The Desert Chow-down


October 31, 1990|By --Jean ThompsonCarleton Jones

Food -- and we don't mean a snazzy new diet or a new formula for stir-fried squid -- is back in the news, in the form of what is and isn't in the U.S. Army's overseas chow lines.

For weeks in blazing heat all the mess sergeants have been dishing out to tens of thousands of Operation Desert Shield soldiers in Arabia is something called either T-ration or "MRE."

The old olive-drab K and C ration cans of World War II and other unpleasant periods were phased out a few years back as field rations, wartime snacks that had a single tasty component, a tinned, edible ham and cheese spread. These days, the T (for TC tray) ration and the MRE (for meals ready to eat) have replaced the old-timers.

T-rations come in precooked packages serving 18 troopers and are boiled in the field to bring back to life a din-din menu that may have been cooked as long ago as 1988. The packaged, ready-to-eat helpings contain such things as beef stew and tuna noodle concoctions. MRE is a more sophisticated new meal method with a longer shelf life.

UGH! say the troops.

Bring on the burgers, the pizza, the fried chicken and the Gatorade are the suggestions from the rear ranks.

The idea behind the new combat rations is to lighten the logistical load of having to maintain field kitchens with real cooks. The move was part of the "privatization" of commissary supplies in the Reagan years. Real cooks were dropped from combat units. The result was that "younger mess sergeants can barely boil water," according to a Fort Stewart Georgia Army captain, who was quoted in a news report.

The processed field chow now served has been all the more irksome since GI Joe and Josephine quickly learned that the U.S. Navy and the Marines, with their portable mess halls and tidy refrigeration, were dining nicely and daily on fresh food, thank you. Even worse, the Saudi military forces were also getting fresh food on a daily basis.

Though regarded as an improvement over T-Rations, MREs have gotten mixed reviews. The pre-cooked, hermetically sealed meals come in compact packages that can easily be carried by soldiers in combat attire.

A real variety has been attempted, for these meals include such things as western omelets and potatoes with bacon, pork sausage, oatmeal and fruit cocktail for breakfast, chicken a la king, potatoes au gratin, and turkey melts on English muffins for lunch and dinner, and chocolate nut cake and cookie bars for dessert.

The amazing thing is the sheer variety of things that are included in one MRE package, enveloped (almost engulfed) in GI khaki plastic.

About 250 soldiers can be served through the compact T-ration system in about a half-hour, field tests show. One thing the new field rations mean is that "the soldier's mess kit is a thing of the past" according to Col. David Archer, who heads an Army center for planning better meals and subsistence supply methods. Some elitist products have crept into the menus. Taster's Choice, the premium instant coffee, for instance, is featured in MRE packages, not some generic type. "It's at least safe to say that our troops in Arabia are eating better than most airline passengers nowadays, especially those on the East Coast's Trump Shuttle," reports Chicago Tribune writer Michael Kilian, who has covered field ration use with combat-ready units.

Though the field chow has taken some hard knocks in the press, it has its defenders. "You're looking at something that will meet all the dietary needs of the troops," says Capt. William E. Wheeler, a registered dietitian with the staff of the Army's Center of Excellence, Subsistence, with headquarters at Fort Lee, Va.

The 12 different menus available in the MRE lineup have an average caloric value of 1,298, while the 10 T-ration breakfasts run around 1,390 and the 10 options of the dinner menus run around 1,468 calories, the army reports. That means the troops are getting about 3,600 calories a day, or about three times a light hospital diet.

GI chefs have balanced the menus so that the instant chows contain about 50 percent in carbohydrates, from 31 to 35 percent in fats and with 15 or 16 percent in protein foods.

When one actually is confronted with the MRE chow kits, one worries less about the nutrition and palate of the men and women in splotchy camouflage out there in the sand. For one thing, with the MRE menus "all the food can be eaten hot or cold. Selections are pre-cooked and vacuum sealed inside individual packets," Staff Sgt. Randy Goins reported in a 1986 issue of Army magazine.

Along (roughly) culinary lines, what the troops appear to miss most in strait-laced, alcohol-free Saudi Arabia is "a really cold beer," Marine Lance Cpl. Keith Wood of Victoria, Texas, told an interviewer from Reuters. Other frequently expressed longings include backyard barbecue, pizza, salads, peanut butter sandwiches and burgers.

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