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Contestants try to spice up food rations

John Crist’s secret to a good meal is Tabasco sauce.

Tabasco, he said, is what carried his entry—a barbecue ribs and garlic mashed potatoes stuffed sandwich—to the top at the National Museum of the Marine Corps annual MRE cook-off Saturday, garnering him this year’s golden canteen award.

But Crist, a fireman and former Marine from Hagerstown, Md., said the car ride home would be a long one since he defeated his girlfriend, Nina Pignataro, in the contest.

The cook-off was the second offered by the museum.

Michele Flynn, visitor services chief and organizer of the event, said the staff created the cook-off to bolster attendance in February, which is typically a slow time for the museum.

Contestants picked two random MRE packets and had thirty minutes to cook a meal in canteens over a tabletop grill.

MRE stands for “Meal, Ready-to-Eat” and are the self-contained and unceasingly shelf-stable food parcels distributed by the U.S. military to service members.

Some of the MREs available at the cook-off included beef ravioli, cheese tortellini, scalloped potatoes, pesto sauce, peanut butter and cookies.

Doug Pugh and his daughters Annika Pugh, 8, and Zoe Pugh, 7, didn’t take home first place, but Pugh said the time together was a prize in itself.

Pugh is a Marine stationed at Cherry Point in Havelock, N.C., and drove up for the weekend to take part in the event.

For his first three years in the Marines, Pugh was a cook. Now, he said, he just cooks to order for his daughters, whose favorite foods are pancakes and salmon.

Kris Sandbakken, head chef at the museum, judged the contest and said he looked for a dish that was simple, with big flavor behind it.

“I was raised on MRE,” he said. “My father was a Marine and I was in Boy Scouts. I’m looking forward to see how they’ve improved in the last 10 years.”

Sandbakken handed out four awards following the event: the golden canteen, best presentation, best dessert and best entree.

Mark Pike, one of the last-minute entrants, won the award for presentation by drawing “USMC” on the cookie in his MRE pack in peanut butter.

Trevor Havens and his daughter, 10-year-old Hannah Havens, took the best dessert award for their peanut butter, cream and Reese’s-topped cookie.

And Annika Pugh took the best entree award for helping her dad make pesto pasta. The family also fried breaded beef ravioli, and buttered, seasoned and grilled bread over the flame by sticking it on a knife.

“I’m going to my best friend’s sleepover tonight and I’m going to tell everyone,” Annika said.

Matthew Castro, a former Marine, and son Dylan Castro, 8, stumbled across the competition on a tour of the museum.

“It was such a surprise,” Castro said. “We saw people upstairs and came up to check it out.”

Dylan said that while the food looked tasty, he preferred the WWII gallery and interactive films offered by the museum.

James Melvin, Robert Simmonds and Randall Arnold, all motorcycle riders with the Combat Veterans Association, heard about the trip and rode to the museum to watch.

Melvin, who served in the Army during Vietnam and Desert Storm, said the contest made him hungry.

“First generation MREs were terrible,” he said. “They’ve really improved over the years.”

Simmonds and Arnold, both Vietnam vets, agreed. They also knew the MRE doused with Tabasco would likely be the big winner Saturday.

“We wrote to the Tabasco company from Vietnam and they sent us a whole case of it,” Arnold said. “We used it to simply make the MREs palatable.”

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976