With a menu of only 12 entrées, which included such classics as tuna with noodles, chicken a la king and corned beef hash, MREs did little to win the hearts and stomachs of airmen. Instead, they left a bad taste in their mouths.

Trimming the fat

Natick researchers heard the grumblings. They learned from feedback after the Persian Gulf war that many servicemembers didn't clean their plates, rating MREs just below hospital and airline food. They even dubbed them with dubious nicknames like "Meals, Rejected by Everyone" and "Meals, Rarely Edible."

"Some of the entrées were just plain 'tired,' " admitted Aylward, a Natick food technologist. "For example, based on customer demographics, we learned that tuna with noodles wasn't a winner. So we needed to make major improvements to our menus. Most kids today are raised on ethnic food, like Mexican, Chinese and Italian, and not on chicken a la king."

In 1993, Natick began spicing up their bill of fare. This comes as good news to airmen, who'll eat more and more of the combat rations with the Air Force's increased emphasis on forward deployment and the rapid projection of air power.

Researchers and nutritionists, however, found overhauling the MRE no piece of cake. Their challenge: Develop a tasty, well-balanced meal in a compact, vacuum-sealed, airtight package impervious to moisture, extreme temperatures, bacteria and the shock of a 10,000-foot airdrop, plus remain as fresh as the day it was prepared three years later. Let's see mom's meatloaf do that!

But the Natick Lab, which creates or commissions all of the combat rations eaten by American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, accepted the challenge. While the average consumer only worries whether to put mustard or mayo on their sandwiches, the lab's staff wrestles over how to make rations more acceptable and more stable in storage.

"We're not the type of people you want to invite to a dinner party," Aylward said, spilling the beans. "A friend once said to me, 'Why do you have to sniff, examine and talk about your food? Just eat it for goodness sake!' "

Bomb appétit

Natick first jettisoned the least-liked dishes, including ham omelet, scalloped potato with ham, and meatballs with tomato sauce. Then, Natick added ethnic courses (Jamaican pork chop, chicken parmesan and chicken strips in salsa), vegetarian plates (pasta primavera and cheese tortellini) and fast food (black bean and rice burrito). This year, airmen will have 24 main dishes to choose from.

"We learned from our customers that they like variety," Aylward said. "For instance, not everybody likes coffee. So we've added lemon tea and hot-spiced cider in some meals. We're also adding more brand-name items. It's a real morale booster when you open an MRE and see Fig Newtons, Cheetos, Skittles or a Slim Jim. It's like a slice of home."

Other popular snacks military diners might munch on include Jolly Ranchers candy, Nature Valley Crunchy Granola bars, Lorna Doone Shortbread cookies and Nabs Peanut Butter Crackers.

Also during the Persian Gulf war, Hershey and Mars concocted new chocolate bars for the military, which could withstand temperatures up to 120 F. Suited for deployments to Southwest Asia, the candy melted in your mouth, not in the sand. These bars improved the "mouthfeel" of the old tropical bar used in previous rations. Although these bars aren't included in current MRE menus, with improved chocolate-processing technologies, you may see them in future MREs.

Manna from heaven

According to Gary Shults, chief of Natick's ration systems division, M&M candies and a cornucopia of other commercial products owe their existence to Natick. During World War II, military "eggheads" invented "pan-coated disks," which later became M&Ms. Other spinoffs included canned meat (Spam), dry beverage mixes (Kool-Aid), freeze-dried coffee (Tasters Choice), cake mixes, and dehydrated eggs and milk, among others.

Furthermore, Natick cooked up the rocket rations for the early space program. A tube of Natick applesauce eaten by John Glenn during his 1962 Mercury mission was the first food consumed in space. Today, the lab churns out 35,000 to 50,000 tubes annually for the Air Force's "high-altitude reconnaissance flight feeding system," which allows U-2 and SR-71 pilots to eat, or, more precisely, slurp down nourishment during 10-hour-long missions. The lab boasts 20 pureed platters, including sloppy joes, seafood casserole, beef stew and "space" yams, which are pureed and injected into metal toothpaste tubes.

"It's sort of like eating baby food," Aylward said. "Although they don't look like whole foods, the tube foods taste great."

Aylward knows the importance of a meal's presentation and appearance, saying, "We eat with our eyes. So if it looks better, it tastes better."

Thus, the military gave the MRE packaging a facelift. Gone is the brown, trash bag, plastic packaging stamped with a military stencil. Now, meals come in a sand-colored wrapper with bold type and graphics. Natick also added nutritional information on the outside of each dish. Next, according to airmen, they need to improve the mushy, lumpy looks of some the entrées.

"MREs are best eaten in the dark," said Master Sgt. Benjamin Harper, a regular MRE eater and instructor at the Air Mobility Warfare Center at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J. "When you can't see them, they seem to taste better."

Pizza pie in the sky

Today, Natick researchers have a full plate with dozens of projects in the oven and a few more simmering on the back burner. Next year, look for new items like beef enchiladas, the performance-enhancing "HooAH!" bar and the carbohydrate-fortified ERGO beverage.

"We get a lot of requests for cold cuts, hamburgers, chocolate-chip cookies, and some even for beer and wine," Aylward said. "We're working on some of them."

On the horizon is the much-anticipated pocket sandwich. Military sandwich scientists finally solved the water activity and moisture content conundrum when making a hoagie built to last. Still in the experimental stages, the sandwiches await FDA approval. The current fleet of "X" subs will include peanut butter and jelly, beef nacho, pepperoni and barbecued chicken.

One of the food technologists who worked on the pocket sandwich was Michelle Richardson. Her next conquest is the perfect shelf-stable tortilla. Working on a long stainless steel table in a kitchen the size of a fighter hangar, Richardson presses out tortilla after tortilla. In her white lab coat and hairnet, she looks frustrated, shaking her head.

"It tastes like a tortilla, but it doesn't look like one yet," Richardson said, pointing to a crusty, yellow pancake.

Pizza, however, is the ration systems division's grail and Aylward's Everest. She's convinced that a pizza breakthrough is right around the corner.

"Pizza's a real problem," Aylward said. "You've got so many different components ­ like the acidity in tomatoes, the moisture in cheese, which clashes with the moisture in the bread, and you've got the filling. It's a puzzle, but we're not giving up."

Just imagine, fresh, hot pizza delivered to your foxhole in 30 minutes or less. But hold the three- year-old anchovies, please!

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