Desert Storm: The Food at Dhahran
Army food’s always been known for how bad it is. Just watch any episode of MASH and Hawkeye complaining about the food. But I’ll let you in on a secret: When I was growing up, my mother eliminated using salt when she cooked. The meals were so bland that when I ate my first army meal in Basic Training, I was shocked at how good food could taste.
That soon would change, especially during Desert Storm. The war not strained the logistics side of shipping food out to us with hot weather and multiple services vying for items, but also strained the abilities of the soldiers cooking the meals. There were times when Hawkeye ate better than us!
Breakfast and Dinner
We got hot food for both these meals. I no longer remember what was served for breakfast, but it was probably the standard food and didn’t change much.
Dinner had a protein, a green salad, and a desert. It seems like there should be one more thing, but I don’t remember. I do remember that I never liked the salad because it was very bland. At the end of the line, we also received a can of soda. Those were very strange. They were the name brands like Coke and Pepsi, but they were the Saudi Arabia version. The cans had the name in Arabic on them, and they were short. Our cans 12 ounces, and these were about half. Now, over two decades later, the companies are selling the smaller cans!
Bangladesh contractors cooked the meals and served them to us. I remember them as nice guys. They were friendly with all the soldiers because that just seemed like who they were. Sometimes they would give me an extra piece of yellow cake (chocolate frosting … mmm).
The meals were very repetitive. The menu only consisted of three entrees for dinner, so we got chicken every three days. This was probably due to the availability of the food. The logistics of getting food out to us on the desert was very challenging because anything fresh spoiled very quickly. Still, it was hard for us to not have any variety, and it got old very quickly. Everyone complained about the meals and especially about having so much chicken. As it turned out, these were actually the best meals we ate over there. We would have much, much worse later.
The lunch meal consisted of MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. We called them Meals Rejected by Ethiopia (at the time people were starving in Ethiopia). The MREs consisted of 12 packets of different meals like Chicken Ala King, Spaghetti with Meatballs, and scary food like Omelet with Ham. Each packet had 1,200 calories (really!) and consisted of an entree, a side, crackers with a topping (peanut butter, jelly, or cheese), a desert or snack, and powdered punch. Hot sauce came in only a few of the packages and was always the most popular item because it hid the flavor.
We would file into the mess tent and wait in line. At the end of the line, one of the cooks stood next to a stack of MRE boxes and handed them out. If they didn’t do that, greedy soldiers would rifle through and grab all the popular ones, leaving the ones no one liked for everyone else. That way, everyone had a fair chance of getting a good meal once in a while — but only once in a while because most of them weren’t that good.
The tables started accumulating MRE discard piles. The discards were usually the dehydrated fruit, crackers, peanut butter, cheese, some entrees, and occasionally the entire MRE package. So after we sat down and inventoried what we had, then we checked out the piles for anything that was better.
I always liked the fruit, though most soldiers didn’t, so I could usually get it. The fruit came in a square block about half an inch thick and had the texture of frozen cotton candy. As odd as it sounds, I liked the texture because it was slightly crunchy because most of the food was soft and mushy and the crackers didn’t have any moisture at all. Most of us passed on the cheese, too. It didn’t taste too bad, but the texture was rubbery and unappealing.
This was the MRE menu we had at this location:
- Pork with Rice in BBQ Sauce – I never cared much for this. The BBQ sauce had a metallic taste to it that was very unappealing, and instead of flavoring the pork, it dominated the pork.
- Corned Beef Hash – Meh.
- Chicken Stew – I liked this, but most soldiers did not. So if anyone abandoned the entree or wanted to trade, it was mine.
- Chicken a la King – Again another one I liked and most people did not. This was my favorite among the chicken ones.
- Chicken with Rice – Again another one I liked and most people did not. This was my third favorite because of the texture of the rice.
- Omelet with Ham – Seriously, no, never.
- Spaghetti with Meat Sauce – Popular
- Ham Slice – a slab of meat. I didn’t think much then about the impact of how the food looks, and the appearance of this just turned me off.
- Beef Stew – This also didn’t look really good. Flavor-wise, meh.
- Meatballs with Tomato Sauce: The sauce was a deal-breaker for me. It just didn’t taste good. The proportions were off; it had too much sauce and not enough meatballs.
- Tuna with Noodles – Meh. Just bland, both in taste and color.
- Escalloped Potatoes with Ham – This was only slightly better than the Omelet with Ham. That’s not saying much!
Okay, that was scary. I just typed up this list and there’s only one in here that everyone liked and a whole lot that no one cared much for. I was surprised at typing this list and realizing that a lot of the appeal was not just taste, but the colors and textures (thanks to the cooking shows where I’ve learned a lot about food!).
It seemed like the military had thought of the MRE not as deployment food where a soldier might eat one every day, but as food for training exercises. Soldier goes out for a week, eats five meals, and comes back home. So the meals have evolved quite a bit from the two releases that we ended up eating in Desert Storm. In fact, the military learned a lot about them in those early days. The MREs didn’t last as long as they thought the meals would, nor were they quite as hardy in the hot desert weather. What everyone learned from Desert Storm, the military took back and used to change the MREs for future soldiers, so we broke new ground in food. We ended up being an unintentional experiment.