Saturday, September 10, 2011

FEMA meals, ready-to-eat

I imagine you have all heard by now about the destruction wreaked upon Vermont by hurricane Irene on August 28th (if you haven't experienced it firsthand). I have to admit, before Irene struck I always thought we were immune to the kind of wide-spread devastation commonly visited upon the U.S. coasts and plains. Other areas suffered hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes; I just shook my head in pity and wonder as their stories played on the national news. So it was sort of surreal to wander out the day after the storm to find roads splayed open or washed away, acres of crops flattened to the ground by surging, contaminated waters, bridges condemned and houses torn from their foundations and splintered into flotsam.

The day of the storm, my husband and I were totally unaware of the ferocity of the flooding all around us. I watched the rain through picture windows all day, rather unconcerned as nary a twig came down in the back yard. Aaron headed to Lake Champlain to check our sailboat, then shared a drink and swapped jokes with the marina owner as they kept watch over the boats tugging at their moorings. It wasn't until he headed home, just after dark, that he came upon a closed road, and then another closed road... and it became clear he was going to have to desert the car and walk a good distance through the storm. I was able to pick him up at the far end of the road, which was still passable, and we each gaped in shock at the jagged chasms ripped into the pavement by overflowing culverts.

Just as we returned home, the power went out, so we lit a fire and checked for news on our cell phones. That's when we learned of the severity of the destruction throughout our county and further south. We discovered that some towns were completely cut off, with no intact roads out. A Facebook page dedicated to acute flood needs and offered services went up, and calls were met with sometimes overwhelming support by volunteers. It was heartening to see so many strangers pitching in to help strangers, a drive which continues to this day.

My efforts have mostly veered toward the feeding (what else) of humans and pets, as well as surprising volunteer sludge-shovelers and a thirsty road crew with styrofoam coolers packed with beer and ice at the end of their work day. Aaron split wood for our local wood-burning pizza spot, American Flatbread, which lost 25 cords down the Mad River. He also offered his services as a musician to various morale-boosting community events, including a benefit in Moretown - one of our hardest hit neighbors. It was there that he saw a stack of disaster relief packages deposited by FEMA at the height of the crisis. By then, the takers had apparently dwindled to none, probably because power had been restored to the area and more palatable food provisions were being supplied by zealous volunteers. So when Aaron saw kids tearing into the packages and playing with the meals for fun, he decided to bring a FEMA box home to me, because he thought I'd be intrigued by its contents - and he was right. It's not every day that civilians like us get a glimpse into military-issue rations, so I thought you readers out there might like to learn what they're all about too.

The "entrees," contained in the box in duplicate, were as follows:


I have to say, the Chicken with Tomatoes and Feta Cheese, with its decidedly Mediterranean angle, threw me for a loop (not to mention that a consumer review on the manufacturer's website deemed it "Superb!"). I decided to start with that one.

Carefully following the instructions, I placed a heater and the foil meal packet into the enclosed plastic bag and added water. Immediately, the bag burned my fingers and a puff of acrid smoke wafted from the top. I quickly closed the bag and stuffed it back into the cardboard box the entree had been packed in. The instructions advised that for optimal heating the package should rest at an angle, against a "rock or something." That detail conjured images of displaced disaster victims and combat soldiers alike searching for something to lean their sad little meals against, and my heart went out to them.

As I waited the allotted 15 minutes, the meal sizzled audibly in the box.

Finally, I opened the foil bag and reached in with a plastic spoon to stir its contents. I was surprised to see one large chunk of chicken surrounded by a light sauce, studded with tomatoes. At first I thought it was a processed patty, but once I broke it up with my spoon in a bowl I realized it was real chicken. I steeled myself for a taste.

First impression: salty, but not completely vile. The chicken was a little dry, but perfectly edible. There were no visible pieces of feta but there was a cheese note to the sauce. It could be the meals are intentionally high in sodium to replenish losses from sweating. All in all, if I were cold and starving, out in the elements, I'd be grateful to have it.

I couldn't say the same about the "Beef Patty, Grilled." I was dubious about this one from the start, but when I opened the heated packet and got a whiff of its contents I was deeply revolted. Its grisly, congealed appearance didn't help either. I decided maybe Aaron could taste it for me, but he wouldn't do it if I didn't do it, so we each took a tiny bite.

