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Chefs try to work magic on rations at MRE Cook-off

Feb. 9, 2014 - 12:14PM   |  
A plate of penne pasta and Spanish rice is presented to the judge Feb. 1 during the National Museum of the Marine Corps second annual Meal-Ready-To-Eat/MRE cook-off in Triangle, Va.
A plate of penne pasta and Spanish rice is presented to the judge Feb. 1 during the National Museum of the Marine Corps second annual Meal-Ready-To-Eat/MRE cook-off in Triangle, Va. (Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post via the AP)
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TRIANGLE, VA. — Amateur chef John Crist reached into the box and blindly pulled out his secret ingredients — two Department of Defense field rations, otherwise known as “Meals, Ready-to-Eat,” or MREs.

He examined the packages. He smirked.

“Sloppy Joe filling,” he said. “And boneless pork rib.” The rib, Crist noted, was imitation pork. “Only the best.”

Bon appetit and oorah!

Crist and his girlfriend, Nina Pignataro, had driven two hours to Triangle, Va., on Feb. 1 to compete in the MRE Cook-off at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

Crist finished second in the inaugural cook-off last year, and Pignataro third.

“Out of three,” said Crist, a deputy fire marshal from Hagerstown, Md.

They were back to make another run at what is apparently impossible: Making culinary magic out of MREs, a much-maligned fact of life for service members out in the field. “They’ve improved significantly since I was in,” said Crist, who served in the Marine Corps from 1986 through 1992.

But still, he acknowledged, MREs are hardly the stuff of haute cuisine, earning such derisive nicknames as “Meals, Rarely-Edible” and “Meals, Ready-to-Expel.”

The MRE Cook-off began as a way to draw attention and, perhaps, visitors to the Marine Corps museum during its slowest season. “This time of year, it’s pretty dead — even on a Saturday,” said Michele Flynn, the museum’s visitor services manager. The museum, she said, attracts about a half-million visitors annually.

On Feb. 1, a small crowd gathered on the second deck, beneath an Iwo Jima quote by Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz and near an old plane — an F4U-4 Corsair, “the Whistling Death” — that was suspended in midair.

There were eight contestants behind small tables, each of which had a folding Sterno stove and a canteen cup on it. There were also disposable plates and towels, napkins, spoons, forks and a steak knife. And contestants were allowed to use spices, sauces and other secret ingredients, either from home or the museum’s kitchen.

“Gotta have hot sauce,” said Craig Allen, last year’s winner.

Why? “You’ve gotta get the boxy smell out,” said Allen, a third-generation Marine who served for four years.

The contestants got their MREs and began cooking — though Flynn, the organizer, reminded them that it shouldn’t take long.

“Don’t forget these meals are already prepared,” she told the contestants.

Marine Capt. Doug Pugh was ready with MRE helpers: extra-virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, shaved Parmesan, butter, herbs, flour, sugar, salsas and more. He also brought prep cooks — his daughters Annika, 8, and Zoe, 7, who live in Chantilly.

“We have some tricks up our sleeves,” said Pugh, who is stationed in North Carolina, at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

His MREs were chicken pesto pasta and beef ravioli in meat sauce. The rations also included bread, garlic mashed potatoes and cookies.

He quickly went to work, adding fresh garlic to the pesto pasta, throwing herbs and spices and oil into the potatoes and frying the ravioli in butter in the canteen cup. He also turned the “white snack bread” into garlic bread and made a peanut butter-chocolate cookie sandwich for dessert.

Jarheads meet Mason jars.

And no wonder: Pugh, a friend said, “was once a 3381” — a food-service Marine.

“But it’s been years,” Pugh said. And anyway, he was cooking actual food in an actual kitchen then. “Here, you just make do.”

He plated the pesto chicken pasta and topped it with shredded Parmesan. It smelled great but looked wholly unappetizing. “I think I just cleaned some of that this morning,” said Marine Capt. Chris Collins, nodding at his 6-month-old son, Cayden. He laughed.

MREs aren’t pretty, said Kris Sandbakken, the head chef at the museum. So Sandbakken, who was judging the competition, said he’d focus on flavors.

There were no requirements to compete. Anybody was welcome — although, Crist joked, maybe not Army guys. Several of the contestants signed up on the spot.

Almost everybody added hot sauce and copious amounts of spices to the MREs, whose DOD labels boasted that the contents were “Warfighter Recommended, Warfighter Tested, Warfighter Approved.”

Sandbakken — wearing a chef’s coat and Happy Chef-brand pants — sampled them one by one, though the judging came to a halt when the National Anthem was performed at a ceremony on the ground level of the museum.

After Sandbakken finished, museum officials decided that there should be three categories, plus best overall.

Pugh’s chicken pesto pasta won best entree.

The winning dish: John Crist’s sloppy-Joe-and-cheesy-garlic-mashed-potatoes-smothered-imitation-pork-thingy sandwich. The Tabasco-spiked concoction looked unwieldy. “But it tastes pretty good,” Sandbakken said.

For his efforts, Crist won bragging rights and a golden canteen cup (a standard-issue cup as recently coated with gold spray paint).

It will be displayed prominently at home, he promised.

Then, Sandbakken said he had to get back to work. There was a wedding later at the museum, and Sandbakken was catering. An MRE buffet? “No way,” he said. “Filet, tilapia with stuffed crab, chicken tarragon ... the real stuff.”

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