Mustard Gas. Er, Sauce. Mustard Sauce.

The Cast: Cpl Lewis (Fireteam Leader), Davis (squad member), Myself (new), Sexton (Squad Leader), The Eternal Lance Corporal (name lost to time)

“Just try it, you’ll like it. Really.” We’ve all heard it before. True or not, we’ve all heard it before.

Every year at Christmas my brother and father would get a tin of sardines and/or oysters in their stockings. And, while they were welcome to eat them, my mother would request of them to consume said sea creatures when she wasn’t in the house. She didn’t like the smell or taste. However, just because she didn’t like them, it didn’t mean that others couldn’t enjoy them. I also didn’t like them, the smell or taste. They were not things I enjoyed.

Over the years I have been intrigued how certain circumstances change the way food tastes. Some examples would be: Temperature, environment, the food’s temperature, the company you’re in, and so many other little things. I recall one particular setting where I had a couple hand-made tacos and a banana nectar to drink, the taco place was just off the beach—where I and my buddies had just spent the morning—and the ocean air just added to it all… That one simple meal—under those particular circumstances—was perhaps one of the greatest meals I have ever had. There have been a few occasions where I have attempted to recreate that meal, all have ended poorly.

I recall once, after weeks of M.R.E.’s, hot field chow was brought out. Now, for those who are unaware, Hot Field Chow is one of the best worst things you could ever eat. At the risk of offending cafeteria workers—there are reasons that cafeteria food is the butt of many a joke regarding quality and/or its nutritional value, it might even be questioned as to if it is actual food or not. All that being said, when you eat M.R.E.s for an extended period of time, any other food is a welcomed reprieve. And, if it’s hot, well… It’s the kind of situation where you’re like, “What’s the special occasion? Is the queen coming to visit?”

As my Marine unit sat about the tall Hawaiian grasses, waiting for our scheduled helicopters to take us on another grand adventure, suddenly, Hot Field Chow was proffered. “WHA…?!?” We were sent up in our groups and it was shoveled onto our trays. There were little green things swimming in a yellow water that resembled buttered peas. Glops of whitish-grey stuff that resembled fake mashed potatoes were thumped on next. I think there was a wanna-be-cake-like substance that was almost a cornbread. There a few more items as well, but all that paled in comparison to the main dish: Ribs.

Now, hold on. These were those fake rib-like things that are compiled of some sort-of pork-like and pork product, pressed together into a mold that would force it all to look like a small portion of ribs—sans bone of course—and had ‘grill marks’ drawn on with a magic marker, then slathered with a BBQ sauce that would burn your nose hairs off and could be used as an orange-colored machine lubricant. You know, something McDonald’s might even turn down. But right then, it was like manna from heaven. Yes, it was.

I vividly recall headed back to my spot in the bushes, sitting down, tucking what could almost be a paper napkin into my flack-jacket, using my almost sturdy plastic knife and fork to cut my ribs up into small bits, and reveling in every greasy, delicious, magnificent mouthful. Next to me was another Marine eating his fork-impaled rib-substitute like a caveman, dripping sauce and grease everywhere. He took one look at me and I said, “Just because we are in the bush, doesn’t mean we can’t be civilized.” He busted a gut and sucked the rest of his almost-meat down. That was one of the best meals I have ever had. Purely situational.

See, when you’re out in the field, you gotta eat whatever you have—even if you don’t like it (especially if you don’t like it). You need the carbs. You need the fuel. You force that stuff down. You find creative recipes. For instance: Making ‘pudding’ out of cocoa powder, coffee creamer, and a little water. Or, you bring your own chow.

Within my Company, there was a group of about 4–6 Marines that would provide a ‘good meal’ for themselves. No one begrudged them. They bought it, they planned it, they got to eat it (think The Little Red Hen). One would bring the bagels. Another, the cheese. Someone else, the meat. And so one. Then, at the appointed time, they would have their ‘feast in the field’. Some of us would look on in wonder at what was on the menu, others would just laugh at the sight. Nobody would ask for them to share. If the group wanted to, they would. And they did, on occasion. Once, I was asked.