Now I think we both know what dog food tastes like. It was so bad that spitting it out wasn't enough; my skin crawled as I ran to the sink to gargle, almost in a panic. I can't imagine why this selection remains in rotation; no one could possibly prefer it over the other offerings, especially since there was no mustard or ketchup included with it.

Next up was "Meatballs in Marinara Sauce."


This one smelled like airplane cabins used to smell when they actually heated something up for you to eat. The meatballs swam in a bright red, slightly unctuous sauce. They were small and weirdly resilient, but didn't taste too bad. Aaron surprised me by saying he was going to save the rest for his lunch (it was like I didn't know who he was anymore!) but by the time noon rolled around, he thought better of it.

I had higher hopes for the "Chicken, Pulled, with Buffalo Style Sauce." I figured cayenne and vinegar could go a long way toward masking undesirable qualities, and that turned out to be true. It was actually quite tasty by MRE standards, and the chicken was surprisingly moist. This was the most acceptable one so far.

Finally, since I was fast developing MRE fatigue, I picked one more to try: "Chicken Fajitas." Now, when I think of fajitas, tortillas play a key role - but not in this case. Dry, white crackers, ubiquitous with every meal, must act as fill-ins. The appearance of the chicken reminded me of Fancy Feast "chunky chicken," and the texture was slimy. Red peppers lent some color and flavor but otherwise it was bland.

Each meal came packaged with plastic utensils, salt and pepper, a wet-nap, a cookie or bar of some kind, crackers, peanut butter and "cheese" spread, pictured below.

A message printed on the box implores one to eat everything, as the calories of the entire meal are calculated to meet the needs of active soldiers. I can't imagine it's pleasant eating Meatballs in Marinara Sauce and peanut butter and crackers in the same meal, but I'm sure for the people eating these things that's the least of their problems.

It's definitely unnerving to eat anything with an expiration date of 2023, especially animal flesh. And it's too bad that trans fats, being cheap and apparently infinitely shelf-stable (!), as well as high-fructose corn syrup, figure regularly into the meals. But as far as flavor goes, some of them weren't as bad as I anticipated, and I assume they're not meant to supply long term needs. Still, next week, I'm cooking dinner for a family in Moretown. After experiencing MRE's first-hand, I think I'll put that much more love into their meal!


  1. What a great post Tina. Thoroughly entertaining! Only wonderful you would fully inspect a FEMA box and it's contents, read the labels, & do taste tests to boot. Aaron brought home a mystery box for a cooking connoisseur! My favorite line is "Finally, since I was fast developing MRE fatigue I picked one more to try..."

    It's great to wake-up to humor on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.


  2. I was rolling on the floor in my office while gagging, imagining and marveling .... not only what a human can endure .... but, the fact that you tasted animal flesh with an expiration date of 2023.
    That cheese spread sure looks delectable.

    Thanks so much.

  3. Fantastic article, Tina! Meidee and I both loved it.

    Have you ever tried any of the pre-packaged meals you can buy at places like Cabela's that you take camping? They come with some chemical heater that "cooks" the meal when you open it. We tried them once and, wow, they were disgusting. And to think they're not eaten by soldiers or disaster victims, but by people who do it voluntarily.

  4. Thanks Louisa, "Anonymous," and Dave!

    Dave, you're right; I don't see how anyone could eat these things, unless they were going on a REALLY long hike and had to drastically pare down the weight of their pack.

  5. Teener, this time you have done it! once again you have come up with a subject that is more than unusual. I never would have guessed that any of us would ever need to look at the contents of a FEMA box of "goodies", but as you said, who would ever have thought that such a disaster would befall VT. I will never forget 6 years ago when we sat here in our sunroom, watching the people of New Orleans, wait day after unconscionable day, for someone, anyone, to bring help. I have been so impressed by the Mad River facebook page. It has given someone who doesn't live in VT., a lens into the wonderful efforts that so many have offered to neighbors and communities. It would seem that if there is any good news, it is that those FEMA packages were unused.
    And how about those ingredient lists. OMG, they fly in the face of everything that Michael Pollen preaches. (I mustn't t lose track of the idea that these are only for unusual circumstances)
    There is one last thought I have of all the photos and messages about how to use these MRE's... the instruction to lean that meal package on a "rock or something". It seems ripe for some comedic riff on what "something" could be.

  6. Hi Judy - I guess when you're making something to last over a decade, none of the usual rules apply!
    I'm glad you were interested in finding out what's in those boxes too! Thanks so much for commenting! XO

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