As you guys have probably figured out by now, I’m fascinated by processed and preserved food. There’s something about the idea of food being edible for insane periods of time that is interesting to me. It’s like…zombie food, food that’s still alive after it should be dead. And I’m not necessarily talking about shelf-stable junk food like boring old crackers, either. I’m talking about shelf-stable cooked food like canned goods that you can have for ages.
A while back, one of my favorite people ever, Julie, and I were brainstorming possible off-the-wall pitches I could have to various online food publications. We were wandering around a sporting goods store and poked our heads into the camping gear section, and saw the MREs. In case you’re not familiar with the term, MRE stands for Meal, Ready-to-Eat. MREs can take various forms, like freeze-dried food you reconstitute with boiling water, or food you can eat straight out of the packaging. I’m not talking about crackers, either — I’m referring to actual substantial meals.
Julie said, “Hey, I have an idea! Why don’t you do an MRE taste test?” Genius. I never ended up pitching the idea to a publication because most of them aren’t interested in me fucking around, but now that I’m raising hell on The Pizzle, I figured why not Pizzle it?
But of course, I’m an assclown. I can never leave a basic idea alone. So I consulted my good friend John Lenart, the wine writer for Chicagoist (check out his stuff here), to see if he could pair these entrees with extraordinarily cheap wine.
I stopped by Dick’s Sporting Goods (haha, Dicks), and picked up two camping entrées: Mountain House Chili Mac with Beef, and Ready to Eat Beef with BBQ Sauce Sandwiches. Then, of course, because I couldn’t leave well enough alone, I dropped by the Army Navy Surplus U.S.A. store here in Chicago, and bought two kits, one with Vegetable Manicotti, and one with Jambalaya with Ham and Shrimp.
These packages seem pretty reasonable. I imagine this is what astronauts eat. Since one of my main concerns about being an astronaut is flatulence in an astronaut suit, I have chosen not to become an astronaut.
These are the military rations. They come with an entire set of items. One of the kits included vegetable crackers, cookies, jelly, preserved pears, sports drink powder (similar to Gatorade), and an entrée. For the purpose of this post, I omitted the snacks, because I’m saving those for the Apocalypse.
Because I put the “ass” in “class,” I asked John to set me up with some wines that would ordinarily fit into the “bum-affordable” category. If you would like to know more about bum wines, visit BumWine.com to learn about them. Three of the wines pictured above are easy to get at local grocery stores, but the fourth one, MD 20/20, was oddly tricky to find.
As I checked out at Binny’s with the Franzia and the Yellow Tail, the cashier raised an eyebrow at me and said, “Reliving your college days, huh?”
I looked at my feet and said, “Sort of.”
Then I asked the bagger if they carried MD 20/20 (Binny’s doesn’t, for good reason), with an expression of genuine concern, and she said, “Honey, you gotta go to the hood to get that. Good luck.”
It took me seven tries to find it. Almost all the liquor store owners laughed at me when I asked them if they carried it.
Pairing: The Mountain House Chili Mac with Beef and Franzia Burgundy Wine.
John says: “Despite it’s name, this wine has nothing to with Burgundy. But that’s OK, since your dinner has nothing to do with actual edible food either. But did you know that this wine is used for a sauce base in many high quality restaurants across the country? So, while you’re eating out of a bag, and drinking out of a box, at least something about your meal can be traced back to a quality kitchen.”
The chili mac is surprisingly good. It’s freeze-dried and reconstituted with boiling water, but it tastes exactly like it should — seasoned with cumin and plenty of tomato sauce. It has a slightly gritty texture with the flavor of a mild canned chili. The texture is a little grainy due to the dry spices and the reconstituted elbow macaroni.
The Franzia Burgundy is a great pairing, too. I don’t know much about wine, but its thin body and mild red grape juice flavor compliments the tomato and beef sauce. Turns out freeze-dried beef reconstitutes really well. I thought that red wine that comes in a bag inside a box would be total ass, but in this case, it’s not terribly sweet. However, I could see this shit giving anyone a wicked hangover.
Pairing: Bridgford Ready to Eat Sandwiches, Beef with BBQ Sauce and Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon.
John says: “Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon: Does this wine have character? No. But neither does that bag of beef-like product you’re eating. It only costs a few bucks a bottle and because of that people who have a bit of wine knowledge love to hate this stuff. As one wine writer put it “You can’t lump that crap in with the lovingly made products I drink!”
