Saturday, January 14, 2006

New Orleans Takeout: The MRE

In December, I took my wife and son to New Orleans for a visit with my family. That trip and the things we saw, the people we spent time with, the gifts my son wracked up are for a different story. What I want to write about today is the nouvelle Orleans cuisine. For once I was able to bring back to Florida a real new Orleans meal.

The NEW New Orleans that is. I brought back 6 packs of what my family has been eating for the last few months. Everybody says they're great. My mom has her favorite. My sister's do too. When my brother-in-law was giving them to me he asked me not to take one of the pastas; his personal favorite.

My mom told me about the red cross coming by each day with water and food. MREs. Meal Ready to Eat. I can't tell you how consistently I heard, "This is really good food!" This from people who live to eat. People who on any particular day could, before katrina, get shrimp po-boys, gumbo, boiled crawfish, etouffee, and other excellent, make me drool, food.

Let me tell you what kind of person my mom is. She lost her house in katrina (along with everyone else in my family and all of their neighbors). She was living cramped up in an tiny apartment with 4 other people: no electricity, no water, no AC. The first floor apartment was a reeking, unhealthy mold factory. No TV, cable, internet, radio or newspapers; no news of any kind. The red cross was delivering food and bottled water daily. They were bathing with bottled water in addition to drinking with it and flushing the toilet with it. She had every right to be depressed and despondent. She could have been angry and resentful.

I asked her how she was doing. She said that red cross was bringing them food and water and that the food was military style (she can't seem to remember MRE). I asked her how it was. She said it was really good and that made her glad because now she knew that our military over in Iraq at least had good food to eat. That was so out of left field that I will never forget it and it makes me proud that she's my mom. Everything she has to worry about and she was worried about the troops.

But I still had a hard time believing that the military, with it's propensity for totally destroying food (at least on M*A*S*H and in the military cafeterias I've eaten in), could create these non-refrigerated bundles of goodness. After a little online research I find that they didn't get it right the first time. These "meals ready to eat" have at times been know as "meals rejected by everyone", "meals rejected by ethiopians", "materials resembling edibles", and due to a low fiber content, "meals refusing to exit". That one had me crying I was laughing so hard.

I didn't take a full case of the goodies. Just a sampling so that when we talked about them I would have some experience with them. I got one pack each of Beef Roast with Vegetables, Sloppy Joe, Chicken with Noodles, Vegetable Manicotti, Cheese Tortellini, and Jambalaya. I HAD to try the Jambalaya.

I packed them in an empty MRE case, i.e. A card board box. The box says that no additional refrigeration is required. That's true although from my research, refrigeration can extend their life. An MRE is planned to be "good" for about 6 months at 80 degrees and for about 3 months at 100 degrees. Katrina hit just in time for the MREs to sit in 100 degree weather. Hopefully the packs I got arrived at a later date.

Just for completeness, here is the entire list of entrees: Grilled Beefsteak with mushroom gravy, BBQ Pork rib, Beef ravioli, Cheese & vegetable omelet, Chicken breast filet, Chicken fajita, Chicken with salsa, Hamburger patty, Beef stew, Chili with macaroni, Penne with vegetables and sausage in spicy tomato sauce, Veggie burger in BBQ sauce, Cheese tortellini, Vegetable Manicotti, Beef enchiladas, Chicken with noodles, Sloppy Joe filling, Cajun rice with sausage, Pot roast with vegetables, Spaghetti with meat sauce, Chicken Tetrazzini, Jambalaya, Chicken with cavatelli, Meatloaf with gravy. I believe my brother in law said his favorite was the penne. I wish I had gotten one of the cajun rice packets. That sounds delicious.

So, what is an MRE? It's a brownish-tan plastic package. Inside that package is an entree, a desert, spices, napkins, matches, etc. It also includes a chemical heater. Real cool stuff! I'll talk about the heater first.

The heater uses water and magnesium (with a few other chemicals) to produce hydrogen. This chemical change produces heat. Basically, you have a little flat heating element in a plastic bag and an entree in a plastic cover inside of a flat cardboard box. You add a few tablespoons of water to the heating element and drop your entree into the plastic bag with the heater. Fold it up, put the entire thing back in it cardboard cover and in 10-15 minutes you have hot food.

Each meal is supposed to be between 1200 and 1400 calories. These are carb heavy. They're meant to suffice as the only meal for a day if they have to and are designed for soldiers, carrying heavy packs, who are on the move.

For dinner last night, my wife and I decided to try a couple of MREs. I grabbed the Jambalaya and she grabbed the cheese tortellini.

Here are the menus:

Cheese Tortellini:

  • Cheese Tortellini
  • Vanilla Poundcake
  • saltine crackers
  • peanut butter
  • spices apples
  • hot apple cider
  • plastic spoon, moist towelette, napkin, matches, salt, spices, gum


  • Cajun Jambalaya
  • Wheat Bread
  • Pineapple pound cake
  • Blackberry Jam
  • tobasco sauce
  • coffee (not CDM)
  • Vanilla Dairy Shake
  • plastic spoon, moist towelette, napkin, matches, sugar, coffee, gum, non-dairy creamer

I have to be honest. I didn't drink the coffee or the vanilla shake. I was stuffed from the meal. My wife skipped the hot apple cider. We ate the rest of it though.

So how was it? Well, my wife is a lot pickier than I am and she liked it. She put it on par with a microwave meal. I have to agree with that. I'd say it's a little better than almost any frozen meal I have ever had but not nearly as good as I would get in a restaurant in New Orleans. I've ordered Jambalaya in other parts of the country that I regretted putting in my mouth. I would eat this jambalaya again. The pound cake was downright delicious. The wheat bread was good, moist. It reminded me of middle eastern flatbread. I spread the jam on it. Mmmmmmm.

Because it was our first MRE, I over filled my heater some and my wife heated her spiced apples instead of the entree. Unlike the people in New Orleans who were living on this, she was able to nuke the tortellini in the microwave.

And that gets to the gist of it. These MREs are a novelty to me and my wife. I wanted to try them because my family spoke so often and so highly about them. But for a few hundred thousand people in New Orleans, a few hundred thousand more (million maybe?) in the gulf coast, these meals are what kept them alive. In the comfort of my living room, in the AC watching television, I can critique these meals. If I was sitting in my mom's house last September, November, etc, I would eat these things up. I think I would tell the world how good they were. They are good. In the right situation, they'd be great.

I am somewhat humbled by what all of my relatives have gone through, and are still going through. It's not over yet. All of them have shown a consistent strength that I hope I would have shown had I been there.

What more can I say except that at least I know they have good food to eat.

Katrina is gone but her impact remains. Everyone in the gulf coast can use your help. Check out Charity Navigator for a list of valid charities. Give what you can.

For more info about MREs, visit Wkipedia, How stuff works, or the Federation of American Scientists.