Totally Extreme: One reporter takes on firefighters’ food
Hiking miles upon miles to battle often unpredictable flames while working 16+ hour shifts, the firefighter can burn thousands of calories and in turn work up a mighty appetite. Writing words upon words only to wrestle over them with agitated editors while working 12+ hour shifts to cover firefighters doing their job, reporters can also get a bit hungry. However, reporters typically have the luxury of nearby restaurants and markets to quiet their rumbling stomachs, but the firefighter often has to carry his or her meals. The staple of the back-country firefighter is the Meal, Ready-to-Eat, or MRE, as it is commonly called. The following is an account of one reporter’s experience with modern military rations.Although I have no idea how many calories I actually burn all day, sitting at my desk, making phone calls and occasionally walking to the water cooler, I know that as deadline approaches I need energy and I need it fast. And in this particular instance, I was willing to try the MRE, even though I’d heard horror stories. One firefighter went three days living off Jolly Ranchers instead of consuming the MRE.As a complete package, the MRE generally weighs about 1.5 pounds, and depending on the detail, a hotshot crewmember will take one or two with them each day. According to the entree’s label, each MRE contains 1,200 to 1,300 calories. In the field, requirements are 2,800 to 3,600 calories a day for males, 2,000 to 2,800 for females, though, according to Eldorado Interagency Hotshot Crew Superintendent Mike Beckett, hotshots may need twice the amount on long days and when working at elevation.The Wornick Company of McAllen, Texas, produced the MRE I ate. The label warned me this item- Menu No. 22, the pork chow mein – was the property of U.S. Government and not for commercial resale. With the austere and bland packaging, marketing this product seemed to be an afterthought.Not one to judge prepackaged food by its appearance, I dug in anyway, learning along the way.Apparently, “military rations are good performance meals” and “restriction of food & nutrients leads to rapid weight loss which leads to: loss of strength, decreased endurance, loss of motivation, decreased mental alertness,” all critical things. Practically salivating over these insights and wanting to test the “idiot-proof” instructions for the heating process, I quickly laid out the choices to see where to begin. The contents were precooked pork chow mein (280 calories), chow mein noodles (130), a packet of creamy peanut butter (260), two crackers (180), an orange-flavored beverage powder – like the astronauts’ – (130), an oatmeal cookie with chocolate flavored coating (190) and sundries including salt, sugar, black tea, dehydrated non-dairy creamer, a miniature bottle of Tabasco and two pieces of mint gum. There were also a packet of matches, a moist towelette, a spoon and a bundle of napkins. All of which, save for the sundries, were hermetically sealed, each in an individual packet.The finishing touch was the pouch and heater combination – a plastic sleeve with a wrapped heater that when in contact with water creates an exothermal reaction and warms the contents. After pouring a few tablespoons of water into the pouch and letting it sit for 10 minutes, dinner was served.Granted, I am not an epicure and I was ravenous. Nonetheless, the meal was delicious.I started with the vegetable (carrots, onions, tomatoes, celery, red and green bell peppers) crackers and determined I’d serve them as hors d’oeuvres no matter the company, though they didn’t go well with the peanut butter, which was also good. In terms of the pork, the bag got hot in a hurry, though it smelled like chemistry class and after keeping the main course outside too long, the chow mein was a little cold when I ate it. But that didn’t matter. The consistency was good and I devoured the congealed mass.As eating this course out of the bag seemed arduous, I cheated and ate mine out of a bowl. I liked it so much that when a fellow reporter asked for a taste, I denied him, claiming I needed all the calories I could get. (Eventually I let him try it, but he said he didn’t like it.) The chow mein noodles were crunchy and fresh, and I alternated between the crackers and the main dish until both were gone. The orange drink was orangey. I skipped the Tabasco, sugar and salt, but used the tea and cream. I cheated here, too, as I got hot water from the office water tank. The cookie was as shiny as the plastic packaging it came in. It tasted OK, but I didn’t love it. Regardless, I was so stuffed I had to share the rest of my dessert. I used one napkin, saved the moist towelette for another time, chewed my two pieces of gum at once and the hiccups came shortly after, a sign of a good meal (or at least one eaten rapidly).Andrew Becker is a reporter for the Sierra Sun and Tahoe World.
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