MRE: tastes great, less filling, lasts forever

In honor of Chuck Dodd successfully defending his PhD yesterday at Kansas State University, I decided to crack open the military Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) he’d given to me a couple of years ago.

In June 2008, The Christian Science Monitor reported about Jeanette Kennedy, a food technologist at the US Army Natick Soldier Systems Center (NSSC) west of Boston. Kennedy faces creative challenges unlike those before any other chef because she creates MREs, designed to fuel soldiers lugging 100-pound packs all day.

The story says that meals can’t just taste good; they’ve got to last … for three years stored at 80 degrees F., be capable of withstanding chemical or biological attacks, and survive a 10-story free fall (when packed in a crate of 12).

MREs were first served in the 1980s when canned fare gave way to meals packed in sturdy beige pouches. Others have called them Meals Rejected by the Enemy, Meals Rarely Edible, and Meals Refusing to Exit (a name that continues to stick despite the addition of more fiber).

Troop acceptance of the meals, which cost the military $7.13 each, has taken center stage. Back in 1982 when MREs debuted, designers assumed they could hang up their aprons. But when the first Gulf War broke out, the new ration moved from limited training use to the only food soldiers ate for months on end. Angry letters flooded in from the trenches, and the military realized that rations had to be a work in progress.

Now food technologists conduct focus groups with troops across the country, follow restaurant fads, and even attend culinary school to make sure their approach isn’t entirely scientific.

The MRE I had contained noodles in butter-flavored sauce, cheese spread, breaded chicken patty in curry-flavored sauce, toaster pastry, crackers, cappuccino, condiments, and of course, M&Ms. The activated heater pouch to warm food and coffee MREs was particularly innovative. The food? I wouldn’t want to live on it.

In 2008, chef Kennedy said, "[MREs] really go along with the trends. As new things come out at restaurants, new flavors like chipotle or buffalo [get popular], they get incorporated into the MRE…. The trend [now is] going to more comfort foods like Salisbury steak, beef briquette, but it’s not just macaroni and cheese, it’s Mexican macaroni and cheese."

Army colonel tries old C-ration pound cake, doesn’t get botulism

Field rations for soldiers are designed with two primary motives: 1) providing lots of calories and 2) lasting in a combat zone.

For the most part, taste is greatly sacrificed. But retired Army colonel Henry A. Moak, Jr., thought his 40-year-old C-ration can of pound cake was "good."

Moak got the drab olive can as a Marine helicopter pilot off the Vietnamese coast in 1973. He vowed to hang on to it until the day he retired, storing it in a box with other mementos.

"It’s even a little moist," he said, wiping his mouth after downing a handful in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes following a formal retirement ceremony.

Retired Lt. Gen. Paul T. Mikolashek, who was the U.S. Army Europe commander when Moak served overseas, took an even bigger piece. "Tastes just like it always did," Mikolashek mumbled with a mouthful of cake as Moak laughed and clapped.

The AP reports,

"Moak said he wasn’t worried about getting sick from any bacteria that may have gotten into the old can, because it looked sealed. But the military discourages eating from old rations.

"’Given the risks … we do everything possible to ensure that overly aged rations are not consumed,’ said Lawrence Levine, a spokesman for the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia.

"Levine named the threats as mold and deadly botulism if the sealing on the food has been broken, which isn’t always visible."

Mold, maybe. Botulism, no; it arises from improper canning initially – or denting later – but not broken seals. (They only open the possibility of contamination to microbes that like air: B. cereus, Lavine…)