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Let's be perfectly fair: A military Meal, Ready-to-Eat has to be able to withstand an airdrop from thousands of feet, last in storage at temperatures of 100 degrees for six months, and sate the ravenous hunger of - and provide a full day's worth of calories for - a U.S. Marine, for example, after a hard day at war.
Given those parameters, the MREs provided by the U.S. military to its combat troops - some of whom prefer the names "Meal, Rarely Edible" and "Meal, Rejected by the Enemy," among other, less printable designations - might simply be the best the Pentagon can do.
After all, you go to war with the grub you've got, right?
And in any case, GIs aren't supposed to have to live on MREs for long. The high-sodium, high-calorie meals are intended to be consumed for no more than 30 days - a period that presumably gives the Army time to set up a respectable mess tent.
Over the past year in Iraq in particular, however, things haven't quite worked out that way. As part of the overall surge strategy, many troops who previously may have dined on large forward operating bases have found themselves in small community outposts where the day's meal of choice often comes in a heavy-duty brown plastic bag.
Each bag includes an entree and, often, a side course or special sauce; crackers and cheese, nut or jelly spread; a dessert item and a powdered beverage mix. The package also includes a heating bag in which, when water is added, a chemical reaction will cook the entree in less than 10 minutes - the bag has also been known to be used by bored soldiers to make small bombs.
The military claims that each MRE menu item is subjected to rigorous taste testing before being sent into battle. But in a political environment where it has become mantra that "nothing is too good" for our nation's military men and women, we began to wonder:
Would an MRE pass muster with a gourmet?
To find out, we invited three of Utah's chefs to The Salt Lake Tribune's conference room, where we proceeded to subject our valiant volunteers to thousands upon thousands of calories in the form of such delicacies as "Chile with Beans" and "Veggie Burger with BBQ Sauce."
It's possible that even Vice President Dick Cheney might conclude our little experiment constituted a violation of the Geneva Conventions, but as eccentric Frenchman and Park City chef Jean-Louis Montecot replied when we invited him to our little food fest, "anything for our boys in uniform!"
MATTHEW D. LAPLANTE can be contacted at mlaplante @sltrib.com or 801-257-8713. Send comments about this story to livingeditor@sltrib .com.
The taste test
Jean-Louis Montecot, joined by Salt Lake City chefs Emily Gassman of Em's Restaurant and Adam Kreisel of Acme Burger Co., ranked each of 18 MRE entrees on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the best.
Here we present the results of their reviews, a few selected comments and, of course, some recommended beverage pairings, which wouldn't be permitted in Iraq or Afghanistan (where alcohol consumption is prohibited under military rules) but might make the whole experience just a little more palatable.
Chili with Beans
Average Rating: 5.3
Most of the chefs made a comparison to canned chili. "Kind of chalky tasting, but probably not a bad meal in the desert," Montecot said. "Basic but solid," added Kreisel.
Wine/beer pairing: Nut Brown Ale
Average rating: 4.3
"The tortellini alone was OK," Gassman said. "But the sauce has a medicine taste." Kreisel also was disappointed. "The texture is not really like pasta," he said. And Montecot agreed. "A little too much like baby food," he said.
Wine/beer pairing: Sauvignon blanc
Average Rating: 3
Kreisel had tried this one before, "once, when I was drunk with some friends." This time around, a sober Kreisel said the meal "tastes like nitrates mixed with liquid smoke." Gassman said simply, "I wouldn't order it twice."
Wine/beer pairing: Squatters IPA
Average Rating: 4
Gassman wasn't impressed with the heartiness of this meal. "It's OK as an appetizer," she wrote. "I wouldn't eat it as an entree."
Wine/beer pairing: Spanish Monastrell
Cheese & Vegetable Omelet
Average rating: 2.3
Kreisel was dumbfounded. "I'm curious how this could be described as an omelet," he wondered. "It doesn't really taste like eggs or vegetables or cheese. There's very much a refried bean-like taste and texture." "It looks terrible!" Montecot added. "Visually not appealing," Gassman concluded.
