NATICK, Mass. (July 16, 2012) -- It might be the most extensive menu you will ever see.
No, it doesn't belong to some four-star restaurant. In fact, its food will be eaten far from fancy tables, but "Operational Rations of the Department of Defense," recently released by the DOD Combat Feeding Directorate at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, seems to offer something for every palate.
The ninth edition of the ration book, first produced in 1950, looks at everything that U.S. service members are served in the field, from Meals, Ready-to-Eat, known as MREs, to Special Purpose Rations, which include religious meals, those eaten by crews who must abandon a ship or airplane, in humanitarian situations, or in certain regions of the world. If you can eat it, Combat Feeding probably offers it, or will in the future.
"We have to consider feeding the war fighter in any possible situation," said Mike Stepien, Combat Feeding program marketing analyst. "Any sort of austere place the war fighter could find himself, we have to make sure we have the correct ration to feed them at that time.
"The MRE is certainly a great ration, but it's not ideal in all situations, which is why we have to look at different things, like the First Strike Ration."
The First Strike Ration, or FSR, an assault ration for war fighters on the move, has been a popular item in Afghanistan.
"Every single war fighter that I've talked to absolutely loves the First Strike Ration," Stepien said. "They can't say enough good things about it -- the fact that it's lightweight, that it takes up less volume in the rucksack. It's definitely something that war fighters want -- to carry as (little) weight as possible.
"They love the shelf-stable pocket sandwiches, the portability, the fact that they can eat (the FSR) on the go. I honestly haven't heard a negative thing from anyone that I've talked to that's eaten that in Afghanistan."
Military rations date back to the American Revolutionary War, but the scientists and engineers at Combat Feeding strive to make sure they no longer taste that way. They constantly innovate to keep pace with the evolving tastes of war fighters.
"We survey war fighters every year, go out to the field, talk to the war fighters, find out what they're currently eating outside of the military," Stepien said. "We'll take that information and we'll use that to try to figure out what sort of rations we want to incorporate in the future.
"The ideas behind (new rations) were based on research that was done with war fighters to elicit their feedback."
Menus now include such items as Asian pepper steak and Mexican chicken stew. Stepien gave his thumbs up to both.
"I get to try them before the war fighters do," Stepien said. "Those are definitely my two favorites at this point."
The new ration book mentions that last year, those familiar, tiny Tabasco bottles gave way to pouches that are billed as lighter and more durable.
"The interesting thing about the pouch is that it took a lot of research to develop something that the Tabasco wouldn't eat through," Stepien said. "That's the reason we had the bottle, but now the pouch saves in cost and weight."
Other highlights: The Unitized Group Ration-Heat and Serve just unveiled three new entrees and four new bakery items; the First Strike Ration went from three to nine menus in 2012, including more than 40 new items; and the MRE menu, which has added more than 250 new items since 1993 and includes 24 different meals.
Likely beginning in 2014, the MREs' exterior packaging will contain menu names in English and French, NATO's two official languages.
"Without a doubt, other countries are interested in the rations that we're producing," said Stepien, "because ours are the preeminent rations in the world."
The history of those rations and where they stand today is covered thoroughly in the book's 66 pages.
"Without a doubt, (war fighters) are interested in what they'll be eating," Stepien said. "We have to consider every war fighter is different. You can't make everyone happy with every menu but, hopefully, there are a few menus in there that everyone enjoys."