For almost as long as we’ve been doing Taste Tests, readers have been prodding/daring us to try MREs—the “meal, ready-to-eat” issued by the military to combat soldiers to eat whilst in the middle of winning the hearts and minds of godless heathens. Many of these commenters/e-mailers have identified themselves as fighting men and women of the U.S. armed services who are shocked by the badness of the concoctions they’re asked to digest. Here’s an e-mail from a guy named Fish, from way back in July:
“I’m surprised that you have not yet done a taste test of perhaps the most famous of culinary abominations forced upon humans: The MRE. Known by many names, such as ‘Meals Rejected by Enemy,’ ‘Mysteries (Mr. E),’ and ‘Three lies for the price of one.’ Is it because everyone KNOWS it’s bad? Or is it because of difficulty acquiring one? If it’s the latter, I’m sure your military fans (myself included) would love to contribute. If you decide to do it, my suggestion is to try the now-discontinued ‘Cheese and Vegetable Omelet,’ or to let us troops be warned of its successor, the Maple Sausage meal. Just don’t eat one with the dairy shake—turns out those are contaminated.”
Fish was right: Why hadn’t we tested MREs before? My initial thought was that these li’l items were actually pretty difficult to procure, until I visited eBay. Now, even though each MRE—in its scary brown, thick plastic pouch—clearly says “U.S. GOVERNMENT PROPERTY. COMMERCIAL RESALE IS UNLAWFUL,” these things abound from online sellers. I was able to procure a variety pack of six different meals for around $30 total, including shipping of a remarkably heavy box.
But who would sample these edible abominations with me? It just so happened that AVC super-commenter ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER arrived in Chicago not long after the box of MREs, and—what with him being a badass and all—I invited him to give them a shot. To complete the tough-guy trifecta, I texted Internet Eating Sensation Dave Chang, who made the two-hour drive down from Brookfield, Wisconsin to both stuff his face with rations and meet ZMF.
Perhaps the most immediately impressive thing about these meals is their attempt to recreate an actual eating experience. You’d think that they’d be filled with foods that are easy to transport and consume quickly—beef jerky and the like—but somebody, somewhere decided that hot meals and a variety of drinks were important, even if flavor and texture were thrown out the window completely. So each hot meal comes with something called a “flameless ration heater,” which is an insane little invention that deserves its own TV series. It’s basically a little plastic bag with some chemicals in it, and when those chemicals (mostly magnesium, as I understand it) are mixed with the tiniest amount of water, they quickly boil like God’s own fury.
The item to be heated is placed in the little plastic heater bag for several minutes, inclined on a “rock or something,” according to the instructions. And heat it does. Because I’m a dude and I didn’t read the instructions, I filled one of these bags with too much water the first time around and it got insanely hot, very quickly, and it gave off some steam. This steam, I’m told, is hydrogen gas. But there’s no flame, so the enemy cannot spot our proud soldiers trying to heat their cheese tortellini in tomato sauce, or whatever’s on the menu on a given night.
And boy, there were some real stinkers in the box we got, at least as far as the main courses. The pasta ones were edible—halfway decent, even—because they just tasted like Chef Boyardee. But why would the people at Ameriqual Foods (of Evansville, Indiana) attempt to stuff a cheese omelet with vegetables into a reheatable plastic sack? In what corner of Evansville, Indiana is that an acceptable thing to do? Another big loser: a slab of meat with fake grill marks on it. (Chang and Zodiac ate the whole damn thing, bless ‘em.)
But overall, if you subtract the two biggest pieces of each MRE—the main course and some sort of side dish—you could probably last a few unhappy weeks on them. The ones we got had squeezable packets of peanut butter, jalapeno cheese spread, cookies, crackers, Skittles, instant coffee, instant orange drink (“NO FRUIT JUICE”), and other stuff that you can’t really make a gourmet meal out of, but that you could at least subsist on for a while. It’s probably just enough to make you a little bit angry, and if killing is your business, then anger maybe isn’t the worst thing in the world. Or is it? I don’t claim to know.
What I do know is that I’ve now dabbled in eating some MREs and lived to tell the tale. Is there a merit badge for that?
The taste: Let’s start with the horrendous. The two main dishes that are highlighted in the first video were absolutely the worst—the cheese omelet and the beef slab. The omelet weighed about 600 pounds and came out of its bag like a brick. The first two ingredients are “liquid eggs” and cottage cheese; given its weight, I’d say there were six or seven eggs’ worth of liquid material in it. The slab of pressed meat didn’t look much better; it was like a Salisbury steak left over from a TV dinner manufactured in 1981.
