Steve Thomas collects—and eats—vintage MREs from around the world
Steve Thomas holds a World War II-era US K Ration Breakfast MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) box in his hands with glee. The yellowed paper, covered in wax to protect the contents inside, simply says "Breakfast" and contains 70-year-old pork and eggs. If the food isn't rotten, Steve will eat it. Occasionally, that hasn't stopped him. He once ate a 154-year-old, Civil War-era cracker that smelled like “old mothballs and library books.”
Steve's channel, Steve1989MREInfo, is devoted to unboxing and taste testing military field rations—boxes full of self-contained food packages used by service members when other facilities are not available. He calls it “eating time capsules.” Steve’s videos are a virtual walk through a museum, and the historical MREs he shares look like something dredged up from the ocean floor next to the Titanic.
While he favors rare and unusual MREs, Steve includes contemporary MREs in his exploration of military cuisine. Every MRE contains some kind of product that reveals something about the country's culture. A 2014 Italian Combat Food Ration 24-Hour MRE includes a cordial, pasta, and espresso, while a 2009 Israeli Manot Krav 4-Man 24-Hour Ration MRE includes olives and two containers of halvah.
According to Steve’s Patreon page, he spent $12,000 on rations last year alone. He has half a million YouTube subscribers, impressive for such a niche channel. His soothing presentation is comparable to "happy tree" painter Bob Ross or the popular soft-spoken ASMR videos, with perhaps a soft Keanu Reeves lilt. The videos are utterly addicting. Extra Crispy spoke to Steve about his rations.
Extra Crispy: How did you discover MREs, and what was your first meal?
Steve Thomas: I was eight years old. My dad brought a case of MREs home from an Army & Navy store. He thought maybe they would be a fun thing to share with me. It was love at first sight. I didn't even know how to work the flameless ration heaters, nor did I care. Ate my first MRE cold and was perfectly happy with it. My first menu was Ham Slices. Second was Tuna with Noodles. I remember it vividly. What I loved initially with MREs was the generic look of the packaging...It really was unlike anything from the grocery store—no colorful pictures or labels or trying to be something that it wasn't.
What do veterans think of your videos?
Veterans love these videos. I have had some amazing stories shared by them on the [YouTube] channel. It seems like these videos bring back a flurry of memories for them—some good, some not so good—about the food they had to eat. A common thing shared is [that] veterans from Vietnam were eating food from 15 to 20 years before that was made during the Korean War.
Another would be various preparation methods and tricks they had to learn for making much of the food more palatable. [This included] things like breaking up a pack of crackers and adding them to a main course to add some crunch. Toss in some Tabasco sauceand a cheese spread, and it takes a relatively sparse flavor and mushy texture to [a somewhat satisfying meal]. A good breakfast example would be the Maple Sausage Patty MRE. Thing is okay on its own, but when you add the maple muffin top and table syrup to that main course it brings it to a whole new level.
Doctors and scientists say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Does the same rule apply to service people?
Well, it depends on the country. In Italy or Spain, the breakfast is very small. Italy's breakfast is literally just a chocolate cereal bar, coffee, apricot jam, a shot of cordial alcohol, and crackers. Spain's is just hot chocolate, sweet crackers, sweetened condensed milk, a small pack of trail mix, and an electrolyte drink.
A US Meal Cold Weather (MCW) has 1,540 calories per meal to fuel a soldier in arctic climates. A MCW breakfast consists of scrambled eggs and bacon, maple and cinnamon oatmeal, coffee, hot chocolate, a protein bar, peanut butter, and crackers. Many countries' ration breakfasts are notoriously small. But then some like the Dutch ROEK [or “Ration Under Extreme Cold”] has 5,366 calories, and their breakfast is massive. It depends on their culture of cuisine. Overall funding makes a difference, too.
Where do you store all your MRE ephemera that you talk about putting on display?
I currently store all of my display items in an undisclosed and protected climate controlled location. In the meantime, I consider my channel the actual museum for this stuff now—available for anyone to see at any time and for no cost. Besides, what kind of museum could present this stuff in the same fashion. Open and eat it. It wouldn't be possible. But here on this channel you can see them opened and eaten, and as many times as you want.
A popular misconception is that all MREs contain only freeze-dried or dehydrated foods. What are other misconceptions that the general public has about MREs?
Well, the Meal, Ready to Eat, Individual would have thermostabilized retort pouched meals. You will find these same packaging methods in your local grocery store with those soft metal packs of tuna and whatnot. Natick Food Labs have created many advancements in food packaging and storage. Many of those methods have been adopted for the civilian market, such as those tuna packs, freeze dried Mountain House food for camping, or compressed food bars for disaster prep/emergency food.
Not all of the food tastes bad—actually, much of it is quite good. The misconception [about] the MRE being unpalatable is an exaggerated and misleading thing. Natick Food Labs and the US government have spent millions upon millions of dollars over the decades to not only make the menu variation more complex, but also to make the food taste of good quality. And it does... most of the time.
