The Sandwich That Helped Feed Puerto Rico After FEMA Failed
Chef José Andrés on Getting to Work in the Aftermath of Maria
A military meal that is “ready-to-eat” is something no human being is ever ready to eat. Stuck on a battlefield, far from home or any kind of kitchen, an MRE (meal, ready to eat) may be a lifesaver. But it is not a meal as anyone would understand it. The contents of a brown plastic MRE bag are so heavily processed and preserved that they only have a distant relationship with food.
Today’s MRE is the latest industrialized solution to a problem the United States has tried to solve since the Revolutionary War: how to provide regular rations to the troops. In the Civil War, those rations were salt pork and a rock-solid bread known for good reason as “hardtack.” For most of American combat history after that, the answer was canned food. But starting in the 1970s, the military began experimenting with something lighter. At first, it was freeze-dried food, developed by an Iraqi-American food scientist. By the early 1990s, the experimental techniques evolved into something more like packed and flavored mush, in more than a dozen varieties, or what the military prefer to call “menus.”
If you peel back the seal on its heavy plastic cover, you immediately realize that the MRE is designed like other weaponry. It must survive impossible conditions like extremes of heat and cold. It must survive immersion in floodwater and the parched air of the desert. It must contain enough preservatives and packaging to last at least three years at 80 degrees, but even longer if the conditions are cooler. Why the need to last three years? Because the Pentagon needs to stockpile meals around the world in case of combat.
Inside you’ll find some plastic-wrapped crackers and cookies. Maybe a plastic packet of nuts and raisins, and a powdered drink mix that needs water to make it liquid. The main course is a glutinous sludge that looks like it’s been scraped off a sidewalk, while its ingredients sound like the contents of a laboratory. An official mark on the pouch must be some kind of joke: Inspected for Wholesomeness by U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This “wholesome” packet of calories (on average, 1,250 kilocalories) is skewed toward fat (36 percent) and carbohydrates (51 percent). Sadly for civilians and military personnel, it’s also low on fiber, which means that people get constipated after eating the MREs for a few days. This may help on the battlefield, where there are good reasons to slow down the need to take a shit. But if you’re not facing live bullets every day, you may not appreciate the constipation. For young people, this is hard to deal with, but imagine what it’s like for the elderly. There’s a reason why people joke that MRE stands for Meals Refusing to Exit or Massive Rectal Expulsion. Even for those on the battlefield, the MRE is only supposed to be eaten for 21 days.
As the Pentagon puts it, the MRE has some well-defined purposes and requirements. “The Meal, Ready-To-Eat (MRE) is designed to sustain an individual in heavy activity such as military training or during actual military operations when normal food service facilities are not available,” says the Defense Logistics Agency.
How do you eat an MRE? Whichever way you want. You can eat it cold, or boil the whole bag in water (if you have water and can heat it). If you can’t do either, there’s something called “a flameless ration heating device” packed into each bag that warms up the contents in ten minutes using water, which triggers chemical reactions.
They say that an army marches on its stomach, and that may be true. But a marching army also needs to carry its own food, and that helps define an MRE: its weight and dimensions are limited by the need to fit inside “military field clothing pockets.” In reality, on a typical 72-hour mission, packing nine MREs is too bulky, so the servicemen and -women find ways to rip out what they truly need and throw away the rest.
When all else fails, an MRE is better than going hungry. For civilians, including after Hurricane Katrina, it is certainly better than nothing. But it is no way to feed people for any extended period. I could see this firsthand in Haiti on that day when I saw children playing soccer with an MRE. If people living in desperate poverty cannot see these bags as food, who can?
In Puerto Rico, apart from the meals World Central Kitchen prepared, those plastic military bags of calories were the only food delivered in any reasonable quantities. MREs were the competition, and they were an expensive and soulless one at that. At current Pentagon prices, a box of 12 MREs costs $119, which is $9.91 per plastic bag of calories, not including the cost of shipping to the island and distribution across the island.
Our food was sourced locally to save money and help revive the local economy. Those boxes of MREs came from small towns and big cities in South Carolina, Florida and Ohio. An MRE is a matter of survival. A freshly cooked plate of local food is a meal you’re sharing with your family and community. I like to say that a hot meal is more than just food; it’s a plate of hope. An MRE is almost hopeless. When you serve a plate of food, you gather intelligence about who needs feeding. When you dump a pile of MREs, you learn nothing about the true nature of the crisis.“When all else fails, an MRE is better than going hungry. . . But it is no way to feed people for any extended period. I could see this firsthand in Haiti on that day when I saw children playing soccer with an MRE. If people living in desperate poverty cannot see these bags as food, who can?”
