March 19, 2006
Have you ever wondered what an MRE tasted like? You know, those Meals, Ready to Eat they serve to soldiers and disaster victims? I did, and I had the perfect opportunity last night.
Let me give you some background. In 2001, the Seattle area experienced a 6.2 or so point earthquake on our good friend Mr. Richter's scale. It was a jarring experience, both physically and mentally. For me, it drove home the point that earthquakes can and do happen, and can happen at any time, doing unknown damage. Fortunately, in the case of the 2001 quake, there was relatively little damage; I think I had a bottle of something fall over, but my house basically escaped completely unharmed. Even so, it was a wake-up call.
I set about preparing an "earthquake kit," which I would be able to quickly grab while dashing out the door, or which would hopefully be easy to locate if the house was partially fallen down. It included (and still includes) a blanket, some rope, a flashlight, a first aid kit, etc. It also includes about 20 gallons of water in individual 1 gallon bottles (all those empty cranberry juice bottles are pretty useful!). Finally, it includes a case of MREs.
The thing about MREs is that they're stable for a set period of time, and then they start to go off. Apparently this means they start tasting worse, or less, or something, and their nutritional content starts to go downhill. I had initially calculated that my MREs would last about 5 years.
I saw that they were going to expire this month, but I couldn't bring myself to just throw them away. I guess it's my thrifty Scottish nature, but I can't just toss something which could be useful. In any case, I had thought for a year or two that it would be fun to have an MRE Party, where I'd invite a bunch of (adventurous) friends over, and we'd have a sampling party.
So, I set the date and sent out the invitations. I'd have a party where my normal spread would be present (not expecting anyone to use an MRE as acceptable party food), but we'd have an MRE tasting.
By 9 o'clock on the night of the party, it looked like we had all the adventurous souls we'd get. I announced that the MRE tasting would begin, and we all crowded into the kitchen. There were perhaps 12 of us. I grabbed the ceremonial scissors (aka the Fiskars I use for anything that needs cuttin'), and asked which one we should open first.
There was a lively debate, mostly between HAM SLICE or PORK CHOP JAMAICAN. In the end we decided that the HAM SLICE would be the first victim, and I cut into the package.
The outer envelope of an MRE is just heavy plastic, and apparently just serves to keep things organized. I dumped out a bunch of smaller packets and a couple of thin cardboard boxes. I held each one up and ceremonially announced the name printed on each box.
"Cooked ham slice with natural juices smoke flavoring added packed in water," I intoned, holding the dread olive-drab package aloft. "Applesauce," "Cracker," "Toaster Pastry," "Peanut Butter." Each vacuum-sealed packet was a military tan-green color, except the main dish and the applesauce, which came in cardboard boxes with dark green packets inside.
Amidst an atmosphere of hooting laughter and jeers, I prepared a paper plate, and ripped open the packet containing the main dish, the HAM SLICE. At first, no SLICE could be seen, but instead a sickly pink-brown liquid drooled out. A moment later, it was followed by a reddish hunk of what must have been meat. It required a good squeeze to get the triangular piece of meat out of the package. It finally oozed out amidst a gush of fluid. A number of comparisons come to mind, but none of them are tasteful or conducive to the enjoyment of food.
In any case, with yet more jeering, the first brave taster stepped up. Jesse cut off a small piece of "ham" and took a bite. "Huh, it's actually not bad," he said. Incredulous, another person took a bite, the air loud with laughter and nervous revulsion. He also proclaimed it edible and not bad. As more people worked up the courage, more and more were pleasantly surprised. I even overcame my own vegetarian tendencies and tried a little bit. Salty and a little bit too soft, but not really all that bad. HAM SLICE was a success.
Someone else had squirted out some applesauce in the meantime, and the cookie, peanut butter and cracker had performed their chrysalis, and were declared generally edible. I thought the applesauce was actually pretty good (canned applesauce is nothing new), and the peanut butter was, well, peanut butter. The cracker, which I didn't taste, was declared very bland, but a suitable carrier for the peanut butter.
