Embedded in Afghanistan. Caution: These Pictures Will NOT Make You Hungry!

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In many large US military installations around the world, you’ll find fully functioning chow halls, manned by hair-netted cooks dishing out mass quantities of hot, salty food. When those bases get shut down, however, it’s back to the bags: Meals Ready to Eat, or MRE’s.

On my recent embed with the last US Marines in Afghanistan, as they shut down Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province for good, it was all MRE, all the time. This is food built to last, and built to sustain. Everything is as dense as a hockey puck, fortified with extra nutrients to keep troops healthy, and built to plug you up, so you can go on 12 hour patrols without needing a bathroom. Nothing tastes particularly great, but at least it’s food. When you’re hot, tired and hungry, something like “Banana Chocolate Nut Muffin” (pictured above), which looks like cat vomit, is just the hit of sugar and carbs that you need to keep going.

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In each MRE pack is a main meal (here, meatballs), which you heat in a separate pouch by adding water to create a chemical reaction. Then there’s usually a side dish (here, garlic mashed potatoes) and then pack after pack of “snacks”. All told each MRE contains about 1,200 calories — and combat troops eat three a day. (Journalists should eat far less.)

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It’s so hot out here – over 120 degrees in the summer months, and 90 in November – and the food is so filling that one of the snacks is all I need to get through a mealtime. Though the “Do Not Eat” packets stuck onto the apple turnover and the tortillas (pictured here with “Imitation Cheese Spread” for a makeshift quesadilla), is slightly disconcerting!

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Nuts, granola bars, and MRE snacks get old, and that’s the genius of the heating pouch. To eat hot food – like meatballs, beef brisket, vegetarian lasagna, chicken fajitas – at the end of the day, surrounded by pitch black, sitting on a cot in the chilly desert air is one of those little luxuries that make all the difference in the world. Pleasure, and comfort, are all relative out here.

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Some tips from the pros: mix your “Chili Mac” entree with crackers and cheese spread (heat the cheese spread along with the chili mac) for a Frito-Pie like pile of goodness. Shake up your “Orange Sports Drink Powder” with “Vanilla Dairy Shake” for a Creamsicle. Add the salt packet to the heating pouch to make the water boil hotter. And keep your M&M’s as a trading commodity.

When Camp Leatherneck was finally shuttered and we made it to Kandahar Air Field, it was like re-entering civilization. Chowhalls! (Called D-FAC, for Dining Facility) General Stores! Hot Food! Showers!

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At breakfast there were eggs, bacon, sausage, and a casserole of potato, onion and cheese that was reminiscent of tartiflette. Compared to the MRE’s, cafeteria food is positively gourmande.

Normally, I live to eat. But out here, you eat to live. So you find the small pleasures where you can (look! Tootsie Rolls in my MRE!), and just enjoy the adventure of it.