Yet FEMA was determined to rely on MREs because it didn’t want to rely on the Chefs For Puerto Rico, and no other nonprofit or contractor could produce the food. The alternative was handing out bags of chips and candy, or bags of uncooked rice and beans. At least the chips didn’t need clean water and power before you could eat them. We were locked into a daily comparison between our chicken and rice, and a packet of chemicals that could be reconstituted to give the impression of chicken and rice. Only a government machine and the industrialized food economy could think that endless MREs were the way to feed millions of Americans for weeks on end. We had identified the enemy, and the enemy was an MRE.
Our solution to the challenge of creating a meal that was easy to transport and stayed edible for long periods was a simple, old-school idea: the ham and cheese sandwich. I have created many avant-garde dishes as a chef but there are few meals I’m prouder of than the hundreds of thousands of sandwiches we made in Puerto Rico.
Our sandwich line started out in the main dining room of José Enrique’s restaurant, where we developed our methods, building on what we started in the Reef restaurant in Houston. Now at the arena, we could spread out into two huge sandwich lines. These lines were made up of young children and retirees, first responders after a long day’s work and charity volunteers from the mainland, as well as many homeless hurricane victims who preferred to spend the day helping others rather than sitting inside a shelter. There were also off-duty members of the coast guard and officers from Homeland Security Investigations. They all became experts in making my ideal sandwich.
We sourced the white sliced bread in vast quantities from local bakeries, and bought equally huge quantities of ham and cheese slices from José Santiago and Sam’s Club. But the key ingredient was the mayonnaise. Lots and lots and lots of mayonnaise, mixed with tomato ketchup for some extra flavor, and sometimes mustard too. At side stations, volunteers prepared huge bowls of mayo-ketchup mix, and cut the ham and cheese slices out of packets for quick assembly. Along two main lines of tables, other volunteers laid out slices of bread. Others set about dolloping mayo on each one, followed by a slice of cheese, a slice of ham and another generous slop of mayo. This masterpiece was finished off with a top slice of bread.
At the heart of this factory was my sergeant-major of sandwiches: a heroic volunteer called Dilka Benitez. Dilka was a wheelchair basketball player who helped organize the island’s wheelchair ballers. Those organizational skills were clear in the sandwich factory, where she kept a close control of the volunteers, veering from encouragement to discipline in a few yells. She carefully managed the numbers and supplies, from the ham and cheese to the finished sandwiches. Dilka was helped greatly by two professionals: David Strong, my director of strategic initiatives at ThinkFoodGroup, and chef Griselle Vila, who runs her own catering company on the island. Together they built the volunteers into a hugely successful and productive team that changed every hour, as the volunteers switched in and out.
The sandwich line was one of my first stops when I returned to Puerto Rico after a few days of recovery back home in Washington. I walked into the darkened chamber of the Coliseum where dozens of volunteers at rows of tables were dolloping mayonnaise and slapping ham and cheese onto endless slices of white bread. Olé Olé Olé Olé, Olé Olé, we sang together like the victorious fans inside a soccer stadium, as we just heard the news that we’d hit a huge target: 20,000 delicious—and portable—ham and cheese sandwiches made in just one day.
“People of America! People of the world,” I said to the volunteers and to all those watching what would become another video on social media. “You see the people of Puerto Rico feeding the people of Puerto Rico. Today, 20,000 sandwiches. You see Puerto Rico together. The men of Puerto Rico and the women of Puerto Rico coming together. You should always be very proud of this moment. The first lady, she’s my hero. She gave us the opportunity to use this space. I think the governor has been doing a great job. But more important, this is not about politics. This is about you, you, you, you, and you. One day, 20 years from now, you will be able to tell the story of how you together fed every man, woman and every child a happy plate of food. Thank you. Thank you. We love you. But I see we are not putting enough mayo.”
As the cavernous room filled with cheers, laughter and applause, I turned to consult with my team: the paper bags we were using were sucking the moisture out of the sandwiches. We needed another solution to transport the sandwiches; one that wouldn’t dry out the food as it sat in storage or traveled across the hot island all day. I suggested wrapping each one in a square of parchment paper.
“We don’t want to just give food,” I told my team as more boxes of sandwiches were carried to the door. “We want to give the best food. And please put more mayo.”
