Even if you’re not in a combat situation, there’s a lot to love about the military’s Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MRE), what our troops eat when “normal food service facilities are not available,” according to the Department of Defense.

Serving up 1,200 calories of entrée, side dish, dessert, and beverage in a tan, 1 1/2 pound pouch—replete with image of gun-toting infantry soldier—the MRE has come a long way since its introduction in 1981, when the U.S. Army decided to update the nutritional value, packaging, and variety of its combat rations. Today there are 24 different MRE menus, such as cheese tortellini, Jamaican pork chop, and jambalaya. Most are actually quite tasty.

The trick is mastering the delicate cooking process. Each MRE main course comes in a “tri-laminate retort pouch”—a sort of flexible can made out of thick aluminum foil and plastic—with a flameless heater. To warm the food, you pour a tiny amount of water into a bag that holds both the heater and the pouch-sealed entrée, then place the bag in a carton and prop it against a “rock or something,” as the instructions suggest, for about 15 minutes. When the sizzle and steam abate, voilà, beef stew in a pouch.

Of the MREs we tried, our favorite was pasta with vegetables in tomato sauce, which included peanut butter and crackers; a pack of pitted, halved, sweet maraschino cherries; and pound cake. The vegetarian sauce had a hint of freshness, and the cherries were a sweet snack.

Least favorite: chicken with Thai sauce, which came with white rice, crackers and jalapeño cheese spread, raisin-nut mix, vanilla cappuccino, and a teeny little bottle of hot sauce. The cappuccino was delightful, but the sauce was bland, and the cheese spread required “kneading.”

Three companies produce MREs for the military, which prohibits their resale to the general public, though two of the companies also produce civilian versions (minus the flameless heaters, alas). Still, genuine military MREs are easy to find on eBay, at gun shows (seriously), and in the wake of natural disasters (after Hurricane Katrina, for example, folks staying at shelters were fed on them for weeks). It’s something of an acquired taste, as with most foods that have a shelf life of three years at 80ºF, but as the packaging intones, “You are more active during field training, deployment, and combat than in garrison.” So eat up!

Photograph by Jim Hildreth

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