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Taste is on the agenda for military Meals Ready to Eat

Finding a way to a soldier's heart through chipotle chicken. Next challenge: eggs.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2008

Hey Mikey ... Longevity conquered, taste is now on the agenda for military rations developed at the US Army Natick Soldiers Systems Center. Jeanette Kennedy a food technologist prepares frozen Salisbury steaks for a prototype batch.

Tom A. Peter

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Natick, Mass.

Like any chef, Jeanette Kennedy's palate has become so refined over the years that, given any dish, she can single out virtually every ingredient – the pinch of black pepper, the hint of oregano, or the vegetable oil subbing for olive oil.

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On a recent morning she was testing a slab of pound cake, her face blank as she silenced her other senses and focused on taste and texture.

After a good long chew, Ms. Kennedy spit the cake into a paper cup – an indelicacy that was not a comment on the cake (which she deemed pretty good), but the result of a high calorie occupational hazard. This pound cake is no tea party trifle; it's combat cuisine – part of an MRE, Meal Ready to Eat – designed to fuel soldiers lugging 100-pound packs all day.

A food technologist at the US Army Natick Soldier Systems Center (NSSC) west of Boston, Kennedy faces creative challenges unlike those before any other chef. Meals can't just taste good; they've got to last ... for three years stored at 80 degrees F., be capable of withstanding chemical or biological attacks, and survive a 10-story free fall (when packed in a crate of 12).

In this world, making something as seemingly simple as a sandwich earns a food technologist rock star status, even if only within the confines of the lab.

• • •

Ask anyone who has worn a US military uniform and they'll have an opinion about rations. MREs – the name given to the rations first served in the 1980s when canned fare gave way to meals packed in sturdy beige pouches – have nicknames that pretty much sum up what many troops think: Meals Rejected by the Enemy, Meals Rarely Edible, and Meals Refusing to Exit (a name that continues to stick despite the addition of more fiber).

"You go into [your first MRE] with a preconceived notion, just from what you've heard from either your instructors or other people that you're in training with, that they're not good," says Jeremy Whitsitt, a former Army soldier and now program outreach coordinator at NSSC. "But I think a lot of that has to do with the early days of the MRE, and just with military rations in general. Over time they've kind of developed a bad reputation, because for a long period of time we weren't customer focused."

Considering the difficulties of the durability requirements, it's easy to see how taste and customer satisfaction were low priorities. The only reason MREs aren't supposed to be consumed after three years is because science hasn't found a way to stop the deterioration of taste. But technically – if not gustatorially – they're still edible long after the expiration date.

But, Jill St. Jean, who ate a 6- or 7-year-old MRE beef patty during her training to become a certified MRE taste test evaluator at NSSC, admits, "That one pretty much tasted like dog food smells."

In years past, the canned C-rations that served the military from World War II through Vietnam actually looked a lot like wet dog food, which is also how many soldiers remember the taste. But these rations came from a very different time, an era when cigarettes were still standard issue.

Today, troop acceptance of the meals, which cost the military $7.13 each, has taken center stage. Back in 1982 when MREs debuted, designers assumed they could hang up their aprons. But when the first Gulf War broke out, the new ration moved from limited training use to the only food soldiers ate for months on end. Angry letters flooded in from the trenches, and the military realized that rations had to be a work in progress.