The huge US military presence in the Japanese islands of Okinawa is accompanied by a cottage industry where locals trade in used or surplus military equipment. In Kin Town, outside the Camp Hansen military base on the main island of Naha, there is a small nightlife district that caters to the personnel from the base. It’s suffered since its heyday of the 1960s and ’70s, and today more than half of the businesses in the area have closed down.
I was in Kin Town to eat Okinawa’s famed taco rice from the popular local eatery, King Tacos. You can read more about that here. The street King Tacos is on is a long strip of mostly abandoned buildings, but in one establishment that was formerly a bar called Club Robin, an Okinawan man operates a military surplus store selling everything from fatigues and camelbacks to medals and military rations, also known as MREs (Meal Ready-to-Eat).
I picked up one of the packs for 500-yen (about US$5) and asked the man if he’d ever tried one. He replied that he ate one for lunch every day. Only later would I discover how terrible an existence that must be.
In choosing an MRE, I wanted something identifiably American, and so among the many options including fajitas, ravioli and noodles, I settled on Menu 17 – the great American Sloppy Joe.
If you’ve never had a Sloppy Joe, it’s essentially a hamburger with low self-esteem. Minced beef is stewed in a tomato-based sauce and served in a toasted hamburger bun. With something so simple, it would be interesting to put the MRE through its paces.
Inside the MRE there are all the elements of a full meal. A few snacks, a main course, dessert and both cold and hot beverages. There are also condiments, utensils and even two pieces of after-dinner chewing gum.
Glorious, all-important, after-dinner chewing gum.
1. Sloppy Joe filling – Barbecue sauce with beef (320 Calories, 17g fat)
2. MRE Heater
4. Cheese spread with Jalapenos (180 Calories, 17g fat)
6. Iodised salt
7. Wheat snack bread (180 Calories, 6g fat)
8. Nut raisin mix (310 Calories, 25g fat)
9. Fudge brownie (320 Calories, 17g fat)
10. Nescafé Taster’s Choice instant coffee
11. Non-dairy creamer (for coffee)
12. Chewing gum
13. Splenda artificial sweetener
15. Moist towelette
16. Napkins/toilet paper
17. Carbohydrate electrolyte beverage powder, Orange flavour (90 Calories, 0g fat)
18. Hot beverage bag
Total: 1400 Calories, 82g fat.
Preparing the MRE was a straightforward process. Following the instructions on the packet, I poured a little water into the MRE heater – an iron/magnesium pad that produces flameless heat through an exothermic chemical reaction – and packed it into the cardboard box containing the Sloppy Joe filling.
I’m told that the MRE heaters can be quite effective, but after waiting the recommended 10 minutes there was very little in the way of warmth, and substantially more in the way of unpleasant chemical smells and disappointment.
Thankfully, I was not in the field and so I was able to heat the package in a pot of water on the stove. Minutes later, I was cooking with the fiery latin heat of a young Jimmy Smits.
Waiting for the filling to heat, I opened the package of “wheat snack bread” to discover it had both the appearance and texture of cardboard. If it had once intended to break apart into some kind of bun, it had long since lost the motivation to do so.
The Sloppy Joe filling was one of the most terrifying things I have ever encountered. As I opened the warmed packet and experienced what was inside, I could have sworn I heard a distant scream. The meat that had been touted as minced beef was clearly a kind of paste that had been reconstituted into a uniform, beef mince-like shape (for what ungodly reason is anyone’s guess). The sauce that tried so earnestly to hide the beef’s shame was a cheerful cherry red, with an aroma reminiscent of ‘new car smell’.
Topping the dispirited snack bread with the now-ironic Sloppy Joe “filling”, I prayed that the Cheese spread with Jalapenos would offer some hope, or at the very least a distraction. But as I read the helpful instructions to “knead well before opening” I knew all was lost.
The contents of the well-kneaded packet were an odd yellow-grey paste that resembled a dead man’s tongue, and owed about as much to cheese as it did jalapenos. Which is to say, nothing.
I had naively assumed that the cheese was a topping for the Sloppy Joe (as pictured above), but further reading (Lucky Peach, Issue 6) now informs me that it is in fact intended as a separate element in the meal. Adding it to the Sloppy Joe is a hack developed by soldiers in the field.
Now that’s all well and good, but let’s just pause for a moment to wonder at how the creator of this MRE must live if they consider that eating 42.5g of cheese paste without any accompaniments is a reasonable thing for a person to do. I can only imagine they once observed a tramp rifle through some garbage, emerging to eat a lump of soft cheese straight out of his hand, and it was at that point they had their “lightbulb moment”.
The flavour of the Sloppy Joe was in itself a hate-crime. Notes of canned spaghetti and low-sodium ketchup were confused by the texture of bread that was somehow both mushy and dry-brittle at the same time. Even doused in Tabasco I could only stomach a few mouthfuls before I started to feel a deep sorrow. The artificial-orange electrolyte drink powder that defied dissolution did little to wash away the taste.
Moving on to dessert, I took a brief detour to the packet of mixed nuts and fruit. Egged on by a few unsavoury raisins, a gang of peanuts surrounded a clearly terrified almond. I don’t know how you spoil a nut, but they too had a strange chemical taste and were devoid of any nut flavour. The raisins themselves I can only describe as belligerent.
In a small coup for the folks back at MRE headquarters, the fudge brownie had some moisture to it, and its texture of clay was at least ‘wet clay’. A strong-if-artificial chocolate flavour upgraded that to ‘chocolatey wet clay’.
Inevitably, the instant coffee with non-dairy creamer and Splenda was not so much coffee as a beverage designed specifically to mock coffee.
Ending the meal came the sweet release of chewing gum. It wasn’t good chewing gum by any stretch, but it was clean and minty, with a hint of an apology. With each chew I tried to forget what I had just eaten, and after a while I stopped weeping.
Let us never forget what transpired here today, friends, for surely I have experienced the horrors of war.