Rations

ON SATURDAY 22nd I was part of the NSW Bush Search and Rescue (BSAR) Navshield, from this year an event organised by the NSW State Emergency Service (SES). It’s like a rogaine, or orienteering, only more so. One of the policies of the NSW SES is that its volunteers are fed on training and operational activity. We were offered, and I, out of curiosity, accepted, a Ration Pack, promised as equivalent to those issued to the Australian Defence Force.

Military rations are a huge source of folklore and history. Captain Cook, Australia’s original hero and anti-hero, was famous both for attempting to prevent scurvy in his crews’ rations, and for eventually ending up, in Hawaii, a ration himself. The First World War is part of popular memory for suffering and loss, but also for characteristic foods, bully beef, ANZAC biscuits, Maconochie soup. In our society where conscription is long gone and our military is professional, highly skilled, well-paid and above all small, most people have no sense of how soldiers eat. I had assumed that the days had gone when the QM Sergeant gave you a tin of beef, a biscuit, a slug of rum, pointed you at the Turks and crossed your name off the list to come back for dinner. I was right. In 2019 military nutrition is a science.

I think my fascination comes from my absolute unfamiliarity with this kind of subsistence. How does an instition like the army feed large groups of people in conditions of uncertainty and insecurity? If I took a bunch of these into my fallout shelter, how long after the apocalypse would I start getting sick of them?

Here follows my tasting notes.

Single Shift Snack & Meal Pack Spaghetti Bolognaise

Each of these, I understand, is meant to let one soldier subsist for a day in the field. It weighs about 1.5 kilograms, comes in a clear plastic bag (of which more later), and is full of olive-drab plastic packages. I shoved mine in my backpack and got walking.

The guide for participants warned:

Teams who requested field ration packs will find that they are very generous serves. Most people don’t finish a ration pack.

Reader, I did not (quite) finish the ration pack.

Contents

Jam Sandwich Biscuits

These are the delicious morning or afternoon tea biscuits on which every office worker subsists. I had mine at about 9am, in the middle of a National Park swamp. Lovely day in the office.

Fruit Bars x2

Imagine if you will a small military pop-tart, folded over. Pretty good. Sugary.

Cereal Bars x3

Muesli bars, only better, with chia seeds apparently. I would buy these from the supermarket if I could recognise the brand. Alas, olive drab.

Main Meal: Spaghetti Bolognaise
Hardware: Flameless Heater Pack

This is the star of the show, the boil-in-a-bag hot meal. Bag A is the heater, which is a plastic bag in which an exothermic chemical reaction happens. You pour in 100ml of your water, onto two bricks of white chemical, put Bag B (the meal) in unopened, and wait 12 minutes. ‘What happens’? I asked one of the teams I met who were eating theirs. ‘Nothing happens for six minutes, then lots happens’, and they were right. About halfway through, it gets boiling hot and starts emitting steam. The whole package fills up with boiling water, and when you’re ready to eat it, you fish out Bag B carefully, open it, and enjoy your hot lunch in the middle of a forest.

It’s honestly pretty good. There’s spaghetti in a meaty, tomato sauce with identifiable bits of tomato. I ate it in less than a minute.

‘Don’t let a flame near that, that’s hydrogen gas’, one of my teammates, a chemist, warned me later. Lucky me.

Cream Crackers
Yeast Extract

Sao biscuits and Vegemite in military parlance. The yeast extract comes in a metal tube you puncture with the lid, like the sealant in a bike inner tube repair kit. This was strangely affecting, a familiar snack in the middle of nowhere, which I guess is the intended effect.

Candy chocolates

Smarties. I kept these in my pocket and ate them throughout the day. Like a small child.

Peaches in Juice

10/10 delicious, the primary school recess winner, sugary fruity goodness, I cracked the tin with joy.

Steak Bar

I was once offered biltong by a South African, who told me it was delicious, ‘like eating fresh raw meat, only dry’. She was right, in all the ways that matter. I can even now remember eating high quality biltong, straight from the emigré delicatessen, and the taste of raw, uncooked, fibrous meat. This cheaper bar was better, by which I mean worse: saltier, more processed, less like meat. It’s one of those salty jerky bars I’ve never thought to actually buy from a service station. Well now I know.

Fruit sugar thing, unlisted in the package contents

I have no idea what this looks like or smells like. It a lozenge thing maybe three centimetres by four, with the consistency of old Turkish delight. I opened one with my teeth in the dark, on the way back to the final checkpoint, cold and exhausted. I didn’t care what it was, but I bet myself that I had a better than 50% chance of sugar, and won.

Not eaten

Mini Mentos x4
Kopiko Candy x2

How much sugar can one individual eat over 24 hours? I assume these are to keep people awake. That was not my plan, never give me guard duty.

Electrolyte Drink

A sachet of powdered sports drink. I thought about it, but decided I associate this stuff with having gastro. Pass.

General notes

1. There seems like not a lot of fibre here, apart from the muesli bars. I’m no nutritionist or plumber. I’m no colonic expert. I’m just making an observation about what the consequences might be.
2. Sugar, on the other hand, is well-provided for. As a kilogram and a half of protein and sugars that you can give to one person to say, ‘here, take this, put your pack on, and walk thirty kilometres in the cold, through scrub’, it’s fantastic. I worry about the dental health and plaque situation of anyone subistiting on this diet for a long time.
3. A ration pack with so many individual servings creates a huge amount of plastic waste. What I brought into the National Park I took out with me, which meant pockets and pockets full of identical olive drap wrapping slivers. I know I can feed myself less wastefully, and I can probably feed a small group of people less wastefully. Can I feed 500 participants less wastefully, with the same amount of variety? I have no idea, but almost certainly not. It’s an open question of mass production as to whether we can get the benefits of mass manufacture without the junk.
4. I’m told these cost upwards of $70 a go, which makes sense considering the heat-in-a-bag chemical heater. That’s an expensive way to feed a team.

On that note my tasting notes end. Thank you taxpayers of New South Wales.

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David Irving (no relation) · 17 July 2019, 12:18 · #

They have improved over the years. The last one I had (about 20 years ago, now) was OK, but not that good. I note with approval they’ve got rid of the tinned ham’n‘eggs – they were truly disgusting – and the processed cheese.

There are reasons for the lack of fibre. A shitting soldier is more vulnerable to attack than an upright one, plus there’s a tactical requirement to take everything out of the area of operation. (Hence the large, sturdy plastic bag it comes in.)

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Ben Harris-Roxas · 19 July 2019, 20:26 · #

This article from The Guardian from 2014, which compares countries’ MREs, will also be of interest.

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Liam · 22 July 2019, 16:41 · #

From tactical shitting theory to the pages of the Guardian—blogging is not dead

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