Ready to eat
What did you do to prepare for the lockdown? What activities helped you cope as the world retreated into suspended animation? One of the ways I coped was to cross the line between passive interest and active obsession; to take a step forward from being interested in a subculture, to actually entering it.
On Saturday 14 March - during the last weekend before work, school and shops started to close – my son and I sat down to dine on a French 24-hour military ration. Earlier, we had excitedly unpacked the contents of the box of delights and laid it out carefully on my bedroom floor.
The French soldier in the field is supplied with tastes to excite the senses: Crevettes Poulet a L’Asiatique! Salade Mexicaine! Rillettes de Maquereau! All this and a dark chocolate pudding, biscuits (sweet and salty), energy bars, apricot jam, chocolate muesli, soup and a multitude of teas, coffees (fair trade!) and drink mixes. There are also toothpicks, a pack of tissues and a sturdy plastic bag for rubbish (no need to litter the battleground!). This is only menu 7. Other menus feature duck, ostrich and many other tempting entrees.
My son and I assembled the miniature stove and lit the solid fuel tab with the supplied matches (decorated with a photo of the Eiffell Tower). We used the handy supplied handle to manoeuvre the canned oriental shrimp and chicken onto the stove, and waited excitedly for the contents to heat up. In the meantime we sampled the Salade Mexicaine, a toothsome mix of kidney beans and large chunks of beef, designed to be eaten cold.
The main event was…peculiar: a strange, gloopy conglomeration of noodles, pulverised vegetables and chunks of chicken and shrimp. I have no idea if I liked it or not (my son tried 2 bites, I finished the rest). Much better was the dessert, a dark chocolate pudding that pulled no punches cocoa-wise. The rest of the day’s food was similarly top-notch, particularly the chewy nougat block and the tangy fruit bar.
I cannot say that this was the greatest meal I’ve ever had (it was enough food for a day, but my son and I split it into one meal and a variety of snacks). Both of us had stomach aches that night, during which I queasily fixated on that odd quasi-oriental dish. The ration wasn’t what you would imagine it to be – bland fuel for muscled warriors to shovel into themselves between firefights. Rather, the French 24-hour ration was surprising, sometimes bizarre, definitely not cheap, and sometimes verging on the decadent.
Why though, did I purchase a French military ration in the first place?
It started with me signing into YouTube with my Google account a few years ago. Instead of just using the app to view specific videos, I began to explore the choices that the algorithm served me. A couple of years ago, for reasons I can’t fathom, it offered me a review of a World War Two US army ‘K ration’. The review didn’t just unpack and explore the contents of the ration box – biscuits, canned cheese, instant coffee and cigarettes – the reviewer actually sampled them too. The climax featured the reviewer puffing on a 70+ year old Camel.
Military rations are sometimes known as MREs (Meals Ready To Eat – which strictly speaking only applies to a particular kind of modern US ration pack). The smoking reviewer’s pseudonym is Steve1989MREinfo. He lives in Florida, has a calming relaxed tone of voice, and is a fit man in his 30s or early 40s. He is not a soldier.
He is also the Elvis of military ration reviewers.
Steve started posting his reviews online 4 years ago. They now get anything from a few hundred thousand to over 3 million views and every time he posts, his followers rapturously hail the master of the MRE on the comments thread. What us fans crave is his catchphrase: ‘Let’s get this out onto a tray – nice!’ You can even buy a T-shirt displaying these immortal words (and I have).
The immortal catchphrase is intoned after what I consider the best part of the videos – the unboxing. I thrill to the sound of plastic pouches and metal cans being lovingly fondled. Steve carefully extracts the goodies out of the ration pack and explains what they are (sometimes with the added comment ‘not bad’). Post-catchphrase, he cuts away to the components laid out on a multi-compartment metal tray, ready to be opened and sampled.
