Chefs make the best of it at MRE cookoff

John Crist and girlfriend Nina Pignataro from Hagerstown compete in the MRE cook-off. (WTOP/Kathy Stewart)

WASHINGTON – You’ve heard of chili cook-offs, but what about an MRE cook-off? An MRE is a Meal Ready to Eat – field rations for the military.

John Crist and his girlfriend, Nina Pignataro, traveled in from Hagerstown for the second annual MRE Cook-Off on Saturday at the Marine Corps Museum.

The rules are simple: Each contestant picks two MREs out of a box and combines elements into a single dish. Last year, Crist came in second, but this year his goal is first place.

Crist served in the Marines from 1986-1992, and says MREs have gotten a lot better over the years.

He says he’s going heavy on the Tabasco this year. As he cooked, he said, “I think last year that was my problem – I didn’t have enough Tabasco.”

So what’s he working with? “Sloppy Joe filling, imitation pork patties, not quite sure what that is. And I’ve added a few other ingredients, Tabasco, little bit of mustard and ketchup.”


Marine Doug Pugh and his two daughters and sous chefs, Zoe and Annika.

Pignataro proudly says she came in third last year. Asked how many entered, she laughs and says “Everybody asks that – three.” This year’s contest drew nine competitors.

She was intently stirring what she called her “Little Cajun stew” on Saturday. She says last year she came in third because she had two components that didn’t go together.

Gwenn Adams, the museum’s public relations chief, says, “They compete to see who can make the best out of an MRE” and adds that the competition will be back again next year. Adams says it’s a way to get people into the museum during the winter.

Meanwhile, Marine Doug Pugh came prepared with a secret weapon – seven-year-old Zoe and eight-year-old Annika, his daughters and sous chefs. The girls seem to be having fun and were ready to be rewarded with the fruits of their labor, especially with dessert.

In the end, Crist ended up smoking the competition and coming in first.

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