U.S. Gov’t – Meals Ready To Eat (MRE): The Bite

THE BITE: It’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving is tomorrow. This has been one tough year and I’m having a hard time coming up with things to be thankful for. As I reflect on all I’ve faced this year, an interesting conundrum has arisen. With all the crisis I faced – hell, we all faced – this year, yet lived through, is there really a reason to be thankful? It all depends on how you look at it.

Which brings me to this week’s Bite. One of the results of Sandy’s visit was the lack of food available in the neighborhood during and immediately after the hurricane. Some homes and businesses were wiped out and had to rely on the kindness of strangers for their daily meal. In some cases that kindness came in the form of a “Meal Ready to Eat,” or MRE, courtesy of the federal government.

What is a Meal Ready to Eat? Well, technically, a meal ready to eat can be any commercially prepared meal that can be consumed with minimal processing and preparation by the end user. You may never have consumed a military issue MRE, but I bet you’ve had your fair share of “Cup-o-Noodles” or even the granddaddy of them all, the Swanson TV Dinner. Yes, those are MRE’s.

All that aside, when I hear the term MRE, I think of the meals provided to our troops on the battlefield. While I was sure they weren’t being given gourmet meals, I honestly wasn’t prepared for what is in the camouflage-green or brown envelope. My mind raced while I read the generic sounding titles for each foodstuff.

My meal was a breakfast. I was given a “maple flavor” pork sausage patty, cheese spread, peanut butter, “crackers – vegetable,” “beverage base – lemonade,” and a chocolate banana nut dessert bar.

Also in the bag was a large plastic spoon, of the iced tea variety for you debutantes putting together your silver service,  and a strange semi-transparent bag labeled, “MRE (MEAL-READY-TO-EAT) HEATER.” This last item intrigued me. I’m always intrigued by heat sources, but that’s a whole other column and probably years on a psychiatrist’s couch. Also, for some reason, I assumed that an MRE would be cold or at least “ready to eat” and not require heating or any other cooking actions by the user.

I opened up the heater and my pork patty and slowly added water, which would combine with the chemicals in the bottom of the bag (magnesium and iron, apparently) to “cook” my meat.

I was a little concerned doing this in the house, near my stove with its pilot light, as the bag warned that fumes from the heater were flammable , so I quickly moved it outside. This part reminded me of a classic junior high volcano experiment, as hot steam rapidly escaped from the bag. And hell, that heater got hot fast! I’m used to reaching into log burning fires without thinking. This made me move quickly, shoving the heater and pork patty back into the cardboard carton for cooking. Now the instructions call for leaning this newly created oven on a “rock or something” (yes, really), so I chose a garbage can and a brick pillar outside my side door. The pork needed to cook for 10 to 15 minutes, “depending on outside temperature.”

While the pork cooked, I opened up the “crackers – vegetable.”  These were tightly sealed in cryovac,  so  instead of trying to rip them open, I cut the package using my grandfather’s bayonet from World War I. Contrary to Obama’s comments, most soldiers in the field are still equipped with some sort of knife, so I thought this would come as close as I could to actual battlefield conditions. While the crackers weren’t dust, they crumbled into about 18 tasteless pieces, none of which were large enough to be conducive to receiving either the peanut butter or cheese spread.

While I was opening up the packages, my thoughts went back to my father-in-law. He was born in Poland and his childhood home was on the front lines as the war raged between the Nazis and Russians. He lived through the war and through the famine that followed. All his life, he would joke about eating food that he didn’t like.

“When you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat anything and be grateful for it,” he’d say. Being a spoiled baby boomer American I always laughed at this, but as I got a whiff of the pork patty, I finally could empathize with his comments.

The pork patty smelled a bit like dog food, but looked oddly reminiscent of the McDonald’s McRib without the grill marks. Tasting it, it had EXACTLY the same consistency and artifical flavors of the McRib, but was dominated by a sweet maple flavor. Closing my eyes and holding my nose, I could imagine eating an overcooked Banquet Brown and Serve Sausage doused in Mrs. Butterworths.

The peanut butter reminded me of the peanut butter served in the middle of a Mary Jane candy. While it’s not Skippy, it had a certain old-fashioned taste and texture that was extremely thick, filling and oddly satisfying.  The cheese spread, while an oddly dark pumpkin color, could pass for almost any canned cheese product. You’ve had this spread before as a child in those cheese-and-cracker packages your mother sent with your school lunch. The  “beverage base – lemonade,” tasted much like Country Time.

The crackers were definitely the low point of the meal. Dry and almost stale, they reminded me of matzoh, but without any flavor or texture. Vying for the title, was the chocolate banana nut bar. I don’t know where the chocolate flavor was in this dessert, but if I was given this in a blind taste taste, I would have screamed out that “this is bazooka bubble gum.” It’s a unique flavor, but it sure ain’t chocolate or banana!

I have to admit, when I first received this package, my inner food snob laughed and immediately dismissed it as garbage. Sitting here digesting and reflecting on my meal, I find myself thinking that this MRE would make a hell of breakfast after a long night of drinking. And I’m sure it made a very satisfying meal during the cold dark nights of Sandy. This MRE may not be ready for Per Se’s table, but it’s a hell of a lot better than many meals I’ve had on road trips across the country.

So, as I search for things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for the kick in the head this meal gave me. I know I’m going to appreciate the food more as I sit down to my home cooked meal tomorrow. I’m thankful for all our service personnel who protect our country. I’m thankful for all the people who serve here at home both in and out of uniform. I’m thankful that I and my family made it through this “super storm.”

And yes, I’m thankful for these MREs.  But, I’m looking forward to eating in Sheephead Bay’s fine restaurants again! Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.