to exactly meet the needs of today’s soldier, but those needs only exist under specific conditions, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that the desperate returning vets who eat these things over the sink after coming back from the Afghan front are doing their health a favor. The high protein quotient isn’t ideal for civilian life, and the fact that MREs are meant to survive without refrigeration for long periods of time means that they’re absolutely crammed with sodium. I could feel my blood pressure going up the second I opened up the dreary-looking brown plastic bag, but even through the throbbing pulse in my temples, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the huge amount of food they managed to shove into a small space; it’s the kind of clever package design one usually can’t get without the aid of Chinese slave labor.
First into my gaping maw was the “beef stick snack”, because I can’t resist a good jerky. Which is why it was such a disappointment that this was a terrible jerky. Texturally, it was somewhere between a Slim Jim-style quasi-meat tube-stick and an actual tooth-damaging dehydrated beef-leather jerky, but flavor-wise, it was somewhere between a shoe and a piece of cardboard. There is nothing un-American about seasonings, Department of Defense.
Needing something to wash the non-taste of the beef bar out of my mouth, and deciding that gin was contrary to the spirit of this experiment, I busted out the “carbohydrate electrolyte beverage powder”, which is bureaucratese for “instant Gatorade powder”. The instructions called for chemically purifying 12 ounces of water, letting it stand for half an hour, pouring it into the oversized pouch, and then drinking it with all the grace of a man sipping fruit punch out of a sandwich bag. Attempting to maintain a modicum of dignity, I decided instead to just pour the powder into a bottle of Aquafina. Despite sugar being its primary ingredient, the CEBP wasn’t very sweet, and tasted more or less like Kool-Aid that someone had neglected to sweeten. But that just meant that it tasted like ordinary bottled water, which was fine with me because I chased it with “vegetable crackers and fortified cheese spread with jalapeños”. The crackers were meant to survive rumbling around in a Humvee all day without turning into powder, so they’re vacuum-sealed, and when the package is torn open, a satisfying hiss of air is emitted. The vitamin-packed cheese spread, while unpretty, is actually quite tasty, and the two make a good combination; unfortunately, there are more crackers than there is cheese spread, so eventually you have to face up to the fact that the crackers are so sturdy because they look, and probably taste, like roofing shingles.
After all this foreplay, I figured it was time for the main event. Beef ravioli time! It’s far too complicated to describe the magical science wonders of the FRH (the bag that heats your meal), but basically, it’s a plastic pouch you stuff into a box with your food, and then hydrogen happens, somehow, and the result is hot food. The FRH itself contains lots of helpful advice, such as “do not put hydrogen gas near an open flame”, “do not drink the water you use to heat your food with”, and “be careful placing an activated heater in your pocket”, none of which make me feel especially enthusiastic about the intelligence of our servicemen. My absolute favorite part of the packaging is an illustration that tells you to prop the box and heater up so that the liquid doesn’t spill out; it has a picture of a boulder on which the whole works are leaning, and it is labeled “ROCK OR SOMETHING”.
I didn’t have a rock, but I still have lots of somethings in the house, so I got busy readying my meal to eat. Basically, you just jam the food bag into the FRH pouch, pour in a little water, and sure enough, the magic science sticks heat up like a jockstrap filled with Tiger Balm. Then you slide it back into the box, lean it up against your rock or something, and wait only three to five times as long as you would if your foxhole really did come with a microwave. The eventual result? Something that could be, technically, described as a serving of semi-piping hot beef ravioli! It didn’t taste that bad, but should you ever doubt how important visual presentation is to a meal, imagine this stuff slithering out of its foil pouch, looking like a Horta and eerily conforming to the exact dimensions of the package it came from, and you will know.
After surviving that ordeal, I felt like I had earned a tasty dessert. Luckily, the MRE came with two: a big bag of tiny toffee cookies that were far and away the tastiest item in the whole package (and whose unusually large serving size made me wonder about how seriously the Army intends to combat the problem of obesity), and something described as a “frosted brown sugar cinnamon toaster pastry”. Now, it wasn’t awful — it was as good as any other unheated Pop-Tart, which is to say, well, I guess it was awful after all — but it suggested an interesting conundrum. Since it was obviously meant to be eaten unheated — it could not be prepared in the FRH pouch, and foxholes are as rarely equipped with toasters as they are microwaves — how could it, rationally, be called a toaster pastry?
I don’t drink coffee, so I wasn’t able to enjoy most of the contents of an additional goodie bag, to wit, a tube of Taster’s Choice instant joe, a bag of non-dairy creamer, a packet of Splenda, and a clear plastic bag to prepare them in which looks exactly like the bag that clinics use to collect urine samples. The goodie bag also contained a folded paper napkin, a refreshing moist towelette (not, alas from Hawthorne Wipes, but from — no joke — Towelettes Etc. of Penacook, New Hampshire), a packet of Tabasco sauce, some salt, a book of matches, and a couple of mint-flavored Chiclets. I considered thinking of a way to combine these all into a single, fiery experience, but my stomach was starting to cramp, almost certainly from a different meal I’d eaten earlier in the day. (I did, however, save the best for last: showing the hand of an evil genius at work, the MRE contained an entire bag of caffeinated after-dinner mints.)
It’s hard to offer an overall analysis of the MRE without invoking Dr. Johnson’s line about female clerics. But it certainly made me appreciate our men and women in uniform all the more, knowing the great lengths to which technology had come in order to allow them to survive on the kind of diet ordinarily only available to people with regular access to a gas station mini-mart. So here’s to you, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines: may you all come home soon, to better ravioli.