Self-Heating Meals, Instant Cheesecake, and Moon Pies, Oh My.

For the past couple days, I had been pricing MREs on eBay. MREs are Meals, Ready to Eat–self-contained, individual field rations that the United States military eat in combat. In each package is a Flameless Ration Heater, a water-activated exothermic reaction product that emits heat and makes the meal hot when exposed to water.

MREs are not for sale in the civilian world, but since no actual laws explicitly bans it, eBay does not cancel the auctions. In fact, when the government delivered boxes of rations to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, many chose to sell the rations on eBay. The joke was they were Meals, Ready for Ebay. Cases can sell for hundreds online.

The meals are not known for their taste, but rather for the 1200 calories and 50+ grams of fat that they deliver to soldiers in the field. The meals are known by some colorful nicknames, such as Meals, Ready to Excrete, or Meals, Rejected by Ethiopians.

I imagine the folks who buy rations online are either military enthusiasts, or mountain people in Montana. Or lonely, old men who simply want to eat them alone, standing over the counter in the kitchen. My curiosity was piqued. I wanted to learn the secrets of the US military, and their self-cooking foods.

I looked them up on eBay, but I soon realized I didn’t want to get in a bidding war over an individual package of self-heating meatloaf. Also, something about buying military rations on eBay felt icky to me. There was also the fact that 6,000 MREs had been recalled for samonella contamination last year. I bet half of them are still on eBay. I didn’t want to play roulette.

However, there are, in fact, civilian versions of MREs.

I stood in the aisle at Outdoor World for twenty minutes, wanting to be sure to choose the best meal experience. Beef and chicken, though intriguing, were out. As a vegetarian, I wasn’t up for experimenting with self-heating meat. There was a vegetarian option, a cheese lasagna, but I felt there was no risk, no adventure in a dull lasagna. I picked the pancakes and bacon. I could stomach a bite of bacon for the blog, the least fleshy and fatty of my options.

Feeling inspired, I also picked up a packet of Backpacker’s Pantry Cheesecake.

While not an MRE, this was a bag of powder, that when mixed with cold water, magically transformed into New York Style Cheesecake.

The pancakes and cheesecake bag were each $6. Each package contained less than 400 calories a piece–more on par with regular meals than their military counterparts. For good measure, I also bought a couple of Moon Pies, because Moon Pies rule. I came home with my heap to show the girlfriend. Self-Heating Meals, Instant Cheesecake, and Moon Pies, oh my! But she was busy with her grad school homework, and told me to go play with my “cheesecake in a bag, or whatever it is,” downstairs.

Let’s have a closer look at the MRE:

At first, it looked like a ton of directions. I pulled out the contents, and there were all kinds of bags and packets, which all had a greasy feel to them. This was too much work already. I expected this to be like the future, where the food immediately would assemble itself upon exposure to oxygen. Oh well.

I admired the hermetically-sealed package of silver dollar pancakes, anyway. Adorable. And then there was the metallic pouch of BLUEBERRY TOPPING. Delightful.

And then there was the bacon.

Golden. Classic. Flavoring added. Gee, I couldn’t wait.

So the next direction was to shove it all this orange bag, still inside their adorable hermetically-sealed packaging. So I did.

Next, I added the pre-measured packet of water. I appreciated that. I hate using measuring cups.

Within ten seconds, the bag magically began to warm up. It got surprisingly hot to the touch, like holding a hot cup of coffee. Also, it began to sizzle. Loudly. I took a movie.

After ten minutes of sizzling and smelling ominously like burning rubber, the meal was ready to be unveiled. But first, I noticed this weird yellow gunk in the bag, after pulling the packets back out:

What the hell was that? Whatever it was, I hoped it hadn’t chemically bonded with the food I was about to ingest. I suspected it contributed to the synthetic burning smell wafting out of the bag.

Alright, now the food.

The blueberry topping was like black tar smothering the pancakes, none of which was particularly warm, despite the sizzling sound. I recruited the girlfriend away from her homework for the taste test. She is often more blunt than I am in her descriptions. She reported that the blueberries looked like a period.

