Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen

An Army Moves
On Its Stomach

by Kate Heyhoe


From drones to diets, technology makes the difference in battle. And, as all foodies know, meals don't just fuel for the body: They feed the psyche and the soul. Apparently, the science guys at the Department of Defense finally put these concepts together—successfully.

Soldier in Iraq

The acceptance of the new and improved MRE's of the Iraq war hit the headlines like bombs over Baghdad. MRE stands for Meals Ready to Eat, and everyone from embedded journalists to major generals have praised the Department of Defense for turning what was once jokingly referred to as "Meals Rejected by Everyone" into edible, nutritionally balanced meals that actually have flavor. Those (whose mothers were probably terribly cooks) have even called the MRE's better than home cooking.

MRE's have to meet some tough requirements. They're rodent-proof, waterproof, and able to withstand the impact of hitting the ground from 2000 feet in the air with parachutes, or 100 feet in the air solo. They have a shelf life of three years at 80 degrees F., and 11 years at 60 degrees.

According to the Department of Defense, each MRE contains an entree/starch, crackers, a spread (cheese, peanut butter, jam or jelly), a dessert/snack, beverages, an accessory packet, a plastic spoon and a flameless ration heater. Beverages can be packets of powdered Gatorade-style drinks, freeze-dried chai tea or cappuccino, or powdered chocolate milk shakes.

The flameless heater, about the size of the MRE itself, makes a big difference in quality. No more cold food from tins. To heat an MRE, just add an ounce of water to the heating sheet in the pouch, rotate the bag, and in less than ten minutes, the food is a cozy 212 degrees. But it does have drawbacks. At up to 1-1/2 pounds and about the size of a hardback novel, an MRE can be heavy and bulky. Some soldiers remove them to pack more gear.

Earlier MRE's were often tossed out unopened, not because of their weight but because they tasted awful. Soldiers gave them nicknames like "four fingers of death" (smoked frankfurters). God only knows why the DOD thought an army would move on ham loaf and weenies. But with the modern MRE's, the government actually asked our men and women in uniform what they wanted to eat, and had them taste-test the products until acceptable versions were created.

The 24 resulting MRE's are as multi-ethnic as a shopping mall food court. Some of the most popular include chicken with Thai sauce, beef enchiladas, cheese tortellini, veal Parmesan with baked ziti, teriyaki, and seafood jambalaya. Mini-containers of Tabasco and Mrs. Dash allow the militia to "season at table." Three MRE meals per day are intended, though when rations ran low, troops were occasionally reduced to one MRE, which is still more nutritious than many people in the world can afford on a daily basis. Each meal provides an average of 1,250 calories (13% protein, 36% fat and 51% carbohydrate). When supplemented with pouch bread, an additional 200 calories are provided.

One thing the MRE's don't contain is pizza, which quickly became one of the world's favorite foods after American and European GIs first encountered it in World War II. One wonders in the aftermath of the Iraq war, what acquired tastes will thrive in the U.S. With our returning men and women. As war gives way to peacekeeping, MRE's give way to local cuisines.

Not surprisingly, little is written about modern Iraqi cooking per se, but the seat of Mesopotamian culture has historically featured the same spices and ingredients as other Arabian Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean cuisines. Rice, fava beans, chickpeas, yogurt, dates and breads mingle with cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, black pepper, pomegranate, tahini, onion, garlic, and other flavorings. Salads are simply dressed, with olive oil and perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice. Families who can afford them may cook with lamb, beef, or poultry, as well as saffron, almonds, pine nuts, raisins, eggplant, and tomatoes. Meats are usually combined with rice, beans, or vegetables, or skewered and grilled.

For a broader sampling of what the troops in Iraq, Kuwait, and other stations abroad may be experiencing, check out our Global Destinations: Middle East section.

By the way, even if our soldiers chuck their MRE's for local Iraqi cooking, the MRE's still have value. The meal packets come with cardboard backings, which are making their way to relatives back home as "MRE postcards." GI's have always used whatever scraps of paper or wrappings they could find to pen a personal note back home. The MRE postcards may say "I love you" on one side (with a handwritten notation "send free" in the corner), but the other side isn't quite as romantic—printed with ingredients and nutritional information for bean and cheese burritos or beef ravioli.

Recipes and Background

Global Destinations: Middle East


Kate's Global Kitchen for May 2003:
5/02/03     Spicing Up Cinco de Mayo
5/09/03     For Mom, a Bouquet of Vanilla
5/16/03     An Army Moves on Its Stomach
5/23/03     Burger Building—for Fun or Profit
5/30/03     Mint, Mint, and More Mint


Copyright © 2003, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.

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