Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Food Review - MRE

One of the things you need to do as a professional chef is to be prepared to smack anybody in the head that snickers when you call yourself a "professional chef". You also have to be willing to try different foods, regardless of your gut reaction to the food.

With this spirit in mind, and recalling the luck I had Monday in eating Taco Bell on Yongsan, I bought a Meal Ready to Eat at a black market store around Hongjae station. Now I have not had the newer MRE's, I have though had some C-rations, or whatever they were called. I tried them in my youth as a military surplus store in the area has them for sale. So I had some frame of reference in what to expect, other than the recent flood of news reports, and blogs, about "life in the field" for the military.

First thing I must note is the packaging. I find some humor in the front having a small logo  on the front of a silhouette solider with an M-16 at the ready. Frankly the logo was a little nostalgic as the silhouette reminded one of the US "cold warrior" image of the 70's and 80's. Ironic given the fact that many Army critics (including Rummy) think the US is nostalgic for those days anyway. Anyway the food was nicely packaged up in individual packets: Pretzels, Peanut Butter, whole grain bread, pound cake, cherry drink mix, coffee service of sorts, and an entree that was advertised as something like chicken and pasta in tomato sauce. Included were instructions on how to eat the MRE. This is not as funny as it sounds, the notes simply included advice on what to eat first if you pressed for time (It helps you make decisions on what do first if you sit down for your meal and a grenade is thrown in your foxhole).

On a final note, the meal included salt, but no pepper. In a nod to fads, or perhaps just solider choice, the packet included a cute little bottle of Tabasco complete in distinctive bottle and label. I wonder of the makers donate them, or the military pays full price. It must be more expensive than little plastic envelopes labeled "hot sauce".

The thing also included a chemical heating unit that heated up if you added water. I followed the directions (complete with the memorable utilitarian diagram reference "Rock or something") to the letter, but performance was mediocre. Perhaps I did not allow enough time to pass. The chicken was lukewarm; the pack however was red hot through the miracle of chemistry.

Anyway review item by item (in the order eaten):

Pretzels - I expected this bag to be actually pretzel dust, as the packets must take so much abuse things are bound to get crushed. To my surprise there was minimal damage. The tasted fine, however the had a flavor that was strangely reminiscent of the crackers I once ate in C-rations. I wonder if it's the preservatives for crispy bread products or something. Not bad, but you can get better in the store. Great with the peanut butter.

Peanut Butter - This is nice. I had peanut butter in the C-rations, but it came out of the can very oil. This was smooth and creamy. Good complement to the Pretzels.

Chicken entree - First complaint, as I mentioned already, it was not really warm. Second, It was kind of hard to eat a solid pressed chicken meat patty with a spoon from a narrow envelope. To solve that problem I put it on the bread (more about that later). Lastly, and more importantly, it tasted a few grades lower than the hospital food made for patents that are allergic to everything. Basically it was a mix of solid play dough and sludge that had a feint chicken tomato flavor and color. It tasted edible with salt and Tabasco, but then even real play dough and sludge tastes edible with salt and Tabasco.

Whole Grain Bread-I expected the worst for this. It came out of the packet reinforcing my idea of the worst. It looked like a soda cracker on steroids. However it was nice and light, moist, and very tasty. It was roughly an individually baked 3in square bread loaf with little soda cracker-like holes in the middle. It served as a great substitute for a plate, which was sorely needed.

Spiced Pound Cake - This definitely gets my thumbs up. It was moist, flavorful, and in a strange way tasted homemade. It would have been nice to have a small envelope of frosting to go with it, but I am not complaining. What to trade for if you are stranded in the middle of nowhere with a friend and all you have to eat are MRE's.

Cherry Drink Mix - Just like Kool-aid, and I hate Kool-aid. 'Nuff said.

Coffee - Ummm instant coffee, just like you can get back home in Korea. A funny thing to note is that the Coffee, Hot sauce, and Sugar were exactly what you would buy "off the shelf" in the US. I read somewhere that the US military is changing some its food procurement practices in food to order to buy familiar brands to serve as a boost for morale. Perhaps this is why I had Tasters Choice, Tobacco, and Domino Sugar respectively (surprisingly it was generic non-dairy creamer, not Coffeemate). I also find some humor that a Swiss company is supplying the US army with an essential battlefield supply (Nestle makes Tasters Choice).

Overall it was not bad. The rest of the meal saved the horrible entree. I can see though they are really loaded in calories (a good thing considering all that energy you need to flee somebody shooting at you). The meal was not that big, but it has been two hours since I finished eating and I still feel like a small rock is my stomach and I feel a buzz from all the sugars in it.

The only thing that haunts me is what exactly to they put in these things. Granted the vacuum packing in an inert gas (such as nitrogen) helps alot, but still I wonder. One of my grandfathers favorite war stories (of which he told few, to much pain for him) was that in his WWII and Korean War C-Rations there was "Crackers and Cheese". The can was supposed to last over 50 years (and was considered in the mid and late 1940's to be safe to eat after a nuclear detonation). The crackers were nice a crispy and eaten. The cheese was soft, rich, and creamy, however nobody ate it. The logic went "If that cheese can spend 50 years in that condition, god knows how long what ever they put in it will last in my body after I eat it!"


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