Unloved by Generations of Soldiers, the M.R.E. Finds a Fan Base

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Kathleen Ehl had always thought of her business as a niche affair — an online store called North Georgia Outdoors Supply that she and her husband run out of their home in Gainesville, selling Meals, Ready to Eat.

M.R.E.s, as they widely known, are thick pouches of shelf-stable rations created for the United States military. They’re not particularly fancy or appetizing, and they’re technically not allowed to be sold commercially if they are made under a government contract, as most are. Ms. Ehl and her husband, Oliver Walker, scour online auctions and salvage stores for the meals, and sell most of them to collectors and survivalists.

But last February, when pandemic-induced panic buying kicked into high gear, their orders jumped from 100 a week to 100 a day. “There were some nights my husband and I packed M.R.E.s from after the kids went to bed to 2 in the morning,” said Ms. Ehl, 37.

Early 2020 was a boom time for M.R.E. distributors across the country, from the major military suppliers to Army surplus stores. Yet today, as purchases of other pandemic fixations have flagged, the civilian fascination with the meals has persisted — driven by caution (stocking up for the next potential pandemic or natural disaster) and curiosity.

Though sales figures for M.R.E.s are hard to come by, given the questionable legality of some sales, the internet audience that discusses and taste-tests the rations has grown to millions. People who never thought they’d own an M.R.E. now keep them in their basement.

Sylvia Marie, 26, ordered a few, including a Mexican-style chicken stew and a vegetarian taco pasta, shortly into the lockdown, while staying at her relatives’ home in South Windsor, Conn. She was looking for foods that were new to her and didn’t require a great effort to make.

On the website where she placed her order, “a lot of the reviews were people who had been talking about how they had bought these to stock their bomb shelters,” said Ms. Marie, a food-policy researcher at Tufts University. “I don’t think I would normally associate myself with that population.”

No one is more intrigued or puzzled by the phenomenon than the scientists and engineers who research and develop the meals at the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Division. At the division’s headquarters in Natick, Mass., the team spends years perfecting every detail of an M.R.E. before it is sent off to manufacturers: Is this beef ravioli as nutritious as possible, and shelf stable for up to three years? Can it survive a drop from a helicopter, or blistering desert temperatures?

M.R.E.s are explicitly made for service members on operations away from a dining hall or field kitchen. Yet many people outside the military have long been interested in what soldiers eat. Wartime museums display the bland hardtack that sustained Civil War fighters, and the canned meats, breads and fruit of World War II, known as C rations.

But why would a civilian want to eat one?

“I don’t know,” said Julie Smith, a food technologist in the division. The new interest, she added, seems antithetical to the growing movement toward buying fresh produce and cooking from scratch.

On a recent Wednesday, Ann Barrett, a chemical engineer, and Michelle Richardson, a food technologist, were making vegetable omelets of varying volumes and fat content to see how a soldier could be most sated from the smallest package.

Lauren Oleksyk, who leads the food engineering and analysis team, speculated about having soldiers wear sensors that detect what nutrients they need, and having a 3-D printer generate nutritionally appropriate food to be delivered via drone. Tom Yang, another food technologist, was experimenting with what is essentially a giant microwave to turn entrees like macaroni and cheese and buffalo chicken into granola-bar-size meals that could fit in a pocket.

“We understand it’s not gourmet food,” said David Accetta, the chief of public affairs for the Army’s research and development organization that oversees rations.

True enough. In the pepperoni pizza, the crust is dense, the cheese is dry and flavorless, and the pepperoni lacks crunch and richness — yet it invokes the pleasing nostalgia of a Lunchables. The cherry blueberry cobbler is a mildly flavorful goo. The cheese tortellini are rubbery and clumpy, though well sauced. Warming an M.R.E. doesn’t fill the room with inviting aromas — all you’ll smell is the metallic odor of the magnesium and iron inside the heater.

Then again, consider the sheer number of requirements the meal has to meet, or the dire conditions in which a soldier is often eating one.

“Nasty or not, it will keep you alive,” said Joe Guerrero, 20, an Army motor transportation operator stationed in Fort Bliss, Texas.

But people may already be eating in military fashion without realizing it. Many everyday foods — from Spam to energy bars — originated as rations. Even the retort pouches made for M.R.E.s are now used to package baby food and tuna.

“The military comes up with these innovations,” Ms. Marx de Salcedo said. “And when they are provided to soldiers, they seem like an odd sort of food.”

But eventually, she said, they become American comforts.

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