British Army Ration Pack Testing (Expired Army-Issue Food Can Be Fun!)

Today, a triumphant return to a tradition on which the modern internet was founded: eating ill-advised things and writing about it! A couple of days ago, while preparing my gear for my upcoming round-the-world trip, I rediscovered four British Army 24-hour Operational Ration Packs. I bought them with a friend (along with most of my other camping gear) two years ago for a hiking trip which never transpired. They were, if I remember correctly, three years out of date when we bought them, but in theory these things don't really go off. Nonetheless, I really don't want to find out that's not true when I'm stuck up a mountain somewhere with no other source of food.

So for my own amusement and (hopefully) your entertainment, before throwing them out I've decided to test one today. These packs are intended to contain everything a soldier needs for 24 hours while carrying out heavy physical exercise, trekking through jungle, fighting hand-to-hand etc. I am praying that the resources within will be sufficient to sustain me as I spend today reading on the sofa.

0730: Preparing for my epic struggle, I lay out the contents of my pack. The quartermaster has been good to me, and I am well-supplied for the hard times ahead. There is actually a contents list on the back of the box, but it's more fun to figure it out as I go. Everything will be a surprise! Which is always a plus, I feel, when you're talking about 5-year-expired prepackaged army food.

I must build up my strength before beginning my mission. Fortunately I am informed that Her Majesty has provided me with a hot and hearty breakfast.

Okay, challenge number one. Which bit's the damn breakfast? I've got three foil packets marked "Hamburger and beans", "Pork casserole" and "Treacle pudding". None of these sound quite right somehow. I cheat and examine the box. Yup, it's the hamburger and beans. Well naturally.

And this is it. Apparently. It says so on the foil.

To complete the rugged military eating experience, I'm going to be cooking this with my mess kit.

I slit open the packet and risk a peep, preparing to leap back if anything goes for my face. Jesus there are actual beans in there. I was expecting some kind of paste or something! There are beans! [digs deeper] and a whole hamburger! This is very odd.

Breakfast in the pan. It took about five minutes of wrestling to get the stuff out of the packet. When I cheat again later on and check the box to confirm the expiry date, I find out you're supposed to just dunk the packet in boiling water for a bit. Live and learn. Hmmm...this actually smells really good.

While waiting for the burger and beans to warm through I gaze with steely eyes out into the slight drizzle, thinking of lost comrades on distant battlefields. Then I complement my nourishing breakfast with a packet of instant coffee.

Breakfast of champions, sah! I take my food back to my lonely watch sofa, open my copy of Steven King's "Different Seasons" and warm my hands against the bitter chill of the slight draft from around the double-glazing.

And actually, it's really good. The burger is a bit tasteless, but the beans are smoky and delicious and the coffee is pretty top-notch for instant. My spirits are lifted and I turn to my reading with renewed vigour. I feel optimistic - maybe a letter from home will arrive today. Maybe, soon, this damn useless war will be over.

0815: I feel a need for something sweet to set off my glutinous savouries, so I dig through the insane supply of little packets to find something suitable. Sugar, sugar, stock, soup, drinking chocolate, three packets of tea...how much does one man need to drink?

In the process I find the water purification tablets, and a pang of fear goes through me as I realise I neglected to purify the water for my coffee! Damnit, how could basic training have slipped away so fast?

This time I am lucky, and escape with nothing more serious than a touch of limescale. I soothe my panicked nerves with what is apparently an "Oatmeal Block", which is more appetising than it sounds.

I also sample a couple of my boiled sweets, which judging by their flavour and texture are designed to double as ammunition in case of shortages. I resolve to buy more War Bonds - modern war is tragic enough without some poor devil getting a half-inch Pear Drop in the eye at 400 paces.

1145: The morning wanes, and I move on to Mary Shelley's "The Last Man". So far the day has been pretty much a draw; we've taken no ground, but casualty rates have been surprisingly low (despite the food). I've heard rumours that an allied battle group will be passing through the area around lunchtime.

1230: ...and as I'm preparing a nourishing lunch of Cream of Chicken soup...

