In the Army, when we trained in the field—and especially when we deployed overseas for combat operations—we had to put up with a ton of bullshit. There was the frequency with which our uniforms’ crotches blew out when performing basic actions like climbing into a Humvee turret, and the yet-to-catch on weight-loss routine of taking a dump in a Porta-Potty in 120-degree Baghdad heat. (Save it for nighttime, it’s cooler!) We were up to our eyeballs in dust that clung everywhere. We produced sweat from our shins, which I hadn’t thought possible.
All these years later, though, what I can’t stop thinking about is the omelet.
The primary operational food rations for the military are “Meals Ready to Eat,” prepackaged bags of foodstuffs that replaced the Vietnam-era C-Rations. Three MREs a day and you’re good to go. To me, “Ready to Eat” should really only apply to fruits and some vegetables, but they have to get creative to support the demands of a ground-fighting army, I totally get it. According to the Army, these things are made to withstand a parachute fall from 1,250, and with a few exceptions, they taste like it.
When I was in Iraq, I would dream of being lucky enough to pull a tuna or chicken with noodles MRE. Both of them are fantastic. Pork rib and beef enchilada are not so great, but you could choke ’em down. In 2005, the Department of Defense’s Combat Feeding Directorate introduced a new item to their lineup of MREs: Menu Item No. 4, the cheese and veggie omelet. And it’s bad. I mean legendarily bad.
Imagine a gelatinous (yet somehow firm?) rectangular slab of yellowish-beige food matter. Somewhere in there you might get slivers of honest-to-God peppers or tomatoes, though if you can detect them you have the finely tuned taste buds of Julia Child. You know that homemade slime your kids love to make with water, glue, and Borax? The stuff that makes fart noises and creates a ridiculous mess for you to clean up later? The cheese and veggie omelet MRE is basically that, only marginally less poisonous.
Troops quickly dubbed it the “vomelet” both for its taste and barf-like appearance. Mix it with the hash browns that came with it and you had bona fide Hollywood prop puke. As quickly as 2006, a year after the omelet’s implementation, all of us in basic training knew of its infamy. My recruiter had grinned and warned me to stay away from it before shipping me off, and I remember overhearing a fellow recruit in basic training doing the same for the benefit of the soldier standing next to him in the chow line. But sometimes an omelet encounter was unavoidable. For grunts like me, military life often involves getting randomly assigned to short-term details—hauling hundreds of rucksacks onto a trailer, or raking gravel, or burning the shit from outhouses in Iraq. This means while you’re performing that grueling duty, everyone else gets their choice of MRE; when you stagger in later, sweaty and tired and covered in gravel, you’re stuck with the vomelet.
Do my Army buddies remember the vomelet with the same hatred I do? One, Nathaniel, told me he recalls getting stuck with one after not eating for a day or so and still only being able to manage one bite. I don’t blame ya, brother. Another, Nathan, said he once saw someone devour one on guard duty and blow chunks soon after. That guy’s a true American hero, that’s what I say. Then there’s this one guy—there’s always one—who said, “I didn’t mind it.” Fuck you, Eric.
The Combat Feeding Directorate tried to make good. The 2005 version included a bag of M&M’s or Skittles that could go for twenty bucks in basic training. After the first year of Menu Item No. 4’s production, miniature bottles of Tabasco sauce were included in the MRE package. The directorate added an off-brand Pop-Tart, too. Nevertheless, the vomelet remained my, and every other soldier’s, least favorite MRE until it was discontinued in 2009 after a four-year run. That doesn’t mean they no longer exist, though: MREs are made to last at least three years at 80 degrees, but even that doesn’t stop people from eating them well after their supposed shelf life. There’s an entire subculture of preppers, gun enthusiasts, outdoorspeople, and survivalists who are super into MREs and military rations, acquiring them and posting reviews on forums and YouTube. (Sample omelet review: “It really is as bad as you’ve heard.”)
I failed in my attempt to track down one last Cheese and Veggie Omelet MRE for old time’s sake. I did, however, find a cheese and veggie omelet T-shirt. A T-shirt! The first thing I did? Bought that shit for Eric because he’s an idiot and also he once lent me a tapestry to hang in my room in Iraq and I never gave it back. The second thing I did? Checked the product description. “Thankfully we will never have to suffer through the hell that is the Veggie Omelet No. 4 again!” wrote the person who designed this shirt. “Remind everyone to be thankful for the Joint Services Operational Rations Forum for getting rid of this meal!”
I’ve been out of the military for seven years. In 2018, the Army introduced pizza to its MRE menu. Holy shit. I can imagine pulling rooftop guard for eight hours—sweat seeping through my helmet liner, neck stiff from the weight of my night vision goggles—and lumbering down the stairs at the end of my shift where a fucking pizza is waiting for me like the Holy Grail. Another shift in eight hours? No problem!
I guess I’m not mad about the pizza. Food has a serious effect on morale. It’s not just how bad a meal tastes: It’s how that meal can heighten all the other stressors of military life. For me and the other soldiers in my unit, the omelet became a stand-in for how we believed the Army felt about us and how we expected to be treated. The omelet MRE went into production just before George W. Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq, which extended my unit’s yearlong tour to 15 months. Having to eat that felt like the Army was giving me the finger for helping its grandmother cross the street. When I think back to my years in the Army, yeah, I remember singing Bob Marley over the Humvee’s radio, knowing my platoon was laughing and their spirits uplifted for a brief, rewarding moment. But I can still taste the vomelet.