Carry-out is lazy. But men are ultra lazy. Ordering pizza or simply using a microwave is often beyond us. We require nothing short of Futurama's Bachelor Chow. And when I discovered Heater Meals, I thought we may have found it.
You see, the military has deployed ultra-bachelor food preparation technology for decades under the moniker of MREs. Once accessible to only the most manly of men in the most dangerous circumstances the world has to offer, these self-heating dinners have migrated over the counter as well, this time marketed to truckers and seniors in RVs.
Heater Meals are almost certainly the most popular consumer-grade "MRE" on the market.
So I embarked on a day of eating just self-heated foods from the company. These meals in a bag come with the same "Flameless Ration Heater" used in MREs. The element is basically a permeable paper pouch loaded with "supercorroding" magnesium-iron alloy. When water touches the pouch, stand back, because it gets hot. For the smarter among you, that equation looks like Mg+2H2 O→Mg(OH)2 +H2 +heat (and steam).
So a basic Heater Meal comes with a pouch of food, a pouch for heating the food (loaded with one of those heating elements) and a tiny bag of water to start the reaction. You put the food bag into the heating pouch, mix in the water, then seal the whole rig back into the box. Wait 10-12 minutes and you've got yourself a hot meal. (If all that sounded complicated, that's only because it sort of is.)
Ahh, bacon and eggs. Or should I say Hydrating Water for Fried Egg Product mixed with Freeze Dried "hearty" Scrambled Eggs and bacon.
After mixing the egg powder with water (an additional step stacked onto the process described above), then cooking, the substance slid from its pouch as a convenient, rectangular mass. The temperature was hot (140 degrees by thermometer!) and the texture was believably eggy (other than the crisped edges and a yolk that congealed into an inedible solid). But the flavor was something closer to a hard-boiled egg than a scrambled one. Objectively, this taste should have been palatable, but something in me was repulsed, urging me not to take more than a few bites. And the included spice pack did little to remedy the situation. As for the bacon, it never really heated to a temperature that would make its chewy texture and liberal use of liquid smoke forgivable. However, my cup of Metropolis coffee (not bundled) was delicious.
Lunch was Southwest Style Chicken with Rice and Beans, a soulless but edible jambalaya boasting an extended shelf life of five years before perishing. A very viscous mix, the sauce coated the fork and wouldn't come off, while the chunks of chicken contained almost no moisture split between my teeth like tenderized erasers. My palate was left with a sticky, metallic resonance. But really, all this was OK, nothing quite offensive but nothing quite wonderful either. What I really wanted was salt (to counter the senior-friendly sodium levels) and a bit of hot sauce. So I enlisted the help of some Sriracha and all was well with the world as I finished a meal that would still be good in June of 2014. Its 480 calories coupled with 28 grams of protein left my hunger satiated, my morale for self-heating meals boosted.
By now I'm an expert. I don't consult the instructions, ripping open packs and boxes and fluids and mixing with little abandon. Green Pepper Steak with Rice will be dinner. And while it squeezes onto my plate in a manner eerliy similar to lunch, the aroma of green pepper greets my nose in a familiar way...like food should. The flavor is balanced between meatiness and the acidic pepper. And while the steak has that eraser-texture of lunch's chicken along with a floral aftertaste I could do without, the crunch of a sporadic water chestnuts brighten the solemnity of monotony. The dish could still use salt, but at 350 calories a plate, the stuff is practically health food. And under that lens, it's tough to bitch too much.
Every meal ends with bad news, so here are the real catches of eating self-heating food. The instructions fail to mention that once the food bag has steamed to a proper temperature, you need to squeeze the piping hot mixture onto a plate. This burns when attempted bare-handed (which I did three times because I'm as stubborn as I am stupid), especially as that bag is covered with heating fluids that sting any cuts on your hands. And just what do you do with a sizzling pad of magnesium-iron alloy when it's no longer cooking your food? You can't just turn off a chemical reaction, so you're left with what's essentially a Maxi Pad of heat and a small amount of noxious gray water.
So it ends up that Heater Meals are tougher to prepare than microwaved ones, meaning that they can't possibly be the future for lazy, hairy, helpless males. But I will say, you could do worse than stick a few boxes of their meat/rice mixtures into your bomb shelter. Because while a Heater Meal can't beat takeout, a hot meal will taste damn good amidst a nuclear fallout, trust me. [Heater Meals]
Taste Test is our weeklong tribute to the leaps that occur when technology meets cuisine, spanning everything from the historic breakthroughs that made food tastier and safer to the Earl-Grey-friendly replicators we impatiently await in the future.