I’m a learner. I adored school at every stage of my development; in fact, I remember being angry the first time my mom kept me home because I was sick. I read books with voracity (see 1981) and spent hours flipping through encyclopedias, just to see what interesting facts I might acquire. I preferred museums to movies, delighted in exploring unfamiliar places, and was usually game to try any new experience. My curiosity sometimes put me in not-so-great positions (like getting stuck in a cave [literally]), but overall, my inquisitiveness served me well.
And it still does. I still revel in knowledge, continue to have the heart of an explorer, and find new endeavors deeply satisfying (usually). 🙂 So when one of my work colleagues commented that he was thinking about acquiring some MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) for his next backpacking excursion, and our manager offered to bring in a leftover MRE from his former military days, I offhandedly commented, “Yeah, and if you have a vegetarian one, I’ll try it, too.” Now, truth be told, I wasn’t overly eager to consume an MRE; I’ve been told they’re kind of nasty. And I thought (suspected) that the military probably didn’t even make vegetarian options for their industrial, shelf-stable, tragedy-ready meals – but my manager surprised me by immediately responding, “Sure, I’ll bring in separate meals for each of you. You can both enjoy the goodness that is an MRE,” offering the last statement with a semi-sarcastic tone.
So thanks to my overwhelming desire to try new things, my sometimes-impulsive nature, and my big mouth, earlier this week I found myself sitting in my manager’s office, peering down at a very bland MRE bundle:
The only “semi-vegetarian” meal my manager had remaining in his residual stockpile of MREs was MRE #4 from 2005 – aka the cheese and vegetable omelet.
Eggs? Seriously? I can think of fewer things that might be nastier in a dehydrated, reconstituted, preserved form than eggs. Alas, “beggars” can’t be choosers, so I took the brown package from my manager (who was smiling fiendishly, I might add), and began to explore the contents within:
Once everything was separated into their individual packages, I broke down the contents one step further – i.e., liberating the individual condiments from their collective plastic container, and removing the “hot” portions of the meal from their cardboard box.
As I slipped the egg pouch from its brown overwrap, I noticed that he backside of the container contained some “persuasive” text.
Once I had removed as much extraneous packaging as possible, my manager suggested I start warming the eggs; and while they were heating, I could explore the no-“cooking”-required elements of the meal. That sounded like a solid plan to me, so I examined the heater element of the MRE kit to determine how to get the eggs hot.
In my naivety, I expected the heating element to get really hot; otherwise, how could it penetrate the heavy-duty plastic casing around the eggs enough to actually warm them? Answer: it couldn’t. And it didn’t. I was able to carefully-yet-comfortably handle the flameless heater for the duration of my meal experiment:
Once the egg/heater combo was set to do its thing (my manager offered one of his business books as the “or something”, since we didn’t have any rocks readily available in his cubicle to lean the eggs against), I cracked open the consume-at-room-temperature food items, and began to sample the various components of the meal. First up: crackers.
Two crackers came in the pouch. I broke the corner off of one, and noted that the texture was decent – i.e., not rock hard, yet not crazy-crumbly. I started chewing on that first bite – and within seconds every drop of moisture was removed from my mouth. Immediately my mind went back to the Fort Snelling bakeshop, and the hardtack ration the period-actor shared. I smiled to myself; looks like some things rally never change!
I massaged the strawberry jam packet to 1) ensure any liquid was re-integrated into the solid mass, and 2) warm it a bit to hopefully make it more pliable, then applied a smallish glop of the jam to a section of the cracker. I tried this next bite of augmented-with-jam cracker, but found it only marginally better. Luckily, there was a lot more food for me to try – so I set the cracker aside, and broke into the toaster pastry.
As I lifted the pastry from its plastic packaging, I immediately noticed that this item was actually soft! I expected the “pastry” to be impossibly hard (a la the regular toaster pastries that are sold in supermarkets), so to see that this version had genuine tenderness was impressive. As I set the pastry on the desk, I also noticed that it had a natural apple and cinnamon scent to it. Again, impressive! I found these traits encouraging; now I wondered how the pastry would taste:
Popping a bite into my mouth, I was truly pleased with this item. It was appropriately flaky, had a good apple and cinnamon flavor to it, and wasn’t cloyingly sweet. I would actually eat this again!
Feeling encouraged, I made the move towards the main component of this MRE: the eggs. I extracted the plastic pouch from the flameless heater, shook the excess water from the outer wrap, and massaged the crap out of the pack. As I kneaded the pouch, it made a “squish, squish” sound. Ew. I could also feel the ineffectiveness of the “heater” device; as I kneaded the pack, I could feel cold parts of egg mingling with warm parts of egg – rendering the entire contents only slightly warmer than room temperature. Again, ew. Once I mixed the eggs as much as I could, I ripped the top of the pouch, and found:
If I had any illusions that I might be able to consume this meal as my actual lunch, they were shattered the second I saw this glorious mess. However, I was determined to get a decent sample of the fare – so I picked up the brown plastic spoon, scooped out a glob of egg drivel, and drove it into my mouth.
Holy hell. The eggs looked like sawdust, and their texture was comparable. Even more bizarre than the texture of the eggs, though, was their flavor. They tasted like a combination of eggs, salsa, and tuna. How the military was able to infuse eggs with a fish flavor, I have no idea (or, perhaps, I just don’t want to know…); suffice to say, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. I took another bite, then decided to pause on the eggs and try my luck with the shredded potatoes.
I followed the same process with the potatoes that I used with the eggs: warm them for a few minutes in the ineffective flameless heater, knead the pouch to mix the warm parts of food into the cold parts (while hearing and feeling the same “squish squish”), then tearing open the pouch to find:
Using the same brown spoon, I scooped up a glob of the potatoes, popped it into my mouth, and started chewing. Now, if I didn’t know that what I was eating was supposed to be potatoes, I would have sworn that I was eating a mild jalapeno rice. The “hashbrowns” had the exact texture and flavor profile as a cheap Mexican pilaf; it was confusing.
Seeing as how both the eggs and the rice/potatoes weren’t great on their own, I wondered if adding them together might improve the situation? I put a small scoop of each onto the spoon – and was surprised to discover that co-mingling these items had absolutely zero effect. Instead of tasting an egg/tuna/potato/rice casserole, I tasted two very distinct items at the same time. It was very crazy, almost surreal.
By this time my manager was having a grand time observing me sample this not-fantastic food. He commented that the way he ate his MREs when he was in the field was by dousing the food in hot sauce to make it more palatable. I’m not a fan of hot sauce, but I figured I would at least try the suggestion. So I dabbled a tiny bit of hot sauce into the egg packet, stirred it around a bit, took a bite – and almost gagged. Hot sauce definitely did NOT help me; in fact, it rendered the meal completely inedible. Now that the eggs were toxic, I tossed them into the trash; my manager immediately collected the rest of the meal and, with an air of satisfaction, heaved it into the can. It made a large, heavy, “thud” sound.
If I were starving, I could (and would) totally eat this meal – or any MRE, for that matter (so long as I wasn’t forced to use the hot sauce). But. I don’t think I would choose to consume an MRE voluntarily. If I was ever placed in a situation where my options were dehydrated food or an MRE, I’d select the first option. But hey, now I know! And even better, my MRE curiosity has been satisfied.
After my manager and I briefly chatted about what I thought of the MRE, he did offer that the military tries to improve the meals with each passing year. And since the meal I just ate was from 2005, current-day MREs might taste (and feel) a whole lot better. Still, I think I’ll pass on eating another one. Thanks anyway.