He'll take one MRE, hold the ambush
Sampling the food that soldiers eat on the battlefield.
May 4, 2007
I WANTED TO KNOW just how much our troops are suffering. Not having nearly enough courage to enlist, or even be embedded as a journalist, I briefly considered taking one of those boot camp workout classes, but it turns out they meet at like 6 in the morning. So I decided to eat Army food.
And not just regular mess-hall food. I wanted to try what soldiers have when they're stuck out in the field: Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), the plastic bags with complete dinners that come with self-contained heating devices, have a shelf life of three years, can withstand temperatures of 120 degrees and are unharmed when dropped out of a helicopter at 100 feet. This is the baddest food in the world.
The MRE menus were developed by Gerald Darsch, the Defense Department's combat feeding director at the Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass. For $7.25, he has to create a meal with 1.3 times the recommended daily allowance of nutrition, and get it to survive the same type of massive pressure cooker used for canned products. Eggs and al dente pasta don't do so well, which you know from the fact that you tend not to buy cans of eggs or al dente pasta.
The Department of Defense completely rethought MREs in 1991 because soldiers were calling them "Meals Rejected by Ethiopians." So it developed totally new menus based on soldiers' suggestions. Now Darsch brags that soldiers call his creations "Meals Respected by Europeans." Though not everyone feels that way about the low-fiber creations. At a USO show in Iraq in December, Al Franken said that he had had his fifth MRE on the trip and "none of them had an exit strategy."
I got Darsch to send me all 24 varieties and invited friends over for a party. As you would expect from an MRE party in Hollywood, one of my neighbors, singer Colleen "Vitamin C" Fitzpatrick, had already eaten an MRE when she appeared on a reality show. Luckily, another one, photojournalist David Butow, had them in southern Iraq, which was key because the instructions were kind of confusing.
After opening the brown plastic bag (Darsch is working on a redesign), the IKEA-style directions told us we should put a little bit of water in the heating pouch, place it next to the flexible metal container holding our main course and lean them both against a large, round object that the drawing labeled as a "rock or something." This, for some reason, confounded all of us. None of my friends, it seems, are smart enough to be in the Army.
But after Butow showed us how to do it, we were pretty impressed with the technology. The heating unit emits a lot of hydrogen and doesn't smell great, but creating a whole lot of heat just by adding water is pretty cool. Even more fun was all the stuff in our bags: matches that work when wet, a moist towelette, dessert, salty snacks, powdered beverages, gum, very soft toilet paper and even tiny Tabasco bottles. I could not imagine that the people who packed such a nice bag also run Walter Reed.
Although all the main courses basically looked like airline food Ã¢â‚¬â€ and were too salty and a little metallic tasting Ã¢â‚¬â€ there was a shocking range in quality. Basically, the less meat there was, the better they were. The cheese tortellini was as good as most frozen dinners, as were the chili and macaroni and the chicken with noodles. The Cajun rice and sausage were so good, Jill Soloway Ã¢â‚¬â€ a writer who I imagine often sends things back at restaurants Ã¢â‚¬â€ said she wouldn't send it back at a restaurant. But the chicken breast, which had the most unconvincing grill marks I'd ever seen, tasted like chicken baloney.
Darsch said his field tests showed the same results as my party. Not the part about how people tend to stay long after the host wants them to go, but the food reviews. And Darsch is doing his best to rectify that. By 2009, he's nixing that nasty omelet, along with the chicken breast, the meatloaf and the clam chowder.
Even if our country can't learn from past military disasters, at least we can learn from our culinary ones.