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Between a rock and a ham steak

Military meals have evolved from canned rations to MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat), which have evolved from dehydrated mystery meat to hot meals requiring an unusual cooking method.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2003

CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait -- The first indication that you're in for a culinary treat -- al fresco, no less -- are the cooking instructions: After assembling the various ingredients, the cook is directed to lean the package against a "rock or something."

There's even a diagram, with a badly drawn rock or something.

The second indication of quality is the boast on the side of the box: "Guaranteed Bursting Test 550 pounds."

For most of the 200,000-plus troops assembling in Kuwait for a possible, um, dinner date with Saddam Hussein, the durable MRE -- Meal, Ready to Eat -- is their dietary staple.

Each of the six major U.S. military bases on the Kuwait-Iraq border has some sort of hot chow for breakfast and dinner, and the MRE is generally deployed only for lunch or missions.

Should the troops start moving forward, however, it will be up to the MRE to keep them moving.

Military leaders count on it to provide plenty of calories. Each meal contains 1,200 to 1,800, if a soldier eats everything in it, and it's loaded with carbohydrates and salt.

Soldiers choose from two dozen entrees, and each comes with a chemical heater in a pouch.

"You got a hot meal, right here, and they taste just like any meal that you would prepare at home," says Sgt. Maj. Lenton Vining, command sergeant major for the 101st Airborne's Division Supply Command, or DISCOM, which keeps the front-line troops in food, fuel and bullets.

"You get a soldier and they ain't eating out here, that's a morale problem. That's a big one."

Some might argue with the big man's statement about MREs tasting homemade but not to his face. And there is no doubt that most young soldiers find the meals more than palatable. Soldiers who've been around awhile believe that they are a vast improvement over field chow in the old days.

The MRE replaced canned food, called C-rations, fed to soldiers from World War II through the 1980s. MREs have the advantage of being lightweight because the food comes in foil pouches, not cans, and they are easy to pack and carry.

The first generation of MREs came in six variations. Then there were 12, but they weren't exactly morale builders.

"They were awful. They used to have dehydrated rations in it, like dehydrated peaches or dehydrated potato patties," says Staff Sgt. George Hawkins, 33, of Oxford, N.C., a cook for the 101st Airborne.

"Who wants to eat an omelette with ham for dinner? They had dehydrated pork chops. They didn't have the little heaters. Everything was cold and dehydrated."

The military scrubbed most of the old ones, although soldiers still report sightings of the mysterious ham steak, and the beef stew remains a favorite. In the mid 1990s the military revamped the line to include 24 "menus," including vegetarian, Kosher and Halal, a traditional Muslim diet.

Each MRE is about the size of a family Bible, and many a soldier has been heard to invoke the name of the almighty while trying to open it.

The meal comes in a thick plastic pouch. Each pouch contains two cardboard boxes, one with the main dish and one with a side dish such as rice, beans or fruit. There is always a foil pouch of crackers or a beige slab of something called "wheat snack bread," along with a foil pouch of peanut butter, cheese or jelly. Some meals have a "toast pastry," too.

To heat, the food pouch is placed in the plastic bag containing the heater, a few tablespoons of water are added, and the pouch is propped against a "rock or something." The food gets hot in about five minutes, unless it's freezing outside.

Most meals also include a few brand-name snacks and condiments, such as SnackWell's cookies, Hunt's ketchup, Mars candies and Nature Valley granola bars.

"It makes Joe feel like he's getting a little slice of home out here," says CW2 Timothy Robinson, food service adviser for the 101st Airborne's DISCOM.

There's also a long spoon and an accessory package that includes, thankfully, a tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce, matches, salt, gum and a Moist Towelette.

Dessert is usually a brownie, a piece of pound cake or a package of M&M's or Skittles. The unlucky get a foil pouch labeled "Cookie, Oatmeal, Chocolate Covered." What's in it is anybody's guess. It tastes like sawdust but drier.

All components of the MRE, even the spoon, are woodland brown, presumably to hide them from the enemy.

Everyone has a favorite. Robinson pushes the meat loaf. "It's got a pretty good gravy in it, it's got a lot of good supplements, (including) Spanish rice," he says. "I pretty much like everything in the meat loaf package."

The jambalaya is excellent, with tiny shrimp and cubes of ham. So are the chicken cavatelli, the minestrone and the chili-mac. A camp favorite is beef stew, which most soldiers augment with crumbled crackers. Inexplicably, some add peanut butter as well.

Other MREs are not as tasty. The Thai-style chicken and the pork chow mein are virtually indistinguishable from each other. The grilled beefsteak gets mixed reviews, in part because of its composition. As the package honestly states, chopped beef is formed into a patty that is difficult to eat with a spoon. It would be better if the factory just left it chopped.

One afternoon last week, Lt. Johnny Dooley of Clarksville, Ky., also of the 101st Airborne, wandered out of his tent holding an open MRE pouch by the corner, as if it were a rat he had caught by the tail. He dropped it into a black trash bag and walked over holding the empty box.

"I couldn't eat it," Dooley said as he lit a cigarette. "It was chunked turkey and potatoes. This cardboard tasted better."

Sgt. 1st Class Lee Hill, a cook and food service supervisor for the 101st who in the old days would have been known as the "mess daddy," offers a bit of advice: "You got to be creative with them."

Some soldiers add Tabasco to everything. Others add crumbled crackers, or mix the rice with the main course. Cheese helps just about everything.

"You ever make an MRE postcard?" Dooley asked.

He took his knife and cut the front panel off the box, leaving a 5- by 7-inch sheet of brown cardboard with the description of the contents on one side. On the back he drew a vertical line, and to the right of the line he wrote an address.

He wrote a note to his sons, then dropped the card in the unit mailbag. It's on its way home right now.

Hill nodded appreciatively. "That's creative."

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