"Don't eat the pork patties," was the recurring advice Army National Guard members gave journalists who ate Army food while visiting the FIREX '88 artillery exercise Monday.

Army food has never set the standard for fine cuisine, but then food is seldom the reason people enter military service, said Staff Sgt. Darrell Rector, a guard cook from Ogden.Gone are the days of C rations and the P-38, the tiny can opener packed with the rations that is a common key-ring fixture. In today's Army, prepared field meals are MREs and T-packs.

MRE, one of an endless number of military acronyms, stands for "meal ready to eat," also referred to among the ranks as "meals remotely edible," or "meals rejected by Ethiopia," or other unprintable derivations.

Unlike the mix of cans and bags found in a C ration packet, all of the food items in an MRE are individually packed in foil-lined plastic pouches that are grouped, by menu selection, into a heavy plastic bag. A knife comes in handy when opening the MRE, but anyone who can tear a medium-sized phone book in half can rip the top off an MRE's outer bag with his bare hands.

MRE selection No. 4, for example, contains beef slices with barbecue sauce, freeze-dried fruit, peanut butter, crackers, a chocolate-covered cookie, instant coffee mix, cream substitute, sugar, salt, chewing gum, matches and toilet paper. Other entrees include beef stripes, beef tips with gravy, barbecue beef, lasagna, spaghetti and meat balls - and pork patties.

"I eat the stuff just to see what it tastes like," said Rector, who added that the pork patties are so unpopular they will probably be scrubbed from the menu at some point. The spaghetti with meat draws the most positive comments, and the barbecue beef is also among the most preferred MREs.

The T-pack meals are packaged, by individual food item, in cake-pan-sized containers that are supposed to serve about 20 people. Field cooks heat the containers, then serve the contents on paper trays. "Lunch and dinner are edible, but breakfast is not," Rector said. Out of 100 men, almost all show up for dinner, but only 30 or 40 make it to breakfast, he said.

Soldiers doing field training often get A rations, described as real food cooked and served cafeteria style, for one or more meals a day. But MREs and T-packs are the daily fare for most of the soldiers participating in FIREX because it would be too difficult to prepare meals for 12,500 men, Rector said.

Complaining about the food fulfills a soldier's basic need to gripe about something. The Army is a haven for complainers, Rector said, who would just have to complain about something else if they decided the food was agreeable.

Rector said the cooks' biggest complaint with the MREs and T-packs is they don't give the cooks much opportunity to do their job.