Malcolm develops battle fatigue while mushroom hunting in his Heater Meals entree

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Heater Meals Mushroom Gravy, Mashed Potatoes & Beef

Earlier this month officials from the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Program previewed what the Army of One will be eating in the next few years, and I'm here to tell you: Field-cuisine technology has come a long way since the C-ration.

Instead of prying your entrée from an M-unit can and rounding out your repast with fixins from a B-unit can, these days entire units are able to dine on Unitized Group Rations (UGR-Es), self-contained modules that can produce eighteen hot servings of, say, chicken pesto pasta and walnut teacake in 30 to 45 minutes, sans field kitchen.

The DOD also previewed an entirely new, smaller and lighter, caloric delivery system for on-the-go units in remote locations: First Strike Rations, a product Military Times describes as "a compact, eat-on-the-move assault ration designed for fast-moving combat." In other words, a Hot Pocket.

But the real star of the show was the new Meal Ready-to-Eat (or MRE) lineup, which includes such delicacies as Buffalo Chicken and Cornbread and Southwest Beef and Black Beans.

Evidently the Combat Feeding Program has intercepted some T.G.I. Friday's intelligence.

Like the Internet and the Humvee, it'll probably take a while for these snazzy new menu items to trickle down to civilians. In the meantime we can block our hearts with the MRE's retail cousin: Heater Meals Mushroom Gravy, Mashed Potatoes & Beef.

Just like the military version, the soul of a Heater Meal is the Flameless Ration Heater, or FRH, a pad containing magnesium and iron that, when mixed with a saltwater solution, can raise the temperature of an entrée by a hundred degrees Fahrenheit in twelve minutes.

In the case of Heater Meals (which, incidentally, also offer Heater Meals Plus, a complete meal including beverage, dessert, etc.), after removing the meal tray, heater bag, water pouch and assorted accoutrements (Mrs. Dash, anyone?), you place the meal tray into the heater bag and add water.

Heater Meals instructions suggest that you place the heater bag back in the box to let it do its boiling magic, giving the meal's rough-and-ready conceit a slightly homey, fresh-from-the-oven quality. But don't worry: Heater Meals gives the manly assurance that the "heater bag may be used without box for field use."


Twelve minutes later, I pull my piping-hot meal from the box. It's only then, as I peel back the plastic film, that I begin to envy all those G.I.'s with their self-heating teriyaki beef and walnut teacakes.

You see, Heater Meals' description of this product — Mushroom Gravy, Mashed Potatoes & Beef — is accurate only in the grossest terms, and as I use the provided plastic spoon to ladle stew from the tray, I spy, in the entire three-quarter-pound entrée, a grand total of one mushroom.

Worse, the mashed potatoes aren't so much "mashed" as they are calcified. They're devoid of flavor, with the consistency of a hard polenta.

The beef fares better. A little tough, sure — OK, a lot tough — but what do you expect from an animal product that's been processed to the point where it can remain edible for two unrefrigerated years?

Quite a feat, when you think about it.

Still, given the choice, I'd opt for a First Strike Ration. At least that way I could snack while mushroom hunting.

Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to [email protected].

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