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My husband, Mark, looked at me, confused. “You used to like this stuff?” he asked as he choked back a laugh and dipped his brown plastic spoon into his mushy shredded barbecue beef. “You have to mix it up,” I said. “So the heat is evenly spread throughout.” I tore the top off my own meal: spaghetti with beef and sauce. The aroma — a mix of SpaghettiOs and hot Spam — rushed out of the packet and into my face. It smelled like home.
Growing up, I was obsessed with Meals, Ready to Eat (which are almost exclusively referred to by their abbreviation: M.R.E.s). The thick plastic pouches containing about 1,250 calories of highly preserved food were introduced in 1981 and mark a significant upgrade from the “C ration” of old. With their airtight, heavy-duty packaging, they can withstand just about any climate and are designed to last a minimum of three years with no refrigeration. They give troops a taste of home and the ability to maintain a high-calorie diet while away on the battlefield. In my Army household, there was always one lying around somewhere: in the back of my dad’s car, in the garage, in a closet.
Nothing beat eating dinner from those brown plastic pouches, and that’s why, when I saw M.R.E.s for sale on Amazon, I bought them for $15 apiece. I posted a picture on social media, and my military friends all laughed — “I have a case in my garage I could have just given you,” my cousin, an Army veteran, wrote to me. But as I opened the shipment in my little apartment, it felt like I’d just opened a box filled with childhood memorabilia. I was finally able to give my husband a literal taste of my past.
Mark cut open his M.R.E. and spilled its contents onto our coffee table. He held up the bag and eyed the instructions printed on its packaging. A water-activated heating packet uses a powdered mix of magnesium metal, iron and salt to generate the heat that warms up the meal. With the shredded barbecue beef packet tucked inside, I poured water into the heating envelope and watched as it almost instantly began to bubble. When I was a kid, this always felt like magic. The instructions call for you to lean the package against a “rock or something.” My father used to take this part very seriously, sending my siblings and me out into our yard to find a rock big enough to get the job done. Mark and I leaned our heaters against a stack of books instead.
[Tell us about your favorite M.R.E. recipe hacks.]
We’ve been together for six years and married for three, and in that time I’ve spent time in and fallen in love with his hometown: McLouth, Kan. I’ve cheered for the McLouth Bulldogs from the cold metal bleachers of the same small-town high school stadium where Mark once played football as the team’s quarterback. I’ve driven down the same winding dirt roads where he and his friends used to drive, sometimes sneaking beers while parked underneath the big Kansas sky. I’ve slept in his childhood bedroom, the walls still plastered with clippings from local newspapers and posters of ’90s sports icons like Michael Jordan and Emmitt Smith.
The idea of growing up in the same town, let alone the same house, all of my life was foreign to me when Mark and I first met. During my father’s 24-year Army career, my family lived in 11 different houses in five states and two countries. While I never had a hometown, I did have a culture. The Army culture was — still is — home to me, and M.R.E.s are a part of that.
My siblings and I weren’t allowed to eat M.R.E.s often. My mother said they would constipate us; back then I didn’t know what that meant, so I’d just roll my eyes. They were saved for special occasions, like camping trips or, sometimes, the nights my dad was in charge of dinner while my mom was out with other Army wives playing Bunco, a dice game that was popular back then. My father could have offered us anything for dinner on these nights — pizza, Burger King, ice cream — but we would choose M.R.E.s over everything.
Eating an M.R.E. was an adventure, and we savored every bite. My first experiences of anxiety came during those times I had to choose which one I wanted for dinner, though I rarely had more than two or three options. The main entree was printed in dark brown letters on the front of the pack:
Menu No. 12 Cheese Tortellini
Menu No. 17 Beef Ravioli
Menu No. 23 Meatloaf With Gravy
Staring at the packages lying side by side on our counter, my hands would shake as they hovered over the rations before grabbing one. It was a difficult decision; in my mind, an M.R.E. wasn’t about just the entree. It was about the extras that weren’t mentioned on the outside of the package: the dry yellow cake or the brownie that crumbled into a million pieces the second the packaging was unsealed. The bready crackers with, if you were really lucky, the cheese spread, and if you were unlucky, the chunky peanut butter. Jalapeño or regular cheddar, it didn’t matter, I loved that cheese spread. There was nothing more disappointing than ripping open an M.R.E., seeing the peanut butter packaging and knowing you’d have to wait until next time to try your luck at the cheese.
There are so many things created for war that remind me of my childhood: “Reveille” in the morning and “Retreat” in the evening; Black Hawk helicopters and their big, echoey hangars; dusty brown boots, camouflage uniforms and heavy flight helmets. These were just parts of the job for my father, but they defined my childhood. I grew up on-post, in a military bubble, saying “Yes, sir,” and “Yes, ma’am,” using military time and speaking in acronyms. I showed my military ID card at the Shoppette when I filled my first car with gas and then again at the gym, the commissary and the PX. These on-post amenities were created exclusively for service members and their dependents, but as a child I never knew they were unique to my community.
I’ve never served in the military myself, but I’ll always feel a kinship to those wearing a uniform when I walk by them at airports or see them on subway platforms. I’ll forever smile when I hear the familiar hum of a Black Hawk or Chinook helicopter flying overhead. I will continue to feel a little extra pride for the Army every year on Flag Day, the service’s birthday. Because, like M.R.E.s, these things are a reminder of my “home.”
“They’re not so bad, right?” I said to Mark with a smile, breaking my dry cracker in half and smearing the lumpy cheese spread on each piece. Growing up, I never, never would have shared this precious M.R.E. side dish with anyone. “This cheesy stuff,” he said, eyeing the cracker before taking a bite. “It’s not that bad.”
Kelly McHugh-Stewart (@kellystewart01) holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from The New School and is currently working on a memoir about her father, Col. John M. McHugh, who was killed in action in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2010.
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