Wine/beer pairing: Kris Pinot Grigio
Average rating: 2.3
How badly can you screw up chicken breast, really? "This almost tastes like really crappy tuna!" Kreisel complained. "The aroma is similar to my dog's kibble." Montecot added: "They're going to forget what chicken tastes like and enjoy cardboard instead."
Wine/beer pairing: Bud Light
Average rating: 1.3
"Seriously," Kreisel said, "this one is ridiculous - the texture of the chicken in the sauce was worse than it was by itself." Gassman agreed: "There was even less flavor than the chicken by itself!"
Wine/beer paring: Corona Light
Chicken with Salsa
Average rating: 2.7
Montecot seemed relieved to find something edible called chicken, "this is better than the others - I like the spiciness in it." Gassman wasn't impressed: "They should bag all the chicken dishes," she said. Kreisel split the difference, "a little more serviceable," he concluded, "but the texture is still not very friendly."
Wine/beer pairing: Corona
Average rating: 3.7
"This beef doesn't really taste like beef," Kreisel complained. But everyone agreed that the sauce saved this meal. "Just like the French" Montecot mused, "just top it off with a good sauce and you are rolling!"
Wine/beer pairing: Coppola Zin-Syrah-Cab blend.
Average rating: 4.3
"OK, some recovery here," an obviously relieved Kreisel said. "Some veggies, some potato - it actually tastes something like the name would suggest." Gassman was less enthralled. "It tastes like a cheap canned soup that you haven't added water to," she said.
Wine/beer pairing: Beaujolais
Average Rating: 4.7
No one loved it - "I wouldn't serve it at a wedding reception," Montecot said - but everyone agreed this was another serviceable, though not very filling, choice. "Bagged tuna - 'nuff said," Kreisel said. "This one would be OK as a snack, but it's not very satisfying as a meal."
Wine/beer pairing: Sancerre
Spicy Penne Pasta
Average Rating: 5
Montecot was actually impressed. "I love the spice in this one," he said. "It looks good and smells good!" Gassman conceded that this meal "has flavor - not bad for a vegetarian option," she said.
Wine/beer pairing: Sangiovese
Veggie Burger with BBQ Sauce
Average Rating: 4.3
Everyone agreed: The veggie burger was better than the beef burger. Still, Kreisel lamented, "it doesn't really strike you as 'veggie' and it has a weird after-taste."
Wine/beer pairing: Hefeweizen
Average rating: 5.3
The chefs seemed impressed that this meal actually looked like what it was called. "This can actually pass for Mexican food!" Kreisel rejoiced. "The texture was good and the sauce had some spice to it," Gassman said.
Wine/beer pairing: Dos Equis
Chicken with Noodles
Average rating: 5.7
After more than a dozen entrees, Gassman seemed relieved to find one that was passingly edible. "This is the best so far," she said. "It tastes, looks and feels like chicken with noodles!" Kreisel agreed: "It's sort of like Campbell's," he said. "Definitely solid as a meal."
Wine/beer pairing: Gewurztraminer
Average rating: 3.3
"This might be considered some kind of sandwich," Kreisel said, "but it's definitely not a sloppy Joe." Montecot concurred: "Leave this one alone" he said.
Wine/beer pairing: Anchor Steam
Beef Roast with Vegetables
Average rating: 4
Montecot wasn't sure "beef" was the right word for this meat. "It's more like warm Spam with a good sauce," he said. Kreisel gave slightly higher marks: "Pretty much like canned stew," he said.
Wine/beer pairing: Syrah
Spaghetti with Meat Sauce
Average rating: 5.3
The chefs were all over the map on this one. "I can definitely survive on this!" Montecot raved. He gave this dish an 8, the highest mark of any chef for any meal. Gassman was far less thrilled. "Medicine taste," she said, rating this pasta a 3. Kreisel split the difference, handing out a 5, "it is what it says it is," he said.
Wine/beer pairing: '43 Chateau Lafite