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Wesley Long, left, a student employee in DOD's Combat Feeding Directorate, and Mike Acheson, a food technologist for the directorate, dish up samples of the latest hot chow last week on Capitol Hill.
Wesley Long, left, a student employee in DOD's Combat Feeding Directorate, and Mike Acheson, a food technologist for the directorate, dish up samples of the latest hot chow last week on Capitol Hill. (Lisa Burgess / S&S)

(See end of story for a list of the new MRE meals and their contents.)

ARLINGTON, Va. — As they design the combat rations that will keep U.S. troops fueled and moving in the field, the specialists at the Defense Department’s Combat Feeding Directorate sometimes look for meals that provide emotional nourishment, as well as physical.

With its echoes of Thanksgiving meals with family and friends, “stuffing,” said Kathy-Lynn Evangelos, an executive assistant in the feeding directorate, “is comfort food.”

The stuffing, with its chunks of sausage and fresh herbs, was the hit of the day Thursday, when directorate staff traveled from the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., to Capitol Hill to give civilians a taste of the latest in troop combat chow.

Pending troop approval, cornbread stuffing may make a 2006 appearance in Meals, Ready to Eat.

Natick food technicians were kept busy dishing up more than a dozen other entrees, ranging from cheesy ham and potatoes to beef burgundy. Some are destined for the field as soon as 2005, while others, such as the stuffing, are still waiting for a thumbs-up from troops who will test them this summer.

Natick is continuing a push to improve combat rations that began after Operation Desert Storm, when MREs were so bad “the best way to eat them was wearing goggles and with a bad head cold,” according to Gerald Darsch, head of the combat feeding group.

Since 1993, more than 150 new items have been improved for inclusions in the meals, and menus are reviewed and reformulated on a yearly basis, Darsch said.

Troops also have more variety to choose from: 24 different MRE menus, instead of 12.

A larger selection is important for morale, First Sgt. Colin Rich, a combat veteran with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment out of Fort Bragg.

“Variety is the spice of life,” Rich, who attended the tasting session, told Stars and Stripes.

Variety is especially critical for the minority of troops who have to eat MREs for weeks, and occasionally months, on end: Darsch said he’s heard from a one-star general deployed to Iraq who together with his troops ate “nothing but MREs, three times a day, for 118 days straight.”

“I think that may be a record,” he said.

Told that many servicemembers eat MREs for weeks at a time, Richard Hoar, a 22-year-old staffer on the House Committee for Education in the Workforce, looked startled.

“I feel bad for them,” he said after eating his first military rations. “It’s pretty bland.”

Then he looked impressed.

“More power to them,” Hoar said.

A fellow staffer on the education committee, 23-year-old Donald McIntosh, said the spread was uninspiring.

“It looked good when I first saw it, but everything tastes the same, honestly,” said McIntosh of his first encounter with MREs.

“But I ate it all, if that says anything,” McIntosh said.

“Tabasco helped,” he said — a discovery made by countless chowhounds before him.

Expanded MRE offerings

The Meal, Ready-to-Eat is used by all the services to sustain individuals during operations that preclude organized food service facilities. The following is a list of what's in the new MREs.

MENU 1

Grilled beefsteak with mushroom gravy and western-style beans

JamCrackerCandySteak sauceDairy shakeRed pepperSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 2

BBQ pork rib

New England clam chowderCookieCheddar cheese2 wheat snack breadElectrolyte drinkHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 3

Beef ravioli

Fruit, wet packFudge brownieCheddar cheeseVeg.-flavored crackerChocolate-fortified drinkHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 4

Cheese and vegetable omelet

Hash browns with baconToaster pastryJamCrackerCandyHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet C

MENU 5

Chicken breast fillet

Minestrone stewPound cakeJalapeno cheeseWheat snack breadCandyFrench vanilla coffeeJalapeno ketchupSpoonAccessory packet B

MENU 6

Chicken fajita

Yellow and wild rice pilafNut and raisin mixCheddar cheeseTortillaFrench vanilla coffeeSeasoning blendSpoonAccessory packet C