...I am joined by a fellow grunt! We share some of my ridiculously copious tea supply, and he brings me news of the world beyond this lonely trench. Apparently it's a bit windy. The tea is reasonable.

We break into the biscuit supplies (note for Americans: biscuits as in cookies), and sample both options, "Biscuits: Brown" and "Biscuits: Fruit". My companion, clearly shell-shocked, begins to bellow biscuit eating instructions "Biscuits, fruit, ONE OF! Place...IN GOB! Apply...MOLARS!".

1345: The poor soul returns to the outside world, and I return, alone once again, to my reading, pondering on the cruel horrors of wartime and powdered tea which can turn a man's mind. The biscuits are actually excellent. Biscuits: Brown turn out to be a very subtly sweet oatmeal, and Biscuits: Fruit are pleasantly spicy with currants in.

1500: Outside it begins to rain again, pattering gently on the windows.

1530: Tired, of Mary Shelley's, endless flow of commas (it seems to me, as though it's being read, by Stevie from Malcolm in the Middle), I chew some army issue sugar-free gum and switch to Steven King's "Dreamcatcher". Excellent stuff, if marginally less literary.

Shortly I make up my ration litre of lemon drink in my canteen. The lemon is tart and tasty. Damnit, this stuff is supposed to be disgusting or at least uninspiring! What's happening to expired government-issue food these days? Honestly! No wonder nobody's afraid of the British Armed Forces any more, they're coddled like Pomeranians! I crunch more biscuits. Their sweet crispiness only reinforces my disillusionment.

1730: It's just starting to get dark outside, so I tidy the foxhole in case of a surprise inspection and inventory my remaining rations. 10 hours now and no sign of relief from my post.

On finding that I'm comfortably well-equipped, I decide to drink my vegetable stock now. Very pleasant and warming. Grr.

1900: Now fully dark. In the distance the sounds of traffic out in the night...or is that a motor patrol? Jerry's out there, in the darkness. Watching.

A cold shiver. I light candles in the foxhole and dig in for the long night.

1930: Time for dinner, slightly delayed by the need to get past the messier bits in "Dreamcatcher". This time the pouch goes in the boiling water, according to regs.

Now this is more like it! This is army food! This is unspeakable! The pork casserole is an undifferentiated mush which looks like it's been eaten at least once already. I can't consistently tell the green beans from the gravy by texture. The pork is stringy, with an oddly metallic aftertaste. Top notch. I ponder storming the front line myself in honour of my noble meal.

2045: A brief pause for breath, and then the dessert. Oh, the dessert. This, people, is what made the British Empire great. Britons went out, fought and enslaved innocent natives, stole entire countries, just to get away from it.

This is treacle pudding. In syrup. And it's of a legendary standard. The pudding, an apparently innocent spongy concoction, somehow manages to be rubbery. It's like eating a semi-sweetened bicycle tyre. It's floating in pure golden syrup, a substance which is thick, oily and sickly all at the same time, and burns the back of your throat on the way down. I tell you people, I am not a patriotic man, but a real tear came to my eye. My faith in Her Majesty's Quartermasters is restored.

2145: A last nibble of rather dry milk chocolate, and a mug of drinking chocolate complete the day.

I am replete with fat, sugar and stewed meat, and I still have enough boiled sweets, powdered drinks and chewing gum to get me through a night of watches. And if I get bored I can always blow my nose on the handy packet of tissues, or set myself on fire with the waterproof matches. I started my mission this morning expecting a day of horrors, of hideous flavours and textures, and possibly vomiting, all for the amusement of you good people. Instead I've been fed and watered, entertained and surprised, and given back just a little bit of pride in my mother country, all from a pack half the size of a shoebox. Mission accomplished.

Mark Hewitt is an English foodie, cook, philosopher, geek, shaman and writer. At the start of 2007 he sold or gave away almost all his possessions and left on a backpacking journey round the world, the purpose being (at least in part) to figure out why he would want to do such a thing. You can follow his journey and find other articles at Seeking An Extraordinary Life.

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