Wednesday, May 1, 2013

MRE Review: Menu 22, Sloppy Joe

After last month's MRE review, some of you wrote in to ask why a science/nerd blog is reviewing military rations. Allow me to answer your question with a question of my own: Why do you hate our troops so much?


The modern combat ration would not be possible without an unassuming little technological marvel called a
retort pouch. Above all other advances, it’s this plastic and foil bag that allows an MRE to contain such ready-to-eat foodstuffs as soup, moist pork rib, or the Sloppy Joe in today’s ration.

Retort pouch foil layers
Source: Flair Packaging Corp
The retort pouch provides a watertight, airtight, opaque container with good heat conduction. Why is that important? Because there are only so many ways to keep food from being overrun with bacteria. Most of them come down to either poisoning the little bastards (pickling, preservatives, alcohol, etc.,) arresting their growth (freezing,) dehydrating them, (freeze-drying, salting, sugaring, etc.,) or killing them with heat.

Freezing is obviously not an option for an MRE. Pickling, salting, and sugaring  aren't appropriate for many foods. Preservatives, in the quantities needed to make a shelf-stable MRE, would leave you puking. And freeze-dried foods require water, either to wet them or to make up for the dehydration caused by eating them dry. So that leaves cooking.

Cooking kills bacteria, making food safe to eat, but it doesn't keep them away for long. Bacteria in the air and on the hands of the chef will happily recolonize food once it cools. This was not understood when Nicolas Appert first discovered that food cooked in an airtight jar didn’t spoil. He had no way of knowing that his jars were keeping new bacteria out after he'd killed the old ones with heat, leaving him with sterile, stable food in a portable container. Luckily, Nicolas was a true empiricist and he didn’t give a shit. The process he developed eventually evolved into modern canning, in which food is sealed within an aluminum can and then cooked.

Canning, however, is not without its drawbacks. A can must be heated for an extended time, to ensure that the center becomes hot enough to kill bacteria. This tends to reduce its nutritional value, and to, uh, alter the taste. Okay, let's be honest. Canning makes a lot of things taste like garbage. (Though I have a theory that, if you canned garbage, it might taste okay. Somebody check that and report back.)

Another drawback to canning is that tin cans are fucking heavy. You know this if you’ve ever been poor as hell and had to walk two miles home from the grocery store, in the blazing sun, lugging four metric tons of canned beans and fruit cocktail.

But prior to the introduction of the retort pouch (remember the retort pouch? It’s what the first half of this article is about,) the entrees in most military rations came in cans. Soldiers had to carry all that extra weight around, not to mention the noise of cans clanking together. So, for stealthy patrols, the military created the freeze-dried ration.

The problem with freeze-dried meals? They taste exactly like freeze-dried meals. And you either choke them down dry, or you use your limited supply of clean water to rehydrate them.

The retort pouch provides the perfect solution. It’s like a can, but lightweight. It's thin, too, and heats evenly, so the contents are sterile after just a few minute's cooking, preserving the flavor and nutrients.

And so, let's take a look at the flavor and nutrients in this week's menu, Sloppy Joe.

MRE Menu 22, Sloppy Joe overwrap

Here’s everything you’ll find inside:

MRE Menu 22, contents

This menu has two obvious sandwich options: peanut butter and jelly or the titular Sloppy Joe. But it only comes with one wheat snack between them, which is pretty typical. You can hardly ever assemble a proper sandwich using only the contents of an MRE. I have deduced two possible reasons for this: 1) It's difficult to get the desired balance of nutrients, and also put the entree, bread, and snack selections together in a sensible manner. 2) Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, while a student at Brown College in Minnesota, was attacked and viciously mauled by a fried walleye hoagie.

I've confirmed every detail of that second theory, except for the sandwich part.

Course 1
Diario Instant Coffee (with Non-Dairy Dry Creamer)
Chunky Peanut Butter
Grape Jelly
Wheat Snack
MRE Menu 22, wheat snacks

I'm starting with the same lunch my grandma made me when I was five years old: peanut butter and jelly with a big cup of hot coffee. This menu also comes with a packet of Splenda, but I don't like sweetener in my coffee, so I saved the Splenda to give to disappointed kids at Halloween.

I’ve heard a lot of kvetching about MRE coffee, but I think the stuff is above average for instant. It's worlds better than the instant Folgers I keep around in case of emergencies. My only legitimate gripe is that it's a darker roast than I prefer.

You’ll notice that I applied the PB&J in a segregated, separate-but-equal sort of configuration. That's because I wanted to sample them separately before mixing them together. And I must say, the jelly goes great with the wheat snack. The sweet taste and wet mouth-feel nicely offsets the doughy texture and bread taste of the wheat snack.

The peanut butter side was, however, a crushing disappointment. The wheat snack is dry, and the peanut butter is dry, so when they come together they're...  dry. About as dry as spackle, I'd say. Never eaten spackle? Just try peanut butter on a wheat snack—it's much the same thing. I can’t really comment on the taste, because my taste buds were paralyzed by the lack of moisture. I tried to scream, but the paste had glued my jaw shut.