We tried the pancakes. They were hard and stiff, rather like upholstery, and the blueberry topping was cloyingly sweet. So basically, if you took your car seats and smeared them in blueberry sauce and took a bite, this is what it would be like. Then there was that bacon. The girlfriend said it looked green. I thought it looked like a sliver of skin. The bacon was not warm, but not cold either. So much for a self-heating meal. I made the girlfriend go first. She chewed and chewed. I watched her face eagerly. Finally, she said, “Ew.”

I took my bite, a small, cautious bite. It was gamey. I spit it dramatically in the sink like a ten year old, then I wiped my tongue with a paper towel.

She went back to her homework. I went to the cheesecake in a bag. This could not disappoint. The directions were simple. Add water. Stir briskly. Let sit for ten minutes. Insta-cheesecake? Now, this was the future.

The last direction was to top the mixture off by sprinkling finely-crushed graham crackers.

Okay. I guess I expected this insta-cheesecake to somehow expand outward and take the form of a beautiful piece of pie. Instead, it sat still, a big red bowl of glop. Still, if it was delicious cheesecake filling in that bowl, I wouldn’t complain.

Dessert was served.

So, it looked a bit like warm cat vomit. I tried a spoonful. It was not fluffy cheesecake filling at all. At all. It was pudding. The graham cracker reminded me of the fuzzy stubble of an unshaved old man, rubbing against my tongue. Despite all of this–the cat vomit, the old man stubble–I found the pudding delicious.

There’s my plate, licked-clean, and the barely-sampled girlfriend’s plate. “Ew,” she said again, and went back upstairs to do more homework. And so I grabbed my spoon and served myself a second helping. And then I ate the rest of hers too. It sat heavily in my stomach, as though I had consumed a pile of wet rags. I drank lots of water. I hoped not to get salmonella.

Well, this food is not the future. I’m putting my money on Astronaut Ice Cream. That’s the future right there. Speaking of which, I still have some Moon Pies. Oh my.

14 thoughts on “Self-Heating Meals, Instant Cheesecake, and Moon Pies, Oh My.

  1. I appreciate your bravery. Seriously. Who else would do this? I need to carry you around in my pocket just to see what shit you’ll do next, because it always makes my day better.

  2. You are a brave soul. And I was so rooting for that cheesecake, glad it pulled through on taste if not presentation.

  3. They sell prepackaged cooked bacon at the regular grocery store, ya know. I suspect it’s basically the same as that stuff.

  4. If you have a local Army/Navy Store (they sell things like camo gear old surplus military stuff, etc. Then you may be able to find your MREs there. There are a few in Ohio’s metro area, where I’m from; my grandfather used to buy them for when he went hunting.

    (I wouldn’t expect much out of them. Especially after the pancake experiment.)

  5. I remember while on a backpacking trip, one thing that was given to us for meals was a “pemmican bar.” It wasn’t actual buffalo pemmican, but just a big dry yucky bar that had all the nutrients you needed for a whole day. After we were finished with the trip, we learned from others that “pemmican bar baseball” was a common camp diversion.

  6. Dude, you need to toughen up. I lived off MREs in all configurations and styles. They’re exciting at first, then you get used to them and they’re just sort of gross, then you figure out how to make them good.
    Ranger cookies, mix&match, bring your own spices, etc.

    On an Alaskan field exercise I brought pan, olive oil, feta, pita, basil, oregano, kalamat olives, etc and turned them into high art. Everyone was jealous when I started cooking my dinner over the yukon stove in my section tent. I packed extra spices and whatnot to make MREs more enjoyable. They’re much better than they were in the 1980s. Now you can get veggie, beef, chicken, enchiladas, turkey, bread, sandwhiches, Combos, M&Ms, etc. It used to be wayyyy worse.
    As for the heaters-they’re never much to talk about. But you need to let them sit a long time to get the full effect. Maybe add another heater. Or just eat it cold, since it’s shelf-stable.

    Take the heater and put it in a sealed plastic bottle with some water and back up for some fun…

  7. One time, during an exercise, a friend of mine was sick and ate a spoiled beef MRE entree. He was too sick to smell the bad meat. Then he proceeded to rip the worst farts in history. After smelling how bad they were, his friends sent him to visit the Division headquarters tent. He ripped one up there so bad they evacuated the tent. The exercise observers decided the empty tent meant an entire regiment was dead due to lack of communications. So my friend’s gas was so bad, it could *notionally* kill hundreds.

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