For Soldiers, There's No Cheeseburgers In Foxholes

Of the many difficulties of living in a war zone, eating your favorite foods infrequently is probably not the biggest worry. But months of MREs — meals ready to eat — and other cheap, non-perishable military meals often leave soldiers pining for a cheeseburger and some fries. Dan Pashman, of the podcast The Sporkful, spoke with soldiers and veterans about their experiences eating in war zones, and he shares those thoughts with Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And it's that time of year for those traditional winter comfort foods - eggnog, latkes, Christmas hams. And for those who are far away, they can a much-needed taste of home for soldiers on deployment, especially in warzones. Less-than-satisfying food is hardly the most difficult thing about their services, but after the thousandth plate of meat substitute and non-perishable veggies, some real red meat can be a godsend. Dan Pashman hosts a podcast called the Sporkful, and he recently set out to clarify some questions about warzone eating, starting with what exactly is in an MRE. Hey, Dan.

DAN PASHMAN: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK. So, soldiers eat MREs. These are meals ready to eat. What do these taste like? I imagine as part of your investigation you tasted one of these.

PASHMAN: I did. I tasted three actually. And, you know, it depends on which one you get. Many vets told me the cheese tortellini is the best MRE. That one's got a reputation. And that did dovetail with my research. The one I liked best was the chili and macaroni, which I would say is about equal to a Chef Boyardee meal. So, it seems the pattern is that the military has more success with saucy pasta dishes - less success with large pieces of meat. For instance, the grilled beef patty smelled alarmingly like dog food.

MARTIN: Ooh. Yeah, that's not good.

PASHMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. So, you had saucy pasta dishes. Any other MRE delights you sampled?

PASHMAN: Well, I also tried one called pork rib, boneless, imitation.

MARTIN: But at least they put imitation in the title so you know what you're getting.

PASHMAN: Well, I actually found that somewhat problematic, to be honest, Rachel. And, first of all, the rib is a bone. OK. So, you can serve rib meat, but by definition there really is no such thing as a boneless rib. Then they add the word imitation, which makes it an imitation of a food that doesn't exist. So, this is either a bureaucratic oversight or a brazen challenge to the existentialist tradition of Kierkegaard and Sartre.

MARTIN: I'm sure it's that, yeah.

PASHMAN: Yeah. I'll get back to you. I'll do more reporting and get back to you on that.

MARTIN: OK. So, these dishes sound, you know, edible, I suppose - not exactly delicious.

PASHMAN: Well, Rachel, I tried a few different experiments. I used the crackers as a barrier to shield my tongue from the grilled beef patty. That worked pretty well. I salted the jelly on a cracker. That was probably the most effective technique. That added a bit of complexity to the syrupy sweetness. One thing I tried that didn't work was to take the lemon-scented hand wipe and drape it over my nose to try to imbue the pound cake with a hint of lemon. But it just smelled like a moist towelette.

MARTIN: Did you find out whether or not soldiers, troops, are they working to make these things taste better in the warzones?

PASHMAN: Absolutely. Well, you know, they always say necessity is the mother of invention and our service members have no shortage of tricks. Here's former Army Captain Stephanie Boleo(ph), who served in Iraq in 2003, sharing one of her tips.

CAPTAIN STEPHANIE BOLEO: So, my favorite things to have were peanut butter, crackers and M&Ms. I found out right away at West Point was that I could make a little peanut butter and M&M sandwich out of my cracker, which isn't the healthiest of things, but when you're really hungry is delicious.

PASHMAN: And, Rachel, if there was one theme that ran through my conversations with vets, it was the importance of bartering. I spoke with George Hanley, who's a Vietnam vet who's now an attorney and the founder of Welcome Home Vets of New Jersey. He said bartering was crucial for him when he was in Saigon.

GEORGE HANLEY: Every once in a while, a couple of cases of steak would fall off the truck, if you follow me. And then we'd get oil drums. They'd cut it in half and weld a barbeque. We had a major who made the best baked beans, and we'd go up on the roof of the French villa - if you can picture this. Are you kidding? It was fabulous.

MARTIN: I mean, we're making light of this but these are difficult deployments oftentimes. And food is not just about feeding a craving; it is a way to feel connected to home in a way, right?

PASHMAN: Absolutely. And I think you could hear it there in George Hanley's voice. And it was amazing. Every vet I spoke to had a story about a warzone meal that they said they would never forget. Stephanie Boleo told me that when the first Burger King opened in Baghdad she waited in line for two hours for a burger, and it was the best burger she's ever had, even though she hasn't been back to Burger King since. Sergeant Peter Gutierrez was an Army medic, he told me about getting a steak on Christmas and what that meant to him.

SERGEANT PETER GUTIERREZ: You just don't know how far that kind of a gift of a great meal from home can be. I mean, it was amazing. It was the first solid, real piece of meat that I had had in my mouth for a good six months. It was divine.

PASHMAN: And, Rachel, Peter told me that a good meal when you're deployed is a reminder that there's something to go home to.

MARTIN: That's Dan Pashman. He's the host of the Sporkful podcast and blog, which you can find at Sporkful.com. Dan, thanks so much.

PASHMAN: Thank you, Rachel.

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