Among many other elements of his legacy, the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with the quote “an army marches on its stomach.” Superior firepower and the latest in destructive technology may be significant factors in determining an army’s success, but if it cannot satisfy the basic physiological needs of its troops, then these points are moot. The United States military has a long and storied history of serving different types of rations to its armed men and women, from the field kitchens of the American Revolution to the canned goods of World War II (WWII). Today, when members of the U.S. military do not have access to A-rations (meals prepared on-site using fresh ingredients) or are otherwise in adverse conditions (such as being in an active combat zone), they are provided the almighty Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE).
Development by the Department of Defense (DOD) of the MRE began in 1963 with the intent of creating a lighter replacement for canned rations. Using modern food preparation and packaging technology, such as flameless heaters, plastic sealing, and the Dietary Reference Intake, the modern MRE is available in 24 different menu items and is ready to eat right out of its pouch, although using the flameless heater to heat the entrée is recommended for flavor. Thanks to a chain of personal connections, this TechNews writer was able to get his hands on a sample of MRE Menu #1 (chilli with beans) for the purpose of the first (and possibly only) TechNews Taste Test.
This MRE came in its distinctive brown packaging, with its menu number clearly displayed, a warning that commercial resale of this piece of government property is illegal, and the very assuring buzz words that the MRE is “Warfighter Recommended, Warfighter Tested, Warfighter Approved.” Before I even opened the pouch, I knew I was in for a world-class culinary experience.
The name MRE is no misnomer: the contents of the pouch really do constitute a full meal, complete with entrée, sides, drinks, and dessert. Inside my MRE were several marked packages, including within them the entrée of chili with beans, cheese spread, crackers, a piece of cornbread, a fudge brownie, mix for tropical punch, an instant coffee packet, a packet of sugar, creamer mix, two pieces of mint gum, a hot beverage mixing bag, a moist towelette, the flameless heater pouch for the entrée, and a book of matches. In total, the consumable parts of the MRE amounted to a total of 1,350 calories - sustenance I would most certainly value when in a heavy combat situation.
By far the most interesting part of consuming an MRE is the flameless heater used for heating the entrée. The directions provided on the heater show how simple it is to use: simply fill the pouch up to the indicated line with water, place the entrée bag inside, seal it, and leave both on an incline for 10-15 minutes. The water activates an exothermic within several pouches of magnesium, iron, and table salt inside the flameless heater, releasing approximately 50 kilojoules of heat in about 10 minutes, enough to heat a 230-gram meal packet by 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus, with a small amount of water, the MRE’s entrée can be turned into a warm hearty meal without the need of a kitchen or stove.
Overall, the actual taste of the MRE’s elements was nowhere near as terrible as I was initially expecting. The crackers and cornbread, although a bit dry due to their preservation packaging, still tasted like ordinary, civilian-accessible equivalents. The packet of cheese spread tasted exactly like any grocery-store-bought can of spray cheese, and it made a decent additive to both the crackers and chilli entrée. Speaking of which, the chilli with beans entrée was very passable as a meal, with its sauce sufficiently hearty and its contents all tender in their consistency, especially after being heated. The tropical punch mix and fudge brownie left a lot to be desired, being a bit bland in flavor but still otherwise consumable. I went into this TechNews Taste Test expecting the contents of the MRE to leave me with traumatic memories, but after living on campus and eating at the Commons for three years (Eddie, Chris, or Asa, if you’re reading this, I am totally just joking), this meal was nowhere near the worst I have ever had.
To conclude, if you ever find yourself in a heavy combat or apocalypse scenario, you can at least find some solace in the fact that military MREs are passably adequate in their overall palatability.