It should be noted that between Chang and ZMF, though, the entire beef slab was consumed, and in the video, you can watch Chang hoover up a whole plate of beef ravioli as if it’s regular food or something. (Then again, this is the guy who ate an entire chicken in a can, cold, so MRE ravioli probably tasted like fine caviar.)
Since we couldn’t possibly taste every item in every package—each MRE has about 12 components, from pieces of gum to various beverages—I convened another Taste Test crew about a month later. More than anything, I wanted some of my office mates who weren’t there for the original Test to get a chance to watch some of the foods cook—and to taste some of the varieties that we didn’t get a chance to the first time around.
Taste Test Round Two: same results. The main dishes we heated up in the super-space capsules were greeted with everything from repulsion to “meh.” Of particular note for their wretchedness were the beef enchilada and the Mexican mac ‘n’ cheese. The latter was a dark yellow shade that intrepid web producer Jesse realized was exactly the same as the jalapeno squeeze-cheese that came in some of the other MREs. The “Mexican style corn” suffered a similar fate: Its creaminess and color were inconsistent with anything resembling “Mexican” or “corn.” (Okay, it sorta resembled corn.) But both of these things tasted horrible, and heating them up only added insult to injury.
On the other hand, though, Jesse claimed that he could live “in the shit” with the apple butter, peanut butter, and super-dry crackers. And the “Kreamsicle cookies” were actually pretty delicious. I hope they don’t give us cancer or anything.
One item I must make note of, though, is the “FIRST STRIKE NUTRICIOUS ENERGY BAR.” It’s the only piece of this MRE puzzle (besides stuff like Skittles) that had any sort of branding on it—everything else is in simple brownish pouches. But First Strike, which packs 270 calories into 2.3 ounces, appears to be selling itself to soldiers, via sweet military fonts. It was also, for me anyway, hands-down the worst thing in the MRE pack. At first it just tasted like a Clif Bar, but the aftertaste lingered forever. So long, in fact, that I was ready to eat some Mexican mac ‘n’ cheese just to get the taste out of my mouth. So soldiers, if you’re going to ratfuck the rations, definitely leave these bad boys for your enemies. They won’t win any hearts, minds, or stomachs.
- “I didn’t think it was too bad. It’s like a step below school cafeteria food. Which I really like, but maybe that’s because I went to private school.”
- “The enchiladas had a weird, grainy texture and tasted like bad canned ravioli. The beans weren’t too far off from bean dip.”
- “All the foods left a bad aftertaste.”
- “I’ve had worse mac and cheese from a shady buffet or two. But I’ve had better mac and cheese out of a blue cardboard box.”
- “The beef enchiladas looked like guts coming out of the bag. It couldn’t even maintain the semblance of food, in the visual sense. Or any other sense. Just awful.”
- “The cheese spread is almost exactly like a chunk of Velveeta that’s been left out too long and is starting to sweat.”
- “Pretty sure I ate something very similar to this in the cafeteria as a kid, just without the incredibly foul aftertaste.”
- “The enchilada really doesn’t taste like much. It’s kinda just like bland grit. The visual and the smell of it are really the nasty part.”
- “I’d live on the crackers with peanut butter and apple butter.”
- “THIS SHIT SMELLS LIKE ART CLASS”
- “THATS IT IM NOT JOINING THE FUCKING ARMY”
- “OMELETTES ARENT CRUNCHY”
- “YOU COULD POLISH A ROCK IN THIS SHIT”
- “FUCK IS THIS EVER GRITTY. MODELL THIS SHIT IS GOING TO SHRED MY INSIDES LIKE THAT MAFIA MOTHERFUCKER ON OZ”
- “IF THIS WERE THE HIGHLIGHT OF MY DAY ID FUCKING KILL MYSELF”
- “HEY YOU REMEMBER THOSE FAKE BLOOD CAPSULES THEY HAD LIKE AT HALLOWEEN TIME LIKE THEYD SELL THEM AT HALLOWEEN USA WELL THATS WHAT THIS SHIT TASTES LIKE ONLY WITHOUT THE FAKE BLOOD. PROBABLY THE SAME SHIT”
- “FUCK ITS LIKE YOU POURED OUT A BAG OF KITTY LITTER”
- “HOLY SHIT YOU COULD FIX A FUCKING WALL WITH THIS”
- “ITS LIKE FLINTSTONE VITAMINS EXCEPT IT TASTES LIKE SHIT”
- “I KNEW THIS CHICK ONCE WHO ATE DIRT WHEN SHE WAS LITTLE. I BET SHED FUCKING LOVE THIS SHIT”
- “FUCK YOU MODELL”
Where to get them: Online, apparently illegally.