I Can't Stop Watching This Guy Eat Decades-Old Army Rations
Judging from the comments of Steve’s many viewers—that hardtack video alone has been watched more than 610,000 times—everyone gets something different from his performances.
YouTube user Steve1989 holds the beat-up can, turning it for the camera, tenderly running his thumb along its rusty surfaces. "Definitely has a nice patina to it, a little bit of rust," he says, his excitement restrained but palpable. "Let's check this out."
The can and its contents are British, and more than 70 years old. Steve—assuming his real name is Steve, as he hasn't returned my requests for an interview—gingerly opens the can and lays out its contents: a fruit bar ("I've always wanted to try a World War Two-era fruit bar," he says), some biscuits, and chewing gum on an old tin army tray. Then, he digs in, unwrapping each little morsel and popping them into his mouth.
Steve1989—full screenname Steve1989 MREinfo—is just the latest in a long tradition of people who have turned an iron stomach and a certain breed of esoteric passion into YouTube stardom. In this case, he collects historic military rations (a.k.a. MREs, or "Meals Ready to Eat"), eats them, and reviews them.
I first heard of Steve when a video of him sampling "the oldest peanut butter ever eaten"—from a Korean war-era ration—went viral last year. I read about the video and felt appropriately queasy, but never watched it. I finally saw one of Steve's "reviews" in its entirety when a friend sent me the video of him eating a bit of Civil War hardtack from 1863.
For reasons too personal to go into here, eating Civil War hardtack has been on my food bucket list since childhood, second only after eating the fabled Sichuan opium poppy hot pot. And Steve's video was oddly compelling: historically fascinating, with his passion for old army food totally contagious. I was hooked.
Steve1984 sent me down a historic ration rabbit hole. Did you know there is a Military Ration Museum? It turns out there is a whole community of so-called "ration reviewers" on YouTube, people with screen names like Gundog4314 and RC Gusto. Each of the reviewers have their own charms—I'm especially fond of KiwiDudeMRE, who reviews rations with help from his candy-loving daughter—but to me, those guys are hobbyists, Steve is an artist.
Ration review videos occupy something of an awkward space in world of viral videos. Are they gross-out extreme eating videos? Military history videos? Food videos? Or maybe all of the above...
Judging from the comments of Steve's many viewers—that hardtack video alone has been watched more than 610,000 times—everyone gets something different from his performances. But for me it wasn't his historical knowledge, or even what Steve was eating, that pulled me in, but his enthusiasm.
While you wouldn't use the word delicious to describe much of what Steve actually consumes ("They smell pretty awful. They're edible though… I think," he says in one video, his mouth full of 70-year old biscuit), watching him, or more accurately, listening to him eat is listening to a man in love. As far as I'm concerned, Steve1984 has more in common with history's great eaters like A. J. Liebling and Jim Harrison than any of the great crowd of YouTube shock-snackers. Steve1984 knows ecstasy.
Steve knows his stuff about rations and their history, there's no doubt. This is him describing that British ration from 1944: "This is a multi-purpose ration that could act as a carbohydrate supplement to a more balanced and complete meal, or it can perform as a low-thirst provoking quick energy emergency survival ration". But look at the way he fingers the wax paper around that 70-year old fruit bar, or gleefully pronounces the words "oatmeal munch"; he is in the throes of something more primal than simple historic exploration: Steve is a man about to feast.
And, like those other great feasters who suffered through gout and liver failure after years of extreme eating, there's always the sense that Steven is putting his life on the line for his next meal, peering into the void every time he takes a bite.
Whether what he does is actually dangerous is the topic of some debate in the comments section.
Steve certainly doesn't present himself as any kind of culinary daredevil in the videos, but food safety experts I spoke to weren't so sure.
Dr. Mel Kramer, president of the environmental and public health consultancy EHA Consulting, has been working in food safety for more than 40 years. He didn't know what to think when I showed him Steven's videos, short of saying that he wouldn't recommend it. "People do crazy things" said Dr. Kramer sharing a story of his freshman lab partner who ate a preserved worm "formaldehyde and all" for $20.
While Kramer didn't doubt the ability of the military to put together a long-lasting ration—"The military takes a lot of pride in food safety, and they have food scientists that make food with very long shelf lives… It may not look good or taste good, but it's safe"—he said that the really old rations were in a sort of uncharted territory. "I wouldn't recommend eating a Korean war ration," he said. "They weren't made for this. The government or government contractor or whoever manufactured it clearly did not intend for it to be eaten this late. It's just not a very bright thing to do."
In fact, according to Randy Worobo, a professor at the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, most military rations are only designed with a shelf life of seven years if stored in 60-degree temperatures or below and only 18 months if stored at 100 degrees and above, a threshold well below the more-than-70-year-old meals that Steve is often eating.
That said, Worobo doesn't think Steve is at much real risk. As long as the packaging isn't damaged, because most rations from the Korean War era and before were dehydrated, spoilage is arrested and pathogens aren't able to grow. While the foods might be "biologically stable" and therefore safe to eat, that doesn't mean that they will be tasty. Anyone who has seen Steve's videos knows that the fats and shortening in everything from biscuits to candies is likely to go rancid, and 70-year old rancid fats are considerably less palatable than spoiled milk. Worobo compares the smell of old rancid fats to paint.
The age of the food itself isn't even necessarily the biggest problem. Dr. Kramer was more concerned about the deteriorating packaging, the disintegrating plastics, and rusting cans that can leach toxins into the ration.
Toxins tend to make the ingestor sick within four or five hours. Other maladies like E. coli would manifest within a few days, but so far it seems Steve and his cohort have been lucky.
Still, it's hard to imagine even a case of literally historic food poisoning stopping Steve1989 from eating military rations.
Just listen to him singing the praises of that fruit bar: "Oh my gosh, that's unreal… No joke, this right here is amazing. You know how you get a fruit bar to taste like that? You put it in a can for 70 years and you let it sit there. That's how you get that flavor. That is rich in so many ways."
And sigh as he gets his first whiff of Civil War hardtack, which was for me the most thrilling moment in his oeuvre so far.
"It smells like old mothballs and library books," he says in the same excited, almost childlike tones of someone describing a 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.
And then he digs in, crunching and making happy little eating noises. "It tastes," he decides finally "exactly like it smells."