No matter how you say it, Mr. "E", Mystery, Meals Rejected by Ethiopians, Meals Rejected by Everyone or what have you, the military ration, Meals, Ready0to0Eat, or MRE has been a staple in the US Serviceman or woman's diet since the early 1980's. They replaced the famous "C" Ration, or C-Rat, that had served the troops since the days of WWII. I was even fortunate enough to eat a couple of C-rats that some "old" timers had (trust me, the MRE is a better product). The MRE is now ubiquitous with the presence of US servicemen where ever they are stationed or deployed and the MRE has even become a staple of international disaster relief and aid missions.
Over the course of its lifespan, the MRE has gone through various evolutions, both in content and the way food was prepared in them. when I got in the Army waaaaay back in 1986 the prevalent theme was "dehydrated". Meat patties, fruit and other items came as dehydrated pieces of somewhat edible cardboard that you had to add hot water to in order to make into their intended forms. The problem was two fold; first it took a lot of water to do this, which for the average grunt is a pretty precious commodity in the field, and second, there was no standard way to heat water in the field. A canteen cup and a triox tab (trioxane fuel tablets, burns with a blue or colorless flame hotter than the devil's furnace) were the norm, if you were lucky enough to have either or the luxury of being able to use them in the field. Most troops would just break down the individual food packages from the main pouch and gnaw on them as time and mission allowed. Often, eating the dehydrated pork and beef patties or dehydrated mixed fruit would actually leave the soldier worse off and more dehydrated themselves as water was drawn from the body into the food to make it pass in the intestines. Ouch. This is where the myth that MRE's give you constipation and that the Ex-Lax brand laxative was in the chewing gum came from.
Looks yummy, doesn't it? A Ranger School Student wouldn't even slow down to breath while eating this!
Later on "wet packs" became the norm with food packed with adequate moisture to make it palatable and flameless ration heaters were included to heat up the rations in each meal. The ration heaters worked by simple adding a small amount of water to the heater which starts a chemical reaction that creates a intense but short lived burst of heat to get the meal tasty. The reaction also vents a lot of hydrogen gas, leading to the invention of the infamous MRE Bomb!!
(and no, I won't outlined how they are made!!)
The meals themselves changed considerably to reflect the changing tastes and diversity of our service members. Originally a collection of quasi-Americana dishes (franks and beans, beef and pork patties, chicken a la king, tuna and noodles, ect), the menus evolved to include more ethnic type foods (Asian and Hispanic meals being the most liked) as well as special meals for vegetarians and religious (Kosher, Halal) personnel.
I have not had one in quite some time (over in the current conflicts a surprising amount of food you eat is prepared in the chow hall, such is the nature of the conflict). Yet, the nostalgic in me can still relish the memories of sitting under a poncho, shivering cold in the rain eating my not-so-cold-yet-not-so-warm franks and beans MRE with a hot cup of black coffee in a paper cup while quietly talking to my fellow soldiers as night fell upon the forest we were in. It wasn't comfortable, and the meal wasn't delicious....still I would trade a thousand memories of eating lunch at my desk here at work now for just one more of those moments.
Anyway, found an interesting article in the NY Times, its an interactive comparison of field rations from other countries around the world. Pretty neat to see the contents of each. Its funny, but I think that being a nation of immigrants that Americans can probably better identify with the food in the other nations' meals than they can with ours. One thing that I think was neat is in the Spanish ration. It includes both glucose tablets (for quick energy) and a salt/energy tablet (for recovery from dehydration) in there meal. Good idea, but then again with Gatorade being handed out by the truckload over there and the prevalence of energy drinks (Red Bull or Red Camels) I guess maybe the US serviceman doesn't need them.
Go check out the article, its a fun read!
Field Rations from around the globe!