- Associated Press - Sunday, February 9, 2014

TRIANGLE, Va. (AP) - 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.

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