Fort Belvoir, Virginia –
A handful of diners were granted access to an exclusive pop-up restaurant promising “meals, ready to eat,” only open for one lunch seating at the Defense Logistics Agency headquarters April 4.
The concept behind this pop-up restaurant? Giving those who serve the warfighter an opportunity to lunch and learn with a taste of the military field rations that troops consume.
“I had asked for this, because I had never had an MRE … and this being one of the things we provide, I thought some of us would like to experience firsthand what that’s like,” said DLA Logistics Operations Deputy Director Mike Scott.
More than a mere meal, guests learned about the rations from DLA Troop Support’s Subsistence office and about advancements in meal preparation from DLA Information Operation’s Research and Development office. The Logistics Operations Corporate Events team provided a glimpse into what they do as the face of DLA at many events.
While the full MRE menu offers a wide variety of selections, from chicken pesto pasta to beef tacos — 24 entrees in all — the exclusivity of this concept eatery limited guests to just one packet each.
Presentation of the meals wasn’t like the typical restaurant experience. Forgoing formal serving platters and plates altogether, each portion arrived in distinctive, uniform brown packets that seemed sturdy enough to have been parachute dropped — which they can be. The contents, able to be eaten warm, cold, or any temperature in between, included a flameless ration heater that invited guests to heat their own main course at the table.
Employees from DLA Troop Support’s Subsistence supply chain were on hand to explain the contents and how to access them. As tour guides to a new culinary experience, they also described other field-ration options that weren’t on the menu that afternoon.
“It was making me smile,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Trevor Farrow.
“It was just like back in the day, watching soldiers try to operate the MRE, and seeing how some were ‘having some struggles’ using this meal,” Farrow, a military food advisor, said with a laugh after assisting first-timers.
Pacing of the meal was set by the diner. Traditionalists may have approached the lunch one course at a time, starting with crackers or bread topped with one of various spreads while their main course and side dish warmed up, saving their dessert for last. But because all stages of the meal were available immediately, no one blinked an eye at sneaking some dessert first. Don’t ignore the beverage; flavors differed depending on the meal, but all could be made and mixed using just the provided bag and water.
An amuse-bouche arrived courtesy of the R&D office in the form of several flavors of MRE supplemental bars. Only one bite was really needed from these dense, efficient and calorie-packed bars, but that was enough for the group to provide tasting notes to the R&D office.
A slice of “wheat snack bread,” drier and chewier than a typical bread, did indeed become a snack when sleeves of peanut butter and jelly came together to enhance it. A pouch of applesauce was a side dish and an activity when it came time to remove the sweet contents, since it was far easier to sip directly from the package than to use a spoon.
One of the main dish offerings available was the Asian-style beef strips with vegetables. Thin slices of beef — was that a grill mark? — mingled with a variety of vegetables, including water chestnuts and bamboo, which offered welcome crispness to a heavily sauced dish. The included salt, pepper or hot sauce in the various meal options encouraged seasoning to taste.
Dessert was a game of chance: oatmeal cookie or Skittles candy? The communal experience encouraged swapping for favorites.
Trading and custom options developed among groups familiar with MRE offerings was a memory that DLA Chief of Staff Kristin French recalled fondly.
“Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have some really neat ways of combining the ingredients in those little bags,” she said. “[MREs] have really improved over the years, and I really love seeing the variety of the foods available now.”
These MREs may not fit into the typical restaurant-goer’s routine, with each full meal coming in at about 1,200 calories and high in sodium. Perfect to devour for a while for highly active members of the military services or in disaster relief settings, but less than ideal for regular home consumption.
While tastes in food varied from person to person, one thing all diners could agree on was the five-star service — service to the warfighter’s field-ration needs.