Wednesday, December 18, 2013

MRE Review: Menu 18, Chicken with Noodles

Bread and the military go way back, but it hasn't always been a happy relationship.

Hard breads have gone by a few different names through the ages. The Egyptians made theirs out of millet and called it dhourra. The Romans called theirs buccellum. British sailors called the stuff “hard tack,” a name that spread to America and is still used today.

Whatever name it goes by, hard bread is cheap, easy to prepare, and lasts for months or even years when properly made. It's also high in energy and marginally nutritious, able to supply most of a soldier's food. Not all, because hard tack is low in protein and critical vitamins, and so must be supplemented with salted meats or foraged fruits and vegetables. Its biggest drawback, however, is in the eating.

If you want to experience the joys of military hardtack for yourself, just follow the instructions at that link.

Now take what you've made and put it in a dark place for three to six months before you even think about eating it. Allowing it to become moldy and infested with weevils is optional, but highly recommended for that authentic historical experience.

And that, boyo, is hard tack: a lump of putative bread that’s completely bereft of taste and so damn hard it hurts your teeth when you bite into it.

Alternately, you can just dig the grout out from between your kitchen tiles and eat that. It’s about the same thing.

And yet, hope springs eternal. With the advent of canning in the Napoleonic era, soldiers might have thought they were finally done with hard breads, that canning would usher in a new era of soft bread in the field.

It was not to be so.

When, on the road to Moscow, Saldat Voltigeur Pierre du'Poorbitch opened a tin of canned bread he'd purchased in Vienna, he expected to find something soft and moist, like mother used to make. Instead, he found the same hard tack the army had been feeding him since fucking Austerlitz, because it’s nearly impossible to can soft bread without either burning it to a crisp or risking spoilage.

Canned bread
Anyone can see, that's not bread.
Still, du'Poorbitch should have considered himself lucky. At least his canned hardtack wasn't moldy or weevily, like the army hard tack he was used to. The army's hard tack was still carried in barrels and crates, and still highly prone to spoilage.

Why didn't armies switch to cans? Because cans are heavier and more expensive than barrels. So, sucks to be you, Saldat du'Poorbitch. We can afford to march 700,000 men to Moscow in a campaign that will undoubtedly end in glorious victory and a triumphant return for La Grande Armée, but we can’t afford to keep insects out of your fucking food.

Canned hard tack did show up here and there during World War I, but it wasn't until World War II that canned bread became a staple item in U.S. Army rations, in the form of crackers, biscuits, and cookies. But that's still not what you think of, when you think of bread, is it?

Actual soft bread wouldn't make it into rations until the invention of your friend and mine, the wheat snack. Even then, it's stretching the language to call a wheat snack "soft bread." It is soft, I suppose, and you could bake bread with a wheat snack's ingredients. Then again, I'm pretty sure you could make dynamite from the ingredients you had left over, which is not exactly a mark of great cuisine.

Still, the wheat snack is greatly preferable to the horror of hard tack. For one thing, you can chew a wheat snack without breaking a molar—always a plus in my book. It's palatable too, if not exactly delicious. And this while remaining as shelf stable as the hardest of hard tacks, thanks to its airtight packaging, low water activity, and added chemicals.

The low water activity level is key. Without that, you'd be right back where you started, trying in vain to heat-sterilize a wheat snack without burning it, or adding so many chemicals that it becomes as indigestible to humans as it is to molds.

But what the hell is water activity level, anyway? To answer that question, go to your kitchen and enjoy some delicious honey, straight from the jar. Go ahead. Just shove big spoonfuls into your mouth.

Still not enlightened? Well, that's not my fault. The answer is smeared all over your lips, you ignorant, sticky-faced glutton. You see, honey has enough moisture (around 18% by mass) to make it, you know, moist, but very little of that moisture is available for molds and bacteria to use. That's because most of the water in honey is not "active." Rather, its water molecules are bound up and stuck tight to sugar molecules. Microorganisms can't grow without unbound water, which makes honey and other low-water-activity foods resistant to spoilage.

