When you think about dining and the military, words like cuisine or foodie probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. But a new documentary series from KCETLink Media Group and military-veteran media brand We Are The Mighty is looking to change that.
Premiering on November 8, Meals Ready to Eat is a six half-hour episode peek into the culture of food both within, and that springs from the military. Entirely written, produced, directed, and hosted by military veterans, the show takes viewers around the world, uncovering and exploring the gourmet culinary practices and “foodie culture” of the active military and its veterans.
Initially developed by host and co-writer August Dannehl and director and co-writer Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, the series’ earliest incarnation was a set of 12 eight-minute episodes filmed and edited over the course of a year and a half for video streaming service Go90. Aimed at exploring the undiscovered foodie side of the military veteran community, Meals Ready to Eat morphed into a six-episode series once KCET got wind of it.
“KCET in Los Angeles [was] very interested in telling veteran stories,” Hausmann-Stokes, an award-winning filmmaker, and U.S. Army combat veteran, told Food & Wine. “But they’re a broadcast television network, and they need things to fit in 30-minute chunks. So we had the idea of—pardon the food pun—pairing two episodes we felt were somewhat similar.”
It wasn’t just about puzzling the existing shorts together, though. It was a careful process of finding both a likeness and theme between the meals and the people who make them. Ultimately, the two created a list of food genres and chefs they believed were making their mark and crafted more fleshed out episodes from that. Featured talent ended up including Top Chef winner Mei Lin, Executive Chef of Norah Mike Williams, Top Chef Master and CIA veteran Neal Fraser, and Michelin-starred restaurant The French Laundry’s former chef de cuisine Tim Hollingsworth, among others.
The result is a selection of carefully crafted and easily consumable stories. As just one example, episode two features Christian Avignon and Ryan Thompson’s 10th Mountain Whiskey, a craft distillery that honors the legacy of the daring World War II Army division, and West Hollywood’s The Nice Guy Mixologist Matt Seigel, who along with Dannehl toasts the military’s valor with concoctions like a “Lamb-Infused Whiskey Cocktail.”
Host August Dannehl, Navy veteran, filmmaker, and chef, guides viewers through each episode, making trips to locations from the Culinary Institute of America (just across the Hudson River from West Point) and downtown L.A. to Okinawa, Guam, The West Bank, and Tel Aviv. In the latter, Dannehl explores the regions, its history, and relationship to the military, its food, and its people, as well as the cuisine inspired by the cultural fusion between community and military.
A careful and well-edited compilation of cooking demos, interviews, and travel segments, Meals Ready to Eat introduces you not just to foods and regions, but to the aforementioned (and more) veteran and military chefs and food influencers, the establishments they work at and own, a variety of military-inspired dishes made just for the show, and how the military fit into their culinary careers.
In the case of Norah chef Mike Williams, his culinary path began somewhat before he served and saw him back at it as a veteran.
“I was working as a server, and after I got my associates degree at Caltech, my unit got activated for a year,” Williams told Food & Wine. “I got deployed to Iraq, and after I got done with a year of active duty, I just wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something that I was passionate about and that, for me, was cooking.”
Williams story and his MRE-inspired dish are featured in the first episode. Unsurprisingly, so is a deep dive into the famous (or infamous) actual MRE rations. Dannehl explores the food, mostly distributed to service members on the front lines, by way of its history, the culinary arts, and scientific development. According to Dannehl and Hausmann-Stokes, it was a good entry point as it’s probably the first thing civilians think of when they hear military and food in the same sentence. There’s also the fact that it’s a contentious (and thus engaging) issue among military personnel.
“You will not find anybody who serves the military that does not have a love or hate relationship with the MRE,” Hausmann-Stokes told Food & Wine. “It’s just like incredibly sticky, the name itself, even though our show it’s much broader than that.”
Dannehl appreciates the title’s literal meaning but points to a more figurative one as an indication of where the show is taking viewers topically and creatively.
“I never ate MREs in the Navy,” Dannehl says. “[So] I think it’s more than just the MRE itself. It’s about the culture and the little stories that we find all around the world. [I think] that those are meals in their own right, that are ready to consume, ready to watch, ready to be thought about. [The series is] about stuff that not a lot of people would normally think about when they think about food in the military.”
In short, Meals Ready to Eat is more than just its packaging, from the places to the plates it covers—but especially the veterans it features. Its most interesting creative examination is arguably about the conceptions and misconceptions of those who have returned to civilian life, and the relatively unknown foodie culture and culinary appreciation that has sprung up through them.
The full feature first appeared at Food & Wine on November 1, 2017.