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.
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Now food technologists conduct focus groups with troops across the country, follow restaurant fads, and even attend culinary school to make sure their approach isn't entirely scientific.Skip to next paragraph
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"[MREs] really go along with the trends," says Kennedy. "As new things come out at restaurants, new flavors like chipotle or buffalo [get popular], they get incorporated into the MRE.... The trend [now is] going to more comfort foods like Salisbury steak, beef briquette, but it's not just macaroni and cheese, it's Mexican macaroni and cheese."
Just as in the first Gulf War, when NSSC misses the mark today, soldiers in the field let them know. After living off nothing but MREs for 45 days in Afghanistan, Spc. Colin Hankinson wrote a letter that included samples of packaging from Canadian rations that offered troops customer feedback cards with every meal
He also suggested that MRE designers "expunge" Cinnamon Imperial candies from the ration. "They are not satisfying to eat or useful to trade," explains Specialist Hankinson. "During the past 45-day mission, the primary consumers of Cinnamon Imperials were Afghan children and the burn pit."
Since 1993, NSSC has tried to avoid letters like Hankinson's by creating more than 189 new MRE menu items, almost 12 per year.
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The kitchen lab where Kennedy and a number of other food technologists whip up the latest MRE dishes resembles a cross between a school cafeteria kitchen and a third world operating room. There are walk-in freezers, multiple meat slicers, a retorting machine bigger than a mid-size car, and lab coats and hair nets (for both head and facial hair) are required.
It was in this kitchen that Kennedy dreamed up what she considers her tastiest creation: a spicy vegetarian penne pasta. Mixed with a soy-based, non-meat sausage crumble, the pasta is covered with a zesty sauce that Kennedy says has "kick."
Asked to describe the inspiration for the penne platoon-pleaser, she ponders a moment before responding, "Well, I can't really say there was an inspiration."
Quite simply, she was under military orders to create a new vegetarian dinner with a protein source. Beyond that, she was like Michelangelo with a chisel and a slab of marble, limited only by her imagination.
The new emphasis on customer satisfaction has made it an exciting time to be a food technologist. In many ways, it's even led to rethinking the MRE.
Take the new First Strike Ration (FSR) for example. It's meant to provide service men and women with snacks throughout the day that add up to the equivalent of three square MREs. Since the FSR is intended for soldiers on the march, and not in a position to easily prepare food, it was what ultimately inspired the creation of the three-year sandwich – currently barbecue beef or chicken and Italian sausage, among others.
Though it might seem a minor innovation, for food technologists it was a breakthrough. Previously, finding a way to stop wet ingredients like BBQ sauce smothered chicken from seeping into the bread was impossible. But through tinkering with chemicals in the wet center. they managed a a long-life rendition of a sandwich resembling a Pop-Tart).
After clearing the sandwich hurdle, Michelle Richardson, a food technologist for 19 years, looks forward to overcoming the next MRE conquest: eggs.
"Now I'm trying to give [troops] a breakfast burrito, the same thing you can get at McDonald's but doesn't require any refrigeration and is shelf stable for two years," she says. "Egg is really kind of difficult [to preserve], but that's OK. I like a challenge and I don't get bored."
• Watch 10-year-old taste testers issue their verdict on MREs.