Wheat snacks are formulated to maximize moisture content while keeping water activity level low, resulting in a soft, chewable bread product that's as shelf-stable as a cracker.

And then, of course, there are the chemicals. These space-age additives further retard bacterial and fungal growth, but also preserve the wheat snack's original taste, texture, color, crumbliness, and a host of other desirable characteristics as it ages. So an old wheat snack is not merely safe to eat, it's still somewhat tasty.

And yeah, even with all that Science in it, a wheat snack still isn't that great, but you can be thankful that it's not hard tack.

On that note, let's review today's MRE: Menu 18, Chicken with Noodles.

MRE Review: Menu 18, Chicken with Noodles: overwrap

Here’s what you get with it:

MRE Review: Menu 18, Chicken with Noodles: contents

I'm going to thematically bitch-slap this motherfucker and start off with the wheat snack.

Course 1
Wheat Snack Bread
Peanut Butter
Strawberry Jam
Diario Instant Coffee

MRE Review: Menu 18, Chicken with Noodles: wheat snack peanut butter and jelly

Okay, maybe it’s just some psychological trick caused by thinking too much about hard tack, but I love this combination of peanut butter and strawberry jam on a wheat snack. No, seriously. I know I've been hard on the wheat snacks in past reviews, but I repent me of my fury, because this is some tasty shit. My only complaint is that the peanut butter isn't chunky. Apart from that little oversight, it's glorious.

Because, come on, who doesn't love strawberry jam? It's the best way to enjoy strawberries and the best kind of jam. It's the pinnacle of both strawberry and jam, the Platonic ideal of both its parts. The only way strawberry jam could be more perfect is if it had sex with you and then drew a hot bubble bath for you afterwards. Because, you know, you'd need a bath at that point, having just been fucked by strawberry jam.

On an unrelated note, I really need to stop writing these reviews on the days my downstairs neighbor is distilling mescaline.

Course 2
Chicken and Noodles with Vegetables in Sauce
Beverage Base Powder Lemon-Lime

MRE Review: Menu 18, Chicken with Noodles:

Well, it sure smells good. Still, we've had extremely mixed experiences with veggies in a retort pouch, so I’m nervous…

Okay, taking a bite, I find that it’s not bad. Not fantastic, and not quite what I was expecting, but not bad either. I thought it would be something like chicken soup, but in taste and texture, it’s more like a stew.

The chicken’s tender and very tasty. The noodles and vegetables don't contribute much apart from texture and bulk, but they’re inoffensive in taste. I added the pepper sauce, and it didn't really improve or reduce the quality of the dish, but did mix up the experience a little, keeping it interesting.

In the final analysis, I'd say that it's a good hearty dish. I probably wouldn't find any fault with it, if that wasn't my job.
Course 3
Nut Raisin Mix with Pan Coated Chocolate Discs

MRE Review: Menu 18: trail mix

Well, that MRE went by quick, didn’t it?

I guess, between the peanut butter and the nuts, this is a pretty energy-dense menu.

Anyway, it’s trail mix, and it tastes exactly like trail mix does (because, you see, it’s trail mix.) They don't call it Trail Mix, I guess because they don’t want to name specific products in their packaging requirements, but who the hell came up with “Nut Raisin Mix with Pan Coated Chocolate Disks”? Is there a special department at Natick, dedicated to coming up with absurdly literal food names?

Also, does it bother you that the certainly-not-M&Ms in this package are called “Pan Coated Chocolate Disks”, but in menu 8, they were “Pan Coated Chocolate Discs”? Because that bothers me. It feels like one or the other must be a fraud.

But maybe that’s just the spineless cactus disc extract fumes talking.


Like this review? Read the others!

Fresh Hardtack
3-Month-Old Hardtack
Menu 16, Pork Rib
Menu 22, Sloppy Joe
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 
First Strike Ration Menu 2 (Part 1)
First Strike Ration Menu 2 (Part 2)

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