Meals-Ready-To-Eat: A Retrospective

If you’ve never had the pleasure of indulging in the culinary wonder that is a “Meal-Ready-to-Eat,” or “MRE,” that’s probably because you’re a normal human being. In a world where our next meal is down the block at the closest deli, or sitting in a cart in a Trader Joe’s check-out line, we lack the common necessity needed to look at a brown plastic bag filled with preservative-packed calorie bombs and say, “This. This is what I need.” Under the right circumstances, though, an MRE becomes more than sheer, unapologetic nourishment: it becomes a learning experience. Every meal is a chance to maximize your culinary potential. Will a Beef Stew entrée taste better unheated than a Cheese Tortellini one if you don’t have time to heat it up? What the hell is in a “Strike Bar?” Are you the kind of person who prefers the Peanut Butter Spread on their crackers, or the Jalapeno Cheese? I hadn’t had to ask myself these hard questions in a long time.

My experiences with MRE’s range from the time I was thirteen through much of my early adulthood. I had just entered 8th Grade in the Fall of 2005, and was busy worrying about my first year of French class and how to style my hair (I settled on the classic, adolescent-white-kid-bowl-cut) when Hurricane Katrina tore through my hometown, leveling more than 85-percent of all structures and sweeping the local Winn Dixie’s and WalMarts back into the Gulf of Mexico. A lack of stores meant a lack of food, and FEMA answered that need with thousands and thousands of MRE’s. While I ended up moving away for the immediate aftermath of the storm, it seemed like for the next year MRE’s, while not always the only choice in snacks, were always off-handedly available, tucked into truck toolboxes or in the back of a pantry in large zip-tied cardboard boxes. Then, years later, I decided to join the military, and was promptly reacquainted with the familiar little brown parcels that contained thousands of calories, and, with a little bit of luck, some comfort. So when my room mate Brian returned from a trip to his sister’s – a sergeant serving in the US Army – house in Maryland with three MRE’s she’d gifted him in his duffel bag, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and pop one open for breakfast on Saturday morning. While “Mexican Stew” was obviously going to be the best-tasting option, and I had never even seen that entrée before, I decided to keep it classic for nostalgia’s stake and went with the Meatballs in Marinara Sauce instead. Below is my trip down memory lane, which quickly devolved into anger, confusion, and gut-pains.

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The outer packaging of an MRE, in my experience, either opens with little-to-no effort by pulling apart the plastic seam at the top, or is an impenetrable beige fortress of plastic, not giving until it’s tested the brinks of your patience and sanity. Luckily for me, this one opened up easily enough.

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After tearing open the inner baggie and spreading the contents, I’m left trying to make sense of the person who assembled these items together; I’ve since come to the conclusion they are deranged/fucking with me. Marinara Sauce with Meatballs and Tortillas? Dry Roasted Peanuts? This is the work of a sick bastard at the production line of the Evansville, Indiana MRE factory. But, alas, where there could have been Wheat Snack Bread and Chocolate Peanut Butter, I’m left with this half-assed mish-mash. I was glad to see that my ability to complain about things hadn’t diminished since my time outside of active service. All in all, this MRE contained the titular Meatballs, a Vanilla Dairyshake Powder packet, Baked Snack Crackers, Dry Roasted Peanuts, Tortillas and Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake (by far the best item in the bag.) I began by heating up my entrée in the chemical pouch, which I almost never actually did when eating an MRE out of necessity.

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Once it was nice and steamy, I popped open the bag and sized up the main course, which looked appetizing enough:

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The Marinara Sauce itself was actually quite good, better than I remembered it. The meat, however, tasted like regret.

Next, I had the Lemon Poppy Seed Poundcake, a fan-favorite amongst Marines (I’ve witnessed intense debates regarding the superiority of these cakes with the highly-sought Red Velvet Cookie.

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While a little chalkier than I remember, it was still pretty tasty.

The peanuts were peanuts, and the snack crackers were basically Hot’N’Spicy Cheese-Its, but the Vanilla Dairyshake? Now that I couldn’t pass up, even with the widespread but unconfirmed rumors of them containing laxatives. While I had glasses and cups at my disposal, I decided to do it the old-fashioned way and drink it out of the pouch like a good Marine.

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If you haven’t spilled half of it across your chest like some kind of animal, you aren’t doing it right. The shake itself is delicious, FYI.

The MRE, while perhaps not the most appetizing option, is definitely the one that has your survival in mind: this one alone contained 1400 calories, which is why I ate only these three items during this chow session. Even so, I consumed 750 calories and didn’t feel hungry again for eight hours. So while I didn’t get to enjoy using my teeth to tear open some jalapeno cheese (because some asshole in Evansville thinks it’s okay for Tortillas to go with NOTHING), I was definitely satisfied. Stay hungry, warfighters.

-JT

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