MENU 7

Chicken with salsa

Mexican riceShortbread cookieJalapeno cheeseVeg.-flavored crackerCandyMocha-flavored coffeeHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet B

MENU 8

Hamburger patty

Mexican-style macaroni and cheeseNacho-filled pretzelsBacon cheese2 wheat snack breadCured beef snacksBBQ sauceHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet B

MENU 9

Beef stew

Chocolate sports barPeanut butterCrackerDairy shakeHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 10

Chili with macaroni

CookieJalapeno cheeseWheat snack breadCandyCocoaRed pepperSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 11

Penne with veg. sausage in spicy tomato sauce

Dried fruitPound cakePeanut butterCrackerElectrolyte drinkSeasoning blendSpoonAccessory packet C

MENU 12

Veggie burger in BBQ sauce (vegetarian)

Dried fruitCinnamon sconePotato sticks2 wheat snack breadChocolate-fortified drinkHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet B

MENU 13

Cheese tortellini (vegetarian)

Spiced applesPound cakePeanut butterCrackerCandySeasoning blendSpoonAccessory packet C

MENU 14

Vegetable manicotti

Fruit, wet packPound cakePeanut butterCrackerRanger barHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet B

MENU 15

Beef enchiladas

Refried beansCookieJalapeno cheeseVeg.-flavored crackerPicante sauceChocolate-fortified drinkRed pepperSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 16

Chicken with noodles

Fruit, wet packPretzelsCheddar cheeseCrackerCandyCocoaHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 17

Sloppy Joe filling

Baked snack cracker CheeseShortbread cookieJalapeno cheese2 wheat snack breadElectrolyte drinkHot SauceSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 18

Cajun rice with sausage

Cheddar-filled pretzelsPeanut butterCrackerNutsChocolate-fortified drinkHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 19

Pot roast with vegetables

Dried fruitCookiePeanut butterCrackerCocoaHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 20

Spaghetti with meat sauce

Blueberry-cherry cobblerCheddar cheeseWheat snack breadElectrolyte drinkHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 21

Chicken tetrazzini

CookiesJellyCrackerDairy shakeSeasoning blendSpoonAccessory packet C

MENU 22

Jambalaya

Pound cakeJamWheat snack breadDairy shakeHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 23

Chicken with cavatelli

Fig barPound cakeBacon cheeseWheat snack breadCarbohydrate-fortified drinkHot sauceSpoonAccessory packet A

MENU 24

Meatloaf with gravy

Mashed potatoesVanilla wafer cookieJellyCrackerCandyCocoaRed pepperSpoonAccessory packet B

Source: DOD Combat Feeding Natick Soldier Center

What’s new

Penne with spicy tomato sauce; sloppy Joe filling; chicken fajitas; cheese omelets with vegetables; tortillas; and hash browns with baconSmoke House almonds; Ranger bar; Cheese Nips; raisins, white chocolate/raspberry cookies; cinnamon scones; and blueberry-cherry cobblerCarbohydrate-fortified beverage mix; carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage mix; jalapeno ketchup; and steak sauceWhat’s better

The texture of many foods, thanks to better processing methods. Rice stays separate and isn’t mushy; beef chunks are grained and chewy, like normal steak, instead of that “mystery meat” quality.More interesting seasoning. Many new entrees have clearly visible herbs, such as the oregano in tomato sauce, while others offer more sophisticated flavors, such as fire-roasted red peppers.Condiments are also more varied — not just salt or Tabasco sauce. New meals also offer red pepper, spicy ketchup and seasoning blends.What still needs work

Keeping the taste and texture of cheese in meals prepared with it. “Cheese doesn’t do well,” even with the improved MRE processing methods, according to Janice Rosado, a physical scientist at the Combat Feeding Directorate.High cooking temperatures also prevent pasta from being offered “al dente,” or chewy, although it isn’t as mushy as it used to be, according to troop feedback.Sources: Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center, Natick, Mass.; interviews with military and civilian taste testers.

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