I walked down the cinder-block hallway into the steaming kitchen, where a team of chefs were sweating next to giant vats of chicken and rice. My attitude was all about the protein. The trays of food needed more chicken, just like the paella pans outside. We couldn’t short-change the hungry people of Puerto Rico. They needed the calories and they expected more chicken.
“We need to give people more food than we usually do,” I explained. “I think it’s important. I’m always questioning because people are hungry.”“Our solution to the challenge of creating a meal that was easy to transport and stayed edible for long periods was a simple, old-school idea: the ham and cheese sandwich. I have created many avant-garde dishes as a chef but there are few meals I’m prouder of than the hundreds of thousands of sandwiches we made in Puerto Rico.”
While I was back home, we had grown impressively. We created a pop-up kitchen in Guaynabo, west of San Juan, and served 5000 people with chicken and rice. In a matter of days we went from 20,000 meals a day to 40,000 to now 60,000. We smashed through the milestone of 200,000 total meals, and were going to crush 300,000 on the day I returned. Our culinary school kitchens were going to open across the island in a matter of days, and I knew our daily meal numbers would spike again.
However, all our activity at the arena was now an unexpected and unwanted source of friction with its managers. We moved into El Choli with the support of the island’s first lady, on a mission to feed the hungry. We thought, perhaps naively, that this publicly-funded space was a giant donation-in-kind. It wasn’t. After a week of cooking, the management company SMG gave us an ultimatum, out of the blue: pay $10,000 a day to cover the costs of staffing and power, or leave in 24 hours. I was astonished. We were trapped, in a crisis, as we were trying to achieve the impossible. SMG wanted to back-date the bill to our first day there, saying they were a private company that did not get FEMA funding. The assumption seemed to be that we were awash with FEMA cash but the truth was that we were burning all our cash on food. We negotiated the cost down to $8000 a day, but I was upset. My feelings about the arena were reinforced a few days later when the managers blocked us from expanding into more kitchen space. Domino’s Pizza offered to open up its ovens to help our operation, using their own arena cooks. But SMG said they weren’t allowed to, under the terms of their contract. The ovens stayed cold while the Domino’s cooks joined our sandwich line. It made no sense to me, even though I know that arenas are complicated places with costs of their own.
The arena team was now boosted by more chefs, including several from my ThinkFoodGroup. Jennifer Herrera was a personal chef based in Dorado Beach who had grown up and trained in New York. Her mother was from Ponce, and she paid special attention to our satellite kitchen there. “It was a very personal experience,” she said, “being able to cook arroz con gandules, carne frita and a substantial warm meal to warm their stomachs and warm their hearts.”
Our hero was a 25-year-old whose dedication and drive was an inspiration to us all. Alejandro Perez was executive chef at the Happy Crab restaurant in Dorado when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He finished his treatment a month before Maria and was warned not to go back to work. His doctors said any strain or accident could kill him immediately. His response: “It will be worth it. One life for 15,000 or 20,000 people I feed? It’s worth it.”
Initially Perez wanted to open a community kitchen in his home area of Bayamon, but the municipality said they couldn’t support it. So he joined Chefs For Puerto Rico and came to El Choli to work long hours cooking thousands of meals. “My family thought it was risky and then they were concerned because I was doing crazy hours,” he said. “Emotionally I felt useless to my family, to my wife. Especially my wife Carla. She left school because she had to pay for my treatment. It took a toll on me. But since we started here, she supported me all the way. She said she didn’t care it has no pay. I just need to get out to do what I want. She even went with me to make sure I wasn’t doing anything too crazy. She said, ‘Go and do it. You are passionate about this.’ “I wish I could do this forever. I have never seen so many chefs, so many different people, work so well together, with one purpose, for one idea.”
What inspired Alejandro to do all this? Meeting people on the island in worse situations. “I met this lady in Rincón whose house was gone,” he recalled. “It was just a wooden frame. She was living behind a wall. She stayed in her bathroom through the hurricane as her house was getting ripped apart. But she was a community leader and she was helping everyone else. She was the one who needed help the most, but she was helping others. What we do here isn’t one third of what has to be done. There are people sacrificing themselves. We’re just giving our time and our skills. When I think things are going bad, I just go through my phone and look at photos like that. It’s a reminder that it doesn’t matter what goes on inside the kitchen. It’s all for the greater good.”
Erin organized a doctor to get him a checkup and the news was amazing: he was in full remission. When Alejandro returned to El Choli, everyone stood outside cheering, holding signs to celebrate his spirit and good health. It looked like another miracle.