Translated: ‘I don’t drink a commodity. I drink a magical elixir harvested by elves in moonlight! It’s not enough that my wine is better; I want it to be fundamentally different.’
Well, screw those wine snobs; chug that bottle of $3 swill with pride.”
This one made me sort of nervous. Beef sandwiches with a shelf life of over two years sounds like a mistake. But after one bite, it made perfect sense: The beef is dehydrated, with the texture of beef jerky (makes sense, since Bridgford makes beef jerky). It tastes less like barbecue sauce and more like Sloppy Joe sauce. It’s not particularly moist, but that’s a good thing, since the sandwiches aren’t soggy. Think of it as a Sloppy Joe jerky toaster pastry. The bread tastes like an entire loaf of Wonderbread that got sat on by an elephant. It’s very dense.
The wine, commonly known to most people as Trader Joe’s $2 Buck Chuck (now $3 Buck Chuck), is also a perfect pairing. It’s light bodied, fruity, and juicy, which helps rehydrate every bite of the relatively dry sandwich. Overall, I’d be content munching on this in the wilderness of my city apartment if I was out of actual food, drunk off Chuck, and naked.
This is the MRE heater for the military ration. You pour water in it to activate the heat. And, as the instructions say, you’ve got to angle the ration on a “Rock or Something.” I chose the “or Something” since I was all out of rocks.
Pairing: Vegetable Manicotti with Yellow Tail Moscato.
John says: “Sure, this stuff is so sweet you might need an insulin injection afterward, but the tropical fruit flavors and sugary aftertaste will go a long way toward wiping out the flavors of the salt bomb of a dinner that you’re eating. Add to that the fact that after eating and drinking this combo, a ‘Yellow Tail’ is just what you’re gonna have the next day.”
Well said, John. Unfortunately, my heater was really old and didn’t function well. It basically got a small portion of the manicotti lukewarm, so it was more or less at room temperature. This is easily one of the strangest things I’ve ever eaten. It had the texture of compressed cat food, with the flavor of compressed cat food. The mind-boggling combination of seasoning, vegetal and bitterness was as strong as Lou Ferrigno on crystal meth. There are no words in the English lexicon that can describe this food. The aftertaste is one of the most persistent, metallic, and odd things I’ve ever experienced from anything edible. The pasta portion is somehow even more partially-digested than Chef Boyardee.
The Yellow Tail Moscato is really sweet and actually works with compressed cat food. I’d describe it as wine for children. It tastes like bubbly ultra-sweet white grape juice, no more, no less. The wine works as a way to temporarily wash away the bizarre flavor of the food.Pairing: Military grade Jambalaya with Ham and Shrimp with MD 20/20 Blue Raspberry.
John says: “Blue Raspberry: Look, if this is your dinner, you need to get bombed as soon as possible. So crack the screw cap on a bottle of this stuff and inhale the fumes as they waft into the air. The blue raspberry flavor actually gives way to a bit of creaminess, if you can get past the wallop of alcohol. But you really don’t care about anything other than getting hammered, and fast. This one’ll do the trick.”
This may actually be the worst food I’ve ever eaten. I’ve eaten terrible food, but I apparently had no idea. My MRE heater for this worked better than with the manicotti, but not by much. Only half the food was warm-ish and the rest was stone-cold. The rice was mealy and the flavor of this “jambalaya” is straight-up chemical in nature. The meat was extremely strange; it’s kind of like a moist smoked Slim Jim with a smoother texture (if that’s even possible). And there were insanely strong doses of shrimp flavor hidden in the rice, but no shrimp actually visible. Jesus Christ.
But the MD 20/20 is a whole new experience for me. I like a Blue Raspberry Slurpee once every five years, because they are cloyingly sweet, yet cold and refreshing. But this tastes like rat poison. In more culinary terms, it tastes like cough syrup with caustic blue raspberry flavoring. As a pairing, this was a total disaster, because of the chemicals layered on more chemicals. There was no way this pairing was going to work to begin with, but hey, John, you gave it your best shot.
Interesting fact: MD does not stand for Mad Dog, as most people believe. It stands for Mogen David, the name of the company that makes the wine.
So here is my conclusion: Anyone in the military who has to eat this shit in the field is easily my biggest hero. I’m sorry you have to eat these. You’re giving an incredible sacrifice for the country. Also, I’m sorry I did this. I can’t get the taste of chemicals out of my mouth.