Over the years, Steve has eaten his way through the global history of military nutrition. He has sampled American Civil War hard tack and British Boer War dried beef; he has chewed his way through the growing sophistication of ration packs from the Second World War onwards: the canned meat and saran-wrapped biscuits munched by GIs in Germany and the Pacific giving way to the freeze-dried spaghetti Bolognese enjoyed by the Vietnam war grunt. Steve is happy to take one for the team, sampling foul-tasting 70 year-old crackers and enthusiastically sniffing rancid provisions. He has no fear of botulism when opening decades-old canned fruit and veg – he simply dons his gas mark and gloves.
Steve is not alone. There is a thriving ration collecting underground. Although the subculture’s origins have not been mapped, the internet boosted it immeasurably as ration geeks around the world realised there were not the only ones.
This isn’t the domain of gun-nuts, survivalists and war-buffs. Or, to be more accurate, while there seem to be plenty of those, the subculture seems to have transcended what it might have been. Steve1989MREInfo and his colleagues know their stuff inside out, but what seems to excite them most is the food. They are gourmands, albeit of a particular type.
You see this gastrocentricity in reviews of MREs produced in the last couple of decades. Modern nutritional science has made possible all kinds of things that were previously impossible to provide to troops in the field. The summit of ration technology was reached in 2018 with the release of US MRE pizza, ‘the holy grail of MREs’ as Steve puts it. Today’s soldier can dine on everything from reindeer stew (Norway) and fried rice with Kimchi (Korea). In some countries, the need to ensure soldier morale has led to them putting together almost absurdly luxurious ration packs. France is one example, but the prize certainly goes to Italy, whose breakfast ration includes a vial of alcoholic cordial to go with the morning espresso.
MRE reviewers do not judge recent offerings by their military utility, but by their taste. Bad rations get their just desserts (such as the notorious US vegetable omelette, known as the ‘vomelette’). Tasty ones are lauded. You can eat your way around the world, revealing national characteristics as you do so: Russian and East European MREs are big on meat pastes, crispbread and kasha; British ones are big on curries and Yorkie bars; Australian MREs include a squeezy tube of Vegemite; and the Chinese ration packs appear to have low quality-control (they have made Steve sick).
There is a gruff sensuality at work in this subculture, or at least that what was alluring to me. I’ve always found on-screen food delectable, even when it is bland in the real world. The highpoint of my childhood viewing of Coronation Street was always scenes where characters shovelled down fish and chips or bacon and eggs. There is something about the sound of on-screen food, or even the sound of its packaging, that awakens my senses.
As we entered lockdown, so MRE subculture called to me more insistently. The sudden barrenness of everyday life left me aching for stimulation, to feel alive and sensual. Isolation left me yearning for the pleasures of community, for passion and expertise. The happy MRE gourmands of YouTube seemed to provide everything I was looking for.
More than that: isn’t the MRE not a perfect balm to the corona-addled soul? Here, in a box or a pouch, is a fantasy of self-sufficiency. In the real world I worried about getting a grocery delivery slot and whether we’d run out of milk, bread and toilet paper. In the real world the kitchen cupboard and fridge are anarchic spaces that never seem to be under my control. Yet the military ration, a perfectly-balanced diet fit for one meal or for 24 hours, has no outside to it – it is entirely self-contained. There is no need for anything more other than water. They even contain their own heating equipment, either flameless ration heater bags (activated by a small splash of water) or mini stoves.
All edible life is here. Or, at least, all life that can be made shelf-stable for a minimum of two years in varying climatic conditions.
Lockdown was the time for me to feed on this teeming lifeforce, and it wasn’t difficult to do. MRE sales are not strictly legal in most countries, but there is a thriving online marketplace, fed (presumably) by wheeler-dealer troopers. You get what you pay for. Antique rations can cost huge sums of money and sought-after modern MREs (such as the legendary Italian breakfast ration) are quickly snapped up when they come on the market. Still, I managed to purchase three in-date ration packs for an affordable price.
