Chow Baby

MRE rations

A modern army meal, which includes magnesium powder to heat food without fire. Wikimedia Commons.

On this Memorial Day, ceremonies in towns, cities and villages across America honor those who served and who are now serving in the U.S. military. Since I am one of those who served in the past and are now serving again, I want to remember and celebrate Army field rations: remember the 1970s C-rations and celebrate today’s MREs.

MREs?  Meals Ready to Eat.  The current U.S. Army field ration.

I have two weeks of annual training in the Army National Guard coming up. Through the long days of crawling through mud, firing weapons, or driving in convoy, each soldier carries lunch and dinner in a brown, vinyl bag with “Meal, Ready to Eat” printed on the front.

Why do I love Chicken Tetrazini, Chili-Mac and Jambalaya meals in a vinyl bag? Because I first enlisted in 1972, when field rations meant C-rations. For most of the second half of the 20th century, American soldiers had 12 food choices, which included everybody’s least favorite, especially when cold, canned ham and eggs. 

C-rations came in a cardboard box. Inside were four green cans, a spoon, and a plastic bag with matches, toilet paper, salt, and instant coffee. In addition to ham and eggs in a can, there were ham (really Spam) slices, canned spaghetti, hot dogs and beans and other various mystery meat selections. They were better heated, but were more usually eaten at ambient temperature under blackout conditions.

By contrast, the MREs come in an endless variety of main courses, and with a variety of vacuum-sealed cake and bread, plus candy, pretzels and even beef jerky. While I like the waterproof vinyl bag, it’s another plastic bag that really sets MREs apart from their canned predecessor: the green, translucent bag for heating the main course. This bag contains magnesium powder in a membrane. Add water and the magnesium oxidizes, giving off enough heat to make the main course warm. Since there’s no flame, just wisps of water vapor, soldiers can have hot food even in the dark. I know from earlier this year that a foil pouch of Chili Mac will heat in a steady, cold rain. Warm food in rotten weather is a big plus.

Here’s a video in which I explain just how much better MREs are than C-rations.

Posted In: History

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