God Bless America and Pass the Cheese Tortellini

WHEN IT COMES TO EATING, our sensory system operates much like a highly coordinated basketball team. We take our place at the table and our sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste begin passing the ball around the court. 

We hear onions sizzling in a hot pan. We inhale the scent of orange zest atop a refreshing cocktail. We feel the warmth of a freshly baked loaf of bread on our fingertips. We taste the sweetness of cold watermelon on a blistering summer day. We marvel at the visual beauty of a perfectly assembled sushi roll. When all of the senses are working together, swish…nothing but net. If one of the senses is fouled, a whistle blows and the action stops.  

That’s my problem with raw oysters. Two of the players on my sensory team cry foul. Their appearance—helpless, vulnerable and practically trembling on a platter—is an affront to my eyes. And that slurping noise you hear when the oyster slips out of the shell and down the goozle? That offends my ears. 

I want to like oysters. I really do. I have read Consider the Oyster, M.F.K. Fisher’s love song to bivalve molluscs, multiple times. “I like them,” she writes. “I thoroughly like them, so that I am willing to forgo comfort and at times even safety to savor their strange cold succulence.” While I am dazzled by Fisher’s prose, I remain ambivalent about this salty invertebrate. 

This comes as somewhat of a surprise to people who know me as an adventurous eater. Ants, mealworms, the internal organs and entrails of animals, black pudding (a mixture of congealed blood and oatmeal), kangaroo, durian (a fruit from Southeast Asia that tastes like rotten onions), fish eyes…I’ve eaten it. You’ve probably seen that Facebook food challenge, Foods To Try Before You Die. I scored 90 out of 100. I really need to get around to the bird’s nest soup. υ

All this to say: I’m an equal opportunity eater, just as happy with street fare in Fez, five-star service in Santiago or a burger and a beer at the Sports Center in downtown Augusta. So when I decided to eat military rations for a week as a show of solidarity for our service men and women in general and my American Airman, Liza, in particular, I knew it would be a breeze. I did, after all, lead my travel friends to victory in an eating challenge in Singapore that involved raw periwinkle snails, three of the hottest peppers in Southeast Asia and a platter full of bony, gelatinous, unidentifiable meat. The much-maligned Meal, Ready To Eat—more commonly known as the MRE—didn’t scare me. How bad could a Rib Shaped Barbeque Pork Patty be?

MREs are the field rations supplied by the United States Government to our service members for use in combat situations or other field conditions when organized food service is not available. Over the years, they’ve earned many nicknames, including Meals Rejected by Everyone and Meal, Ready To Excrete. 

On the flip side of that off color coin, MREs also have been referred to as Meals Requiring Enemas due to the dearth of dietary fiber in the menu options. It’s not like you open an MRE and a serving of fresh kale pops out. These are high protein, high carb, high fat, low fiber meals designed to fuel America’s warfighters. That’s why the gum included in the accessory pack is sweetened with xylitol; it has a mild laxative effect. Heed my words, dear readers, dear eaters: If you find yourself consuming MREs on a regular basis, you better devise an exit strategy. 

Instead of a low fiber warning (which would be infinitely more helpful to the unsuspecting diner), the Department of Defense requires that “U.S. Government Property, Commercial Resale Is Unlawful” be printed on each case of MREs. Despite this impressive legal display, MREs are relatively easy to acquire. I purchased mine at a military-themed booth at Riverfront Antique Mall in North Augusta. 

The guys in there, both staff and customers, were quick to share their favorites. “The pound cake is soooo goooood,” said a gentleman wearing a U.S. Army Retired baseball cap. His wife questioned him. “No, really. It’s better than yours.” By the look on her face, I suspect his combat experience was going to come in handy when they got to the parking lot. 

The proprietor of the shop was kind enough to warn me of the high calorie content of the meals. “Take it easy, young lady,” he said, “or we’re going to be seeing a lot more of you next time you come in.” 