It must be said, there was a general murmur of approval for the HAM SLICE. We'd picked it as the first one because out of the available options, it seemed to hold the most potential for horror. Plus, you know, HAM SLICE is a funny name. Once everyone who'd wanted to had had a taste of it, it was declared to be pretty good. We started looking forward to the next one.
Next up was PORK CHOP JAMAICAN. We chose it partially because it sounded horrifying, and partially because it had a different MENU number -- there were MENUs 1-4, and we were curious what each meant. It turns out that it meant exactly nothing: the menu was exactly the same except for the main dish. Kind of odd that they'd bother to print different containers when they were all identical except for the printed number.
In any case, we tried splorching out the new dish. This time, something like dog food came out in a solid but squishy lump. It didn't smell good. Sibyl commented that she wasn't sure her dog would eat it. This sparked off a discussion of whose dog would eat the more disgusting thing which, while interesting, was tangential to the matter at hand. Jesse volunteered first, and tried the "pork chop." It was in fact "chopped and formed" according to the package, and someone quipped that it should really have been called "chopped pork." The fact that it was packed with some vegetables and pasta really didn't help matters.
Jesse reported that it was much worse than the HAM SLICE, that the texture was disgusting, but the taste was better than the smell. This emboldened a few of the braver people in the crowd to give it a try, but the general concensus was that it was awful.
At some point in the cavalcade of badness, Kristin announced that she was tired and went to take a nap, and Evan said his stomach hurt as he headed for the door. Of course we know what was really going on. And really, there's no way blame can reasonably be apportioned for wanting to exit the presence of the MRE stench.
Now, I have to say, as a vegetarian, I was excited to be trying the non-meaty options. It was thus with somewhat bated breath that I cut the seal on the PASTA. I pulled out the contents and noted that again, except for the main dish, all the ingredients were the same.
I ripped open the pouch containing the PASTA and was immediately repulsed by the foul stench. I braved the smell and took a bite anyway. It was ok for the first few seconds, but then the bitterness set in. Oh my god. That was so nasty. A few other people tried it, to universal expressions of disgust. The food's appearance was uncomfortably close to that of fresh vomit, which really didn't help anything.
Next we tried the BURRITO, which promised to be kind of weird. How do you fit something which I consider to be fundamentally a fresh-made food into what amounts to a can? It turns out that really, you don't. The... thing that came out of that package could be described as a lot of things, but "burrito" is not one of them. It was flat and shiny, and highly reminiscent of the plastic packet from which it had come. When I attempted to cut into it with a fork, it took about 5x the force I expected. The "tortilla" flaked apart sort of like a very hard pie crust. The interior was red and somewhat indescribable.
Someone remarked that we should try putting it in the microwave, just to see if heat would improve it at all. I put the burrito in the oven and set it to heat for a minute. The uncut end of the burrito swelled up, but managed not to pop in a disgusting goo explosion. Upon getting it out, the smell was worse, but one taster claimed it tasted better. I thought it tasted about the same, except hot.
Then someone had the clever idea to heat the PASTA. Oh, that was a mistake. Where before it tasted alright for a few seconds, the stink now vaporized, and hit your nostrils and tastebuds immediately. It was utterly foul.
We ended up making up a scoreboard to rank the different meals we tried. This was the final tally:
HAM SLICE - good shit PORK CHOP JAMAICAN - poo PASTA ALFREDO - utter shite BURRITO - funky shit
We only got as far as opening those four. I had 8 more, some of which ended up going home with people to hand out as gag gifts or whatnot. I was glad to see them off, because I know I would have kept them out of some weird sense of obligation.
The party went on an hour or two longer after the MREs' fascination wore off. Everyone, as they left, commented in some way on the revelation of MREs. Some were positive, some were that sort of "you're utterly crazy" positive. All reported having a good time. I'm pleased with how it turned out.
Created by Ian Johnston. Questions? Please mail me at reaper at obairlann dot net.