WHIDBEY RECIPES | Too much Army food can give a person a case of the vapors

I’m sitting at the dining room table, about to have a unique dining experience. Unique for me, that is; it’s certainly not unique to thousands of U. S. military personnel serving in the field, whether it’s Iraq or Afghanistan.

Most of us have heard, I’m sure, of MREs, the “meals ready to eat” doled out to soldiers who may have to come up with something to eat when there is no kitchen within miles, let alone a camp stove. During World War II, I think these were called K-rations, or perhaps C-rations? I recall seeing film clips of soldiers eating these reconstituted goodies out of their helmets or tin cups.

I’ve often wondered what such a meal could possibly taste like, if it’s even edible unless you’re really, really hungry.

Now, I’m about to find out, thanks to a friend, a retired army colonel who picked up some MREs at the Oak Harbor Naval Commissary. She bought them to have on hand in the event of one of those prolonged power outages not unknown to islanders. When she showed me the packets, I knew I’d have to try one and she agreed to give it a go.

Our options? Chicken and Dumplings, with Pears; Beef Ravioli in Meat Sauce, with Pears; Chili with Beans, Mexican Rice, Vegetable Crackers and a packet of Cinnamon Imperials (?); Chicken, Vegetables and Noodles in Sauce, with Mango Peach Applesauce. Each plastic-wrapped package also contained packets of instant coffee, sugar and/or another beverage mix.

Also included was a long, thin green plastic envelope, the most important element as it turns out, the MRE Heater, which answered my lingering question about how hungry guys and gals out in the sands of Iraq were going to heat up their Beef Ravioli, or whatever. I don’t have space enough to give you all the details, but it involved pushing the MRE pouch into this green sleeve, adding a very small amount of water, putting the whole thing back into its carton container and waiting 10 to 15 minutes for dinner. Somehow, a flat white packet of mystery material inside the green envelope activates with the water and turns into a heater, quickly by the way.

Among several warnings on the green heater pouch is this: “Vapors released by activated heater can displace oxygen; when 10 or more heaters are used inside a vehicle or shelter, ensure the ventilation system is operating or a top hatch or door is open.”

In other words, if you’re with buddies and having a get-together for dinner, be sure someone keeps a window or door open, lest your Chicken and Dumplings ends up becoming your last supper. And, users are also warned that the MRE Heater can get very hot, so “use caution if carrying activated heater in pocket.” At this point, even my wild imagination failed me.

By now, you may be wondering, “So, what did you choose and how was it?

Well, after some chat, we decided to test the chili with beans and Mexican rice, based on possibly- flawed thinking that this was one meal that almost every American would eat and probably look forward to. We carefully followed the instructions for heating and tried to imagine doing it while sitting in the middle of some wasteland in Iraq.

When it was ready, we had a plate of barely-warm rice topped with hot bean chili with a side of vegetable crackers. This is what I’m about to enjoy, I hope. I’ll be back shortly with the results of the test.

Half hour later: How did it taste? As the saying goes, “I guess you had to be there.”

I think it’s necessary to be where the troops are, with nothing else available when mealtime comes around, and to be very, very hungry. It would also help if someone is carrying a salt shaker among their other weapons.


My friend also has in her possession one of the more interesting books I’ve laid eyes on in years. Titled “CHOW: A Cook’s Tour of Military Food,” the book is not only a wealth of fascinating historical information about feeding troops, from the Revolutionary War through WWII, it’s also full of tips for food cleanliness in the field, making do with odd materials, storage and preservation of food in the field and dozens of other unusual and useful bits of information.

I found it hard to put down.

Here are three sample recipes

I gleaned from that treasure trove of Army food history. The following is a budget meal many of us may remember from leaner years, and for which members of the armed forces who ate it had a special name, not repeatable in this paper.


7 lbs. chipped or sliced dried beef

2 lbs. fat, butter preferred

1 lb. flour, browned in the fat

4 cans evaporated milk

2 bunches parsley, chopped fine

½ oz. pepper

4 gallons beef stock

130 slices bread (about 12 lbs.)

Melt the fat in the pan and add the flour. Cook a few minutes to brown the flour. Add the milk and beef stock, stirring constantly to prevent lumping. Add the dried beef and cook 5 min. Add the parsley and pepper. Serve hot on toast.

The following recipe is less familiar, but sounds as though it would be good party food. According to the recipe, this is “sufficient for 22 men.”


16½ lbs. meat (the recipe doesn’t specify which kind)

1 lb. flour

1 lb. bread

1 lb. onions

2 oz. each salt, mint and parsley

1½ pints vinegar

2 qts. water

1 oz. pepper

Cut the meat from the bone and into pieces about half-inch thick and three inches square; beat it well. Boil the onions, strain and chop them up. Chop up the mint and parsley and mix the whole with half the pepper and salt. Make a stiff batter of flour and water; make the bread into crumbs and add it to the batter with the remaining pepper and salt. Now rub the mixture of onions, etc. on the pieces of meat, or press the pieces on the mixture so that some adheres, then dip them into the batter and run them as they are done upon a small spit or a bit of wire (an old ramrod is best), two pieces of lean to one of fat, and place them in a quick oven; they will take from 20 to 30 min. Make a gravy from the bones.

I love this one; it contains two ingredients, Spam and Vienna Sausages, well known to anyone over the age of….well, of a certain age. You know who you are.


1 1/4 cups Vienna sausage

1 1/4 cups Spam

1 T. powdered eggs

2 T. powdered whole milk

3/4 cup dry bread crumbs

3/4 cup sifted flour

1 cup shortening

2 T. diced bacon

2 T. dehydrated onions

1 cup canned tomatoes

3 cups water

5 bouillon cubes

2 t. salt

1/8 t. black pepper

Grind or chop the meat very fine. Place in a mixing bowl.

Add eggs, milk and bread crumbs to the meat mixture. Mix lightly but thoroughly. Shape into balls weighing about 2½ oz. Dredge in flour and fry in shallow fat until brown. Place in a small roasting pan.

Fry diced bacon and onion until lightly browned. Add tomatoes, water, bouillon cubes, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 min. Pour sauce over pork balls, cover and bake in a 325-degree oven for 20-30 min.

Serves 10-12.

One final note. I’d love to hear from any of readers who may have actually dealt with MREs at some point in their life, to get some input your idea of how they tasted.