The military is nothing if not ingenious when it comes to doctoring MREs. Cantrell said a combination of the instant coffee and cocoa mixes makes a "good-tasting flavored coffee."
He's also experienced in the making of the "Ranger cookie." By pouring the sugar packet into the powdered creamer packet, sealing it up and heating it with an entire book of matches, a soldier can make the sugar and creamer crystallize into a white mass, resembling "a big piece of Alka-Seltzer," Cantrell said. But in the end, the cooking process appears to be more appreciated than the taste: "They're something you make if you're bored."
_____MREs_____Then and Now
More menu options and a greater variety of foods are the most noticeable changes in the military's MREs since the 1980s. The systems command in charge of menu planning has MREs working through 2007. A comparison of some popular items:
MRE No. 1 (1981)
to MRE No. 5 (1985)
Ham & Chicken Loaf
Beef Slices in BBQ sauce
Frankfurters with Beans
Turkey Diced with Gravy
MRE No. 23 (2003)
to MRE No. 27 (2007)
Almond Poppyseed Poundcake
Mexican Macaroni & Cheese
Cajun Rice with Sausage
Chili with Beef
Mango Peach Applesauce
Meatballs in Marinara Sauce
Chicken & Dumplings
Wild Berry and Tropical Fruit Skittles
A perennial favorite for troops is hot sauce, specifically McIlhenny's Tabasco. A sauce like Tabasco, barbecue or picante "gives them the option, as Emeril would say, 'to kick it up a notch,' " Aylward said.
The 0.12-ounce, mini-bottle of Tabasco (good for 45 drops) is a must-have among troops in the field, and a big trading item. "I use two or three if I can get my hands on them," said Wade. "That's what makes the meal edible to me. I usually bring my own hot sauce when I'm stateside."
McIlhenny has been providing soldiers with its peppery condiment since the Vietnam War. The company even developed a "Charlie Ration Cookbook," later renamed "The Unofficial MRE Recipe Booklet," with recipes for menu items found in MREs. "The mini bottle is included in 20 MRE menus; in 2002, for variety, Tabasco was replaced in four menus with other spicy flavorings such as a salt-free season blend and ground red pepper.
Other soldier favoritesare the cheese spreads, which the troops add to almost everything: "They are very creative -- adding cheese to entrees and crumbling crackers over the top," Aylward said.
"You start crushing the crackers with a hammer, then add [them] to the Tuna Casserole and then [add] the cheese packet, and it makes it delicious," said Cantrell.
Though candies, shakes and doctored entrees may please the palates of some members of the military, others say they'd rather live on peanuts. Lots of them apparently would like a few good slices of pizza.
"It's not out there yet," Aylward said. "But we're working on it."
Terri Sapienza is the Food section's editorial assistant. She last wrote about private bartenders for hire.