NATICK, Mass. — The U.S. military calls its combat field rations MREs, for Meals, Ready to Eat, since they require no cooking. But the troops long ago decided that those initials stood for Meals Refused by Everyone. The stuff may have been filling, but it sure wasn’t appetizing.
Even the head of the Army’s combat ration program acknowledged that the first few generations of MRE entrees were full of “mystery meat and no-name casseroles,” and that troops in the field quickly grew sick and tired of them.
Worried about morale, the Army set out on a long-term effort to upgrade the menu with items that the troops might actually like. And its food scientists have finally hit on what many say is the holy grail of field rations: the MRE pizza.
Now being shipped to military bases around the world, the newest of 24 current MRE options is a humble 3-by-5-inch Sicilian-style slice, scattered with melt-proof shreds of mozzarella and pebbles of mild pepperoni, sealed in a dun-colored laminate pouch.
It isn’t much to look at, even by free-pizza standards. But this is no ordinary slice. To qualify for MRE duty, a food item has to be able to survive years of storage in a dank ship’s hold or a sun-baked shipping container, withstand Arctic freezes and tropical monsoons, stave off assaults by insects, and remain intact through a parachute airdrop or even a free fall from 100 feet.
Forget 30-minute delivery — Army regulations say it has to stay fresh for 36 months. And after all that, the pizza still has to be tasty enough to eat.
It’s a tall order, and the Army’s Combat Feeding Directorate, based at the Natick Soldier Systems Center in the suburbs of Boston, has been trying to fill it for more than 20 years. It took hundreds of failed attempts before the directorate finally came up with a workable version.
But the deployment of MRE pizza is not just a victory for food technologists. It is an indication of how much the military has been forced to change its culture since the draft effectively ended in 1973.
To recruit and retain the volunteers it needs, the military has built up an elaborate social support structure for troops and their families. It now offers child care and family counseling, continuing education benefits, improved base housing, and fitness centers that can rival those in luxury condo complexes. The core mission still includes service under spartan conditions in dangerous lands, but there has been a growing focus on delivering small comforts when possible.
“Benefits that were once reserved for the career force were extended to even the lowest soldier,” said Jennifer Mittelstadt, a professor of history at Rutgers University who has taught courses at the Army War College on the military’s changing social contract. “There was a broad shift toward making life for the soldier more palatable, and pizza is part of that,” she said.
MREs, introduced in the early 1980s to replace canned field rations, come in a tough plastic pouch and are meant to supply a complete 1,200-calorie meal, including snacks, dessert, and instant coffee. All MREs also come with a flameless ration heater activated by adding water to a chemical pouch. The pouches also include items like toilet paper, matches and chewing gum that may be hard to come by in the field.
Soldiers have always groused about their chow, of course. Generations of generals have repeated the adage that armies march on their stomachs, but few ever mentioned taste buds. As U.S. military rations evolved from the salt pork and hardtack of the Civil War to Vietnam-era cans of ham and lima beans, the verdict of the troops remained reliably grim.
It was only during the first major field deployment of MREs, during the Gulf War in 1991, that military leaders realized the monotonous and largely brown rations could become a morale problem. After the war, Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summoned the head of the Combat Feeding Directorate and gave him a two-word order: “Fix it.”
The directorate responded by scrapping its top-down system of developing rations in favor of a strategy it called “soldier requested, soldier tested, soldier approved.”
Food scientists began following troops into the field, not just to ask them what they liked and disliked, but also to dig through the trash to see what the troops actually ate.
Soon the least popular offerings — including a “ham and chicken loaf” and a package of beef frankfurters that troops called “the four fingers of death” — got the hook. The directorate also got rid of the rainbow packs of Charms candies that were tucked in to some packets: the candies rated well in taste tests, but many Marines considered them bad luck and refused to eat them.
To accommodate an increasingly diverse force and to combat what the Army called menu fatigue, the directorate doubled the number of MRE varieties, adding entrees like Thai chicken and vegetarian tortellini.
But when the Army surveyed the troops about what they really wanted, the top answer was always the same.
“They all wanted pizza and beer,” said Michelle Richardson, one of the Army’s senior food technologists. “We couldn’t give them beer. But pizza? I like a challenge.”
As ubiquitous as pizza is in America, it proved very hard to perfect as a field ration. Make the crust too dry, and you end up with hardtack; too moist, and it molders in the pouch. It took years to develop a spongy, stable bread with just the right amount of moisture, trapped with a blend of gums, oils, sugars and a touch of glycerol.
Adding cheese, sauce, and meat brought a barrage of new problems. Moisture would migrate from one ingredient to another, drying out the sauce and turning the crust to mush. Oxygen hiding in the hole structure of the bread turned the cheese brown and the pepperoni rancid. (The same issues ultimately sank the directorate’s attempt to make an MRE peanut butter and jelly sandwich.)
The food scientists kept tweaking the pizza’s cheese, bread, and sauce until they all had the same level of moisture and the same pH, so they would not interact and spoil. And to fight oxidation, the team added a small sachet of iron filings to the sealed pouch, which will bind any free oxygen.
When they had a slice that could remain stable for six months in storage at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it was time for a taste test.
“It scored pretty well,” Richardson said. “On our scale, it got a seven. Nine is the highest. I think M&M’s get an eight.”
The slice was put into production, and it will debut in the field this year as MRE No. 23, packed in a tan bag along with blueberry cobbler, a powdered chocolate protein drink, an oatmeal cookie, and Italian breadsticks with jalapeño cheese spread.
So how does the pizza taste, really?
Only a few troops have had a chance to try a slice yet, but it is already possible for civilians to obtain pizza MREs online, and a surprising number of military buffs and field-ration fanatics have posted YouTube videos of tastings. Their ratings average out to “not bad,” with several comparisons to school-cafeteria pizza.
“You have to remember, these were designed to be eaten when you are wet, cold and hungry,” said a spokesman for the Combat Feeding Directorate, David Accetta. “They taste better then.”
For an independent expert’s opinion, The New York Times turned to Jeff Pond, the chef at Area Four, one of the top rated artisanal pizzerias in Boston. In a kitchen where dough from a 14-year-old sourdough starter was being dressed with pistachio pesto and wilted Swiss chard, the field ration was presented to Pond on a plate.
“There is a philosophy that no pizza is bad pizza,” he said, eyeing the plastic pouch, “but I’m wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.”
He slid the slice out of its pouch and took a tentative bite, then a few chews.
“You know, they’re not far off,” he finally said. “It’s familiar. It reminds me of the frozen pizzas I had as a kid.”
He took another bite. “I actually like this,” he said. “Think about it — their job, designing a pizza that will last, is much harder than what I do. It’s cool they would go through all that to deliver something like this for the average soldier.”