After wrenching my mouth open with a butter knife, I mixed the peanut butter and jelly together and tried again. It was better, but not by much. The moisture of the jelly just couldn’t compete with the combined dryness of the wheat snack and peanut butter, even after I squeezed the rest of the jelly packet into the mix. I finished it off without much enthusiasm.

I make it a point to eat every bite out of these MREs, and there was still some peanut butter left in the packet, so I ate it with my MRE spoon, along with liberal gulps of coffee.The hot coffee really helped get the peanut butter down, which I'll have to remember in the future, but I fear that the viscous amalgam will cool in my stomach and form an impenetrable plug.

And now my spoon smells like peanut butter.

Damn it.

Course 2
Carbohydrate Electrolyte Beverage Powder – Orange
Sloppy Joe
MRE Menu 22, Sloppy Joe

As usual, I heated my retort pouch in boiling water and kept the flameless ration heater to put in my nephew’s diapers, to help him with potty training. There's nothing like a sudden blast of 180 degree heat to discourage a kid from wetting his pants.

As for the Sloppy Joe, the smell of it left me with grim foreboding. It smells almost exactly like cooked ketchup. It's kind of disgusting.

Surprisingly, however, it tastes good. Not fantastic, mind you, but good. The beef is nicely seasoned and it has a nice flavor, although the texture is a little weird. It’s too soft, even for ground beef, falling apart as soon as your teeth close on it. I wish it had a little more chew to it, or at least larger chunks of ground beef that could hold together.

The sauce is tasty but too sweet. I guess that's expected these days. I don’t know when barbeque sauce turned into a dessert item, but I find it distressing. A hearty food shouldn’t be sweeter than the generic Gatorade drink you’re washing it down with. Damn the modern age and its over-roasted coffee, its too-sweet barbeque sauce, and its kids on my lawn.

I ate a third of the pouch before I tried mixing in the pepper sauce. Wow! It was a huge improvement over an already solid entrée, giving the Sloppy Joe a welcome kick and offsetting the sweetness of the sauce. I chowed down on the rest of it with gusto. The entrée really came together after that, beating cafeteria Sloppy Joe by a country mile.


Course 3
Pangea Cinnamon Bun
MRE Menu 22, Pangea Cinnamon Bun

That's an oxygen scavenger buried in the bun. I had to dig it out with my fingernails. At least now I have something to scavenge my oxygen with.

This cinnamon bun has much the same texture as a wheat snack, but it's surprisingly moist. Still, “surprisingly moist” is a relative term. The thing’s still as dry as… as, umm… as paint… after it dries, I guess? Shit, I dunno. Let’s just say that it’s still very dry. If you think of a funny way to describe it, please write it on a 3x5 inch notecard and eat that, instead of an MRE cinnamon bun.

Anyway, it’s like a wheat snack, but it has a pocket in the middle filled with syrupy goo. You’d think the goo would make it palatably moist, but this goo just doesn’t have the gumption. Frankly, I don't blame it.

What’s more, the cinnamon bun just sits like a lump in your stomach. (Granted, that may be the peanut butter from earlier, but I think that dissolved when the pepper sauce hit it.)

In conclusion: It tastes bad, it makes you feel sick, and it saps the funny out of you.

Course 4
Toffee, Chocolate Flavored
MRE gum (Still not pictured. Next time!)
MRE Menu 22, Toffee

The inner wrappers identify these toffees as “Choclettos”, which I had never heard of.

A little bit of research revealed that Choclettos are made by Leaf brand candies, the proud confectionery masters who also make “Fruit Yummers” and the ever-stately “Sour Candy Farts”. Because, really, who can resist a sugary treat named after the fetid gas expelled from your anus? Coming soon from Leaf Brands, Fizzy Piss lime cola and Cherry Cordial Pustules.

Despite their less than noble upbringing, Choclettos have a shitload of calcium and iron, which is surely how they ended up in an MRE.

They’re a kind of chocolaty, toffee hybrid thing. Even the texture is midway between toffee and cheap chocolate, a little chewy and a little chalky. It’s weird.

They’re not too bad, though. They have a strange aftertaste that I can only describe as "grainy", but I had no trouble finishing them off. I was just glad to have the MRE gum on hand, to wash that taste out of my mouth.

Because there really is gum.

I swear.


Like this review? Read my other ration reviews!

Fresh Hardtack
3-Month-Old Hardtack
Menu 16, Pork Rib
Menu 23, Pasta in Pesto
Menu 14, Ratatouille (Vegetarian)
Menu 15, Southwest Beef and Beans
Menu 8, Marinara Sauce with Meatballs
Menu 20, Spaghetti with Beef and Sauce 
Menu 19, Beef Roast
Menu 13, Tortellini Vegetarian 
Menu 18, Chicken with Noodles
First Strike Ration Menu 2 (Part 1)
First Strike Ration Menu 2 (Part 2)


  1. I have to say, if an MRE isn't science, what is? The military gets all sorts of cool science, and not necessarily just the blowy-uppy kind.

    Also, hi! Can't remember how I found you, but I enjoy your blog. *waves*

    1. That's a good point! Everything in the MRE gets there by scientific development, or is selected based on a scientific study. Even the little packet of hot sauce was added after a collaboration with food industry scientists indicated that it would increase overall consumption. I'll have to remember to explore that more in a future review...


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