What country makes the best cup of coffee?
For the US, nothing beat the old spray-dried Coffee, Instant, Type 1. But for outside the US it would have to be Italy. They have a terrific unsweetened instant cappuccino.
What is the oldest MRE breakfast you've eaten?
The oldest MRE breakfast I have eaten would be a 1993 Omelet with Ham in 2016. But if you count any ration outside the US MRE, it would be a 5 in 1 Small Detachment bread, peanut butter, coffee, and hot cocoa from 1957 that I ate earlier this year.
What's the strangest thing you've found in an MRE?
The strangest thing I found in an MRE would have to be a Russian ration used by Spetsnaz [Russian Special Forces] that contained pâté with beef brains. It was creamy and truly delicious—a great way to utilize a seemingly unappealing part of the cow... albeit strange.
Where is the strangest place you've gotten an MRE?
Out of a dumpster. I also found MREs at a thrift shop that primarily sold clothes and shoes.
What have been some popular methods of preserving rations throughout the decades?
Well, back during World War II, the K and D Rations were wax dipped to protect the boxes from the elements and gas/chemical attacks. Then by the 1950s the US's main rations relied primarily on canning the food and were simply in thin cardboard boxes until 1980. Some of it was really built to last, like peanut butter and canned bread. Hydrogenated oils were being used in some of the dessert items, and those can sometimes be edible to this day along with the peanut butter and bread. By the early ’60s, rations like the Food Packet Long Range Patrol had foil/plastic-lined vacuum sealed freeze-dried meals. They were highly advanced for the time. Those can still be edible even to this day. By 1976, prototypes of the Meal, Ready to Eat (MRE) were being produced (and went into full production in 1981) and those thermostabilized retort pouches are a laminate of flexible metal foil and plastic. Hydrogenated oils have remained in rations. You have BHA, BHT, sulfites, high salt content, and sodium hexametaphosphate as a meat preservative. The packaging and preservatives are what give military rations their notoriously long shelf life. That and storage conditions being dark, cool, and dry.
Can you share a memorable experience when you learned about another country's culture through their MREs?
One off the top of my head would be Spain's individual combat ration. It had a fascinating lunch menu which included squid in ink. It seemed daunting, but once I tried it I was hooked. That had to be one of the most delicious seafood dishes I had ever had—a fresh and enticing set of flavors that in conjunction with the ink I would have never guessed the quality until trying it. Spain has some of the best seafood, and so does Portugal. Their rations accurately reflect and live up to that reputation.
Another interesting dish was the Reindeer Casserole from a Norwegian ration. I learned that reindeer is a pretty common part of game cuisine in that country just from having that ration and the conversations with Norwegian people after releasing the video.
What do the MREs of the future look like? And what about meal replacements like Soylent? Will they ever play a role in the military or possibly even replace MREs all together?
Many MREs of the future look like food from a sci-fi movie or The Jetsons. You have countries like Indonesia that have Enertabs—compressed food bars that blimp out in the stomach and are extremely filling. China has an emergency ration used by their special forces that has nothing but dense food bars and gel isotonic drinks. The US has been developing MRE Pizza since 1988. It is finally projected to be in one of the 24 menus in 2018. But at the rate that has been going, it wouldn't surprise me if it takes even longer. I have seen powder supplement drinks used by the Chinese PLA. The Type ’09 supplement drink is essentially Soylent. I am almost certain it is still produced. Natick Food Labs here in the US developed a ration called the "Dental Liquid Ration" back in the early '90s, but that was mostly for troops who at that point could not chew, for whatever specific reason.
How have different countries changed their attitude toward breakfast across the different eras of MREs that you've experienced?
I have learned that all countries have one thing in common with the advancements in their rations, including breakfast, and that is trying to make the food as palatable as possible. A soldier stays in fighting form when he/she gets the proper caloric intake. So for example, in the US the MRE had breakfast menus like Ham Slices and Escalloped Potatoes with Ham or Omelet with Ham. These evolved to meals such as Cheese and Vegetable Omelet, Maple Sausage, and Pork Sausage with Gravy. They are almost always pork, but they at least taste a little more like "regular food" than they used to.
If you could construct the perfect MRE breakfast from all the rations you've tried, what would your meal be?
If I could make the perfect MRE breakfast it would contain: freeze-dried scrambled eggs and bacon from a Meal, Cold Weather. Three packs of instant coffee (preferably Coffee, Instant Type 1 from the ’80s). A pack of strawberries and cream oatmeal from the older RCW (Ration, Cold Weather—made from 1989-2000). Any standard MRE hot chocolate mix. Hot Diggity Hot sauce from British ORPs. Vintage MRE compressed oatmeal cookie bars. Canned peanut butter from old MCIs (C rations), as it tastes more natural than the modern stuff. Vintage MRE crackers (they were actually salted). And maybe a pack of applesauce or pears. That would be a good enough breakfast for me.