It was a cold and snowy afternoon in the Uinta Mountains. We had been training all morning and were being given an extended ‘lunch’ to take a nap, eat, write our names in the snow, or whatever, as we were soon to engage in a prolonged winter patrol that would go well into the night.

There I sat in the tent with Lewis (my team leader), a member of my fireteam (The Eternal Lance Corporal), Sexton (my squad leader), and Davis, all just shooting the breeze and eating. That’s when it happened, I was made an offer. Real quick, let me just preface the following with this: I am a properly trained culinary cook (trained by an actual, accredited chef), I know how to use a kitchen. I know what is good food and what is not. That being said, I do enjoy some really bad foods. One of my favorite former M.R.E.s was the Menu No.4, Omelet with Ham. It looked like a rectangular slab of human flesh (all rubbery and ugh), but it tasted pretty good—for a good review of this M.R.E. visit MRE Info. So, anyway, back to the invite. Wait! I forgot! Reminder: I don’t like fish from a can (see 1st paragraph).

All-righty… I’m sitting on the snow, in a tent, at altitudes I don’t even know, hungrily devouring my magnesium & water heated packet of government-issued nourishment (come-on, it’s G.I., it’s gotta be safe and good, right? right?), when it was offered, “Hey, Bags. You want one?”

This gift was presented by The Eternal Lance Corporal. We called him that because he never seemed to gain points toward promotion. Side note: After he left the unit, his points for promotion finally came in. Too little, too late.

Do I want one? One what? “One what?” I got offered. I’m one of the cool kids. Eee!

“A sardine, in mustard sauce.”

Nope. That’s disgusting. “Uh… No thanks. I’ve never liked those things.”

This was followed by all manner of encouragement—from everyone present—to eat the little fishies swimming in mustard sauce, as well as the questioning of my gender, not to mention some comments regarding my intelligence and ability to taste. All in good fun, of course.

I had tried these once before. Once, many, many Christmases ago. The first—and last—time I tried a kipper/sardine/canned fish-thing (besides tuna, which could be a whole other post on its own…) was a mustard sauce sardine. I almost threw up.

A tin of Mustard Sardines. Photo courtesy of Mouth Full of Sardines.

“Come on. You gotta have one. I don’t like them either. But it’s different here.” ‘here’ being the mountain. ‘here’ being the cold. ‘here’ being different.

Trusting in The Eternal Lance Corporal, I foraged for one of my beloved M.R.E. crackers (they have no flavor, but taste so-o good) and let him put a plop of fish and sauce on the corner.

At first glance, it did appear as though a cat had hocked up a wad o’wet-crud onto my cracker, and I was about to willingly eat it. Trust him. Trust him. I moved the goo covered cracker toward my mouth. Smiles were plastered across everyone’s face—but mine. They threatened to pop their heads in two, the smiles were stretched so tight. This was either going to be marvelous or just a terrible joke at my expense. Oh, well. Just another glorious day in the Corps. Every meal a banquette.

“Marine Lance Corporal Douglas E. Parker (Portland, Oregon), of F Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, tears into a hefty drumstick while enjoying a real home-style Thanksgiving dinner. Marines throughout Vietnam were served a full course turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day”, November 25, 1965, photograph by Pfc. Durbin.

Placing a large section of cracker in my mouth (they’re 3.75”x3.75” in size—that’s like four Saltines set next to each other to look like one big Saltine) so that all the mustard fish would get eaten in one bite—and I would have extra cracker to cover the taste if needed—I closed my mouth around what I fully expected to be THE worst thing I would ever eat. Nope. It was glorious to the taste buds. My papillae (the little bumpy things on your tongue) were doing a happy dance all about my mouth as they assisted in moving mustardy fish and cracker bits about. “Oh-h…! That’s good stuff.” Then, I washed it down with mountain-winter-cold canteen water. Mmmm… There’s something special-good about that stuff. It makes everything better.

I learned some very important lessons that day: One: Mountain cold changes everything. Two: Don’t be afraid to try new things. Three: Trust The Eternal Lance Corporal.

Years later—in my own home—I would discover one more very important lesson: That the memory of a mustard sauce sardine on an M.R.E. cracker on a cold winter afternoon definitely tastes better than a warm mustard sauce sardine in my own kitchen. I almost threw up.

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