After consultation with this friendly group of veterans, my lineup for the week included:

• Cheese Tortellini Vegetarian (Menu 13)

• Asian Style Beef Strips

  With Vegetables (Menu 22)

• Chicken, Tomato, Feta (Menu 5)

• The aforementioned Rib Shaped

  Barbeque Flavor Pork Patty (Menu 16)

• Penne With Vegetable Sausage

  Crumbles in Spicy Tomato

  Sauce (Menu 12)

• Pork Sausage Patty, Maple

  Flavored (Menu 17)

• Southwest Beef and Black Beans

  (Menu 24)

Liza’s survival strategy during a recent training exercise at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., was to trade “the bad meat” for anything spicy and vegetarian. Having consumed some of that bad meat during my week of MREs, I now recognize that as a winning strategy. In response to the question above: How bad could a Rib Shaped Barbeque Pork Patty be? Uh, pretty bad…but not as bad as the Fried Rice of Menu 22.

I try to adhere to three nutrition basics: 1. Don’t eat food with more than five ingredients. 2. Don’t eat food with ingredients you can’t pronounce. And 3. Don’t eat foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup. The Fried Rice was a particularly egregious violation of those tenets. The ingredient list is five column inches long. The rice, even after heating, is a monolith, the individual grains indistinguishable from one another. It looked like a man’s leather wallet, dipped in oil, and didn’t taste much better. 

The rice…It looked like a man’s leather wallet, dipped in oil, and didn’t taste much better…but to be fair, some of the meals weren’t bad.

And its accompanying main course, the Asian Beef Strips With Vegetables? Not bad. You can actually hear the crunch of real water chestnuts when you chew it. But the meal contains “binder product.” That’s an ingredient that got a lot of media attention a couple years ago. Made from beef trimmings washed in citric acid or ammonia to kill contaminates, it is far better known to the public as pink slime. Yum.  

But even Menu 22 didn’t come close to the travesty that is the Corn Bread Stuffing, the side dish packaged with Menu 5: Chicken, Tomato, Feta. All five members of my sensory team begged to be benched when I prepared that for lunch.

Sight, my vigilant point guard, cried out: “That gray is a no-go. Repeat, a no-go.”

From Touch, the small forward: “Is this supposed to be hard as the brick we cooked it on? I’m worried about breaking the spoon.” 

Smell, my power forward, shared her olfactory concerns: “That aroma, my friends, has nothing to do with corn. Or bread.”

Taste, my sure-footed center, double dribbled after the first bite. And Hearing, my team’s trusty shooting guard, simply threw up her hands and shouted, “Rejected!”

It’s easy to pile on to all the negative press associated with MREs. Most of the meals are pretty grim, but, to be fair, some of the meals weren’t bad. I might even go as far as to say that the Cheese Tortellini Vegetarian was tasty. If I hadn’t been eating it out of a bag, it probably would have been better. If you serve it in a nice bowl topped with shaved Parmesan and fresh parsley, you might achieve something akin to the pasta dishes served at a mid-range Italian chain restaurant in town that shall remain nameless. Same goes for the Penne With Vegetable Sausage Crumbles in Spicy Tomato Sauce (which gets extra points for reading like an actual menu item) and the Chicken, Tomato, Feta. 

The best of my batch of MREs was Menu 24: Southwest Beef and Black Beans. With recognizable pieces of beef, good color and consistency, and nicely browned tortillas, it truly was the standout of the week. I actually ate the whole meal, which I cannot say for all my selections. The Rib Shaped Barbeque Flavor Pork Patty and the Pork Sausage Patty, Maple Flavored were particularly bleak dining experiences. Not even the Maple Muffin Top could turn the latter meal around.

Liza’s advice? Avoid the jalapeno cheese spread that is packaged with the Southwest and Mexican style meals. She said it gives you “bubble gut.” Her description of that condition is far too colorful to be printed in these refined pages. But heed her word too. She also shared a tip involving mixing the coffee and pudding packages, which results in a battlefield tiramisu of sorts. 

My greatest disappointment? I didn’t receive the Patriotic Sugar Cookies in any of my MREs. The shapes include an eagle, a flag, Uncle Sam, the torch and head of the Statue of Liberty, and U.S.A. spelled out in dough. I think every member of my sensory team could get behind those snacks.


Deb Barshafsky earned the Le Cordon Bleu Master of Arts in Gastronomy from the University of Adelaide. But she’s not a food snob. Really, she’s not.

This article appears in the June/July 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.


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