My teenage son and I were bursting with excitement as we unboxed the French 24-hour ration. The subsequent stomach pains meant he was more wary when it came to trying the US MRE. I was undaunted – this was the real thing, the high-tech trailblazer in ration technology, in its distinctive tough plastic pouch. The Ebay store I bought it from didn’t have a whole lot of options left (signs of panic buying?) so I went with ‘Menu One: Chili With Beans’:
Almost trembling with excitement, I carefully opened the pouch and laid out its contents (albeit not on a tray, since I don’t have one):
Aesthetically, these austere brown and grey pouches make the opposite impression to the anarchic colour of the French ration. The same was true of the contents. The side dishes varied from beige to dull orange and the tastes were similarly muted, the Cheddar Cheese Crackers tasted vaguely like Ritz Cheese Sandwiches and the Vegetable Crackers recalled cardboard (despite being packed with vitamin-rich vegetable content). Only the Corn Bread offered much of a thrill, with a moist sweetness that was staggeringly close to the real thing.
Undaunted I pressed on to the main course. I stuffed the pouch into the flameless ration heater (basically, a plastic bag with a thin water-activated heating element) and poured in the water.
This triumph of portable heating technology was having an off day: It took 10 minutes of kneading and pouring in more water before the heating element finally produced the necessary steam. Eventually, the pouch was hot enough to be opened. Accompanied by the remaining half of the cornbread and a glass of the orange powdered drink (astringent but palatable) I regarded the US army’s bounty with anticipation:
I suppose it’s the highest compliment you can make that it tasted more or less like it was supposed to: The kidney beans were individually identifiable, the sauce was tangy with a reasonable level of spice, the beef provided a meaty glue that held everything together. It was a brutally effective dish; the height of gastronomic engineering and doubtless a taste of home to a GI in the field. That there was no ‘soul’ was perhaps the point. The French ration had soul aplenty, but it left me bilious. The US MRE left no discernible trace. I had been nutritionally balanced, and that was that.
I tasted my third ration a few days later – a Lithuanian one. This might sound obscure but Ebay is full of ration packs from the Baltic States for some reason, and they are cheap.
Laying out the contents, I was optimistic: Aesthetically, Lithuania seem to have achieved a balance between the visual blandness of the US and the unfocused plenitude of the French. The satisfying dark green seems to evoke a military that is both serious yet appreciates how things look:
The food seemed well-balanced too. The pack of hazelnuts offered unvarnished nature. The dark chocolate did exactly what it was supposed to. The blandness of the hard-tack rusks was made palatable by the tub of honey. Even the orange drink mix actually tasted a bit like orange.
Still, my son fled the room when I opened up the main course (heated by a much more efficient heater than the one in the US pack). The processed meat smell was pungent to say the least and once in the bowl it didn’t look promising.
This was, apparently, ‘Stewed Chicken with Rice Mash’. It was hard for this effete Londoner not to view the mush as stereotypically Eastern European. The taste didn’t exactly undermine this impression – its forbidding heartiness channelled route marches in sub-zero temperatures – yet it was better than expected. The chicken chunks weren’t processed blocks, but actual pieces of flesh, steeped in flavour. The rice mash was comforting and paired effectively with the chicken. The smelling might have evoked bargain-basement tinned meat, the eating evoked warm comfort on a cold night.I have done it: I have entered MRE subculture. I may not have unboxed my treasure on YouTube, but with the publication of this article I have now publicly reviewed three MREs.
Still, I admit that the tasting itself was, if not a disappointment, then certainly not the most exciting part of the process. It was the joy of receiving the package through the post, unwrapping it, unboxing it, contemplating the delights within, that provided the most intense pleasure. That and knowing that I am now part of a subculture that finds excitement in the utilitarian, to the bewilderment of most people.
For people like me, the MRE is a fantasy, a vision of comfortable self-sufficiency in hard times. The fantasy made real can never be as good as the fantasy in contemplation. It doesn’t need to be though. In lockdown or out of it, tantalising dreams are sometimes all we have to keep us going.
Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and a writer, based in London. He researches and publishes on a variety of topics: Antisemitism and racism, Jewish identity, extreme metal music, and the warning messages in Kinder Surprise Eggs. @KeithKahnHarris