Aged to perfection 2016.05.18


You've heard the famous quote by Napoleon Bonaparte: "An army marches on its stomach." There are a lot of people who spend a lot of time looking deeply into that notion. They collect MREs (meals, ready to eat) from armies around the world.

A review by a British newspaper found interesting menu items, from the Estonian smoked sprats, stuffed peppers and halvah to the British chicken tikka masala and pork and beans breakfast.

• Italy—The breakfast pack includes a 40 percent alcohol shot of cordiale to get the troops awake and ready for action. Italian meals include a disposable camping stove to heat the pasta and bean soup, canned turkey and rice salad.

• France—The French ration pack—described as streamlined but sophisticated—features deer pâté, cassoulet with duck confit, creole-style pork and a crème chocolate pudding. There's also a little Dupont d'Isigny caramel for a special treat. In a taste test it was described as flavorful but impractical in wartime.

• Germany—The liver-sausage spread was feared by tasters, but found to be very good on rye bread. There was also goulash with potatoes and several sachets of grapefruit and exotic juice powder to mix with water. The breakfast jams were sour cherry and apricot.

• Australia—This one included more small treats than any other nation. There's Vegemite, of course, jam sandwich biscuits, Fonterra processed cheddar cheese, chili tuna pasta, and lots of sweets and soft drinks.

• Spain—Lunch for Spanish troops includes squid in vegetable oil, pâté and green beans with ham. There's also powdered vegetable soup and crackers in place of bread.

• Canada—Canadians can dine on a salmon fillet with Tuscan sauce or vegetarian couscous. There's peanut butter and raspberry jam among the breakfast items. Although there are Bear Paws snacks, there's no maple syrup.

• U.S.—It's against regulations to offer sample MREs for tasting, but pilfered meals can be purchased at the Bush Bazaar in Afghanistan. The tasting crew obtained one. There was almond poppy seed pound cake, cranberries, spiced apple cider (America's non-alcoholic match to Italy), peanut butter and crackers, vegetable crumbles in spicy tomato sauce. There's also the "flameless heater" technology—just add water to the powder in a plastic bag and it heats up to warm the meal pouch.

The U.S. puts serious amounts of money into developing MREs which is why in 2013 the "holy grail" of combat food success was announced: battlefield pizza. It took a lot of research to develop something that could withstand years of hot temperature and still not have the sauce soak into the crust, something that would actually taste like pizza. Researchers had to get down to the molecular level in sauce creation and experiment with a variety of drying methods.

Fifty years from now there will be people eating pizza packaged in 2016. That's an odd thing about MREs. There are collectors and  connoisseurs—people who eat really old military meals.

There's one infamous ration reviewer named Steve (no last name given) who creates YouTube videos of himself eating, for example,  a tin of Canadian army rations from 1945.

He opens a package of 71-year-old cookies, comments on the awful smell, and then eats one. He says it's disgusting, then eats four more. Then he moves on to chocolate pellets.

Apparently there's a growing online community of rations collectors who trade food and reviews. Kinton, a man from North Carolina, was introduced to MREs through emergency preparedness for the Y2K farce when the new century began. He eventually started the website and visitors from around the world check in to discuss tastes and trade food.

Most of the visitors prefer up-to-date meals, but there's an element of collectors who love the thrill of tearing open a package to see if the M&Ms have turned to dust or the applesauce is now black. It's just part of the experience.

Minton gets e-mail asking why the website even exists. That's from visitors who never want to taste an MRE ever again.

His answer to the question "Why?" is an easy one. 

"Why not?" he told a reporter. "It's what we do."