Lobster In Kandahar
11.27.08, 12:00 AM ET
CAMP WALTON, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan– Blackened trout with a squirt of fresh lemon, orange rice, and spinach leaves, followed by a Granny Smith apple and an ice cream sundae–that probably isn’t your idea of an Army meal, particularly on a base in Afghanistan. But it was what I ate a couple of weeks ago at the DFAC (dining facility) at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno, though I was able to resist the sundae bar at the last minute.
A few nights later, I enjoyed excellent barbecued chicken, turkey wings and mashed potatoes, courtesy of Sgt. Felipe Vega at Tani District Center. This base holds only a couple of platoons of American troops who live alongside the Afghan National Police and guard the local government center. Most of the food here is canned or frozen, and there isn’t any fresh fruit.
Laboring under severe supply constraints, Vega rustled up a breakfast of delicious scrambled eggs and hash browns from the unpromising pre-packed dehydrated eggs and hash browns the Army provided. Sgt Vega is the most talented cook I’ve encountered in three visits to Khost’s district centers, though Terzayi’s cook merits praise as well
Army food was something I’d dreaded when I signed up for my first embed in summer 2007. I’d grown up on my dad’s World War II Army stories featuring his constant state of hunger and the wretchedness of the rations…when he had them at all. He was proud of the Bronze Star he won for being in one of the first boats to cross the Rhine into Germany, but the downside was being ahead of the supply lines for a month in a Germany near starvation.
When I entered the DFAC in the small, remote base at Mehtar Lam in eastern Afghanistan for my first embed, I was amazed to find four entree choices. And usually one was pretty good. There was lobster and king crab on Fridays, and I hadn’t even seen king crab claws since my childhood–where does the Army get them?
Then I got to the DFAC at the mother of all American bases in Afghanistan, Bagram, where they served lobster every day. (I haven’t seen it at Bagram or Salerno during this embed–maybe it’s seasonal? Apparently the Army is offering lobster because it’s cheaper than steak these days.)
By now, on my fourth embed, I’m as familiar with Salerno’s DFAC as I am with the restaurants near my West Village home in New York City. My friend Kim Barker of the Chicago Tribune recently noted that embeds have spa-like elements (early rising, encouragement to exercise, no alcohol and a culture of constant hydration.) Only the food is the opposite of spa cuisine–heavy, permeated with red meat, low on greens and high in carbs and refined sugar. In other words, what most Americans eat.
Predictably, given the heavily Southern demographics of the U.S. military, the best entrees tend to be Mexican or Southern food. Any barbecued avian is a good bet, the chili is delicious and the taco meat tolerable. I first realized how good turkey wings can be at Tani. In a considerate gesture to Afghan employees at Salerno and the frequent visits by local Afghan government figures, kebabs appear every few days and rice nearly daily. As a rice eater myself, I am grateful. Other ethnic foods are in scant supply. There are occasional egg rolls, which I’ve avoided, and no sushi or kimchi–this will probably have to wait another 10 years.
The DFACs are best on breakfast and dessert. At the district centers, soldiers sometimes are left to fend for themselves at breakfast–think Pop Tarts and dry cereal. (Ever read the list of ingredients on a Pop Tart? I made that mistake and have been unable to eat one since.)
The big FOBs offer a carb minefield, so to speak, including delicious buttermilk biscuits, french toast, waffles and sometimes extras like chocolate chip pancakes with chocolate sauce. After staring at them at Salerno for a couple of days, I broke down and tried one, but luckily it was dry and hard.
My favorite combination is a two-egg omelet with cheese and peppers, one biscuit and a piece of fruit. The fruit, like everything else, is flown in, not bought locally, so you find incongruities like rock hard American cantaloupe at a time when superlative Afghan melons are ripe. But fears about poor sanitation, tampering and corruption mean that all purchasing is done centrally.
If you’re not a 20-year-old soldier going out on air assaults carrying 130 pounds of equipment, food and water, the DFACs can be a severe threat to your weight. Both Bagram and Salerno feature sundae bars with several flavors of Baskin Robbins, whipped cream and chocolate and caramel sauce at every lunch and dinner. I can skip the sugary fruit pies, but there’s one dark chocolate pie that’s competitive in the civilian world, and the cookies are pretty good.
I told my host at Mandozai and Tani, Capt. Ricardo Bravo, that I found the Salerno desserts tested my willpower, and he replied with some asperity, “A soldier is supposed to have self-control.”
At the Kandahar DFAC that the British and Canadians use, on the other hand, the cakes look dicey and don’t taste very good–and there’s no ice cream. No self-control necessary.
The worst features of Army food are dairy and vegetables. None of the American bases have decent cheese–it’s either Yellow or White. They don’t even have yogurt at every breakfast. But chunks of excellent blue cheese are, mysteriously, available at lunch and dinner at Kandahar, alongside the usual Yellow and White. Apparently it alternates with Camembert. I found that crumbling it over the spaghetti from the pasta bar, and mixing in some surprisingly tasty sauteed spinach, produced the sort of dish I might have enjoyed fixing for an evening in at home.
Vegetables at American DFACS are usually dreadfully overcooked and bathed in oily liquid, with the exception of some perfectly cooked, sprightly broccoli I recently had at Salerno. (The corn niblets probably don’t have much more nutrition, but they bring back childhood memories.)
Salads are pathetic, 1970s era artifacts like tomato and cucumber in too much dressing, and coleslaw is counted as a vegetable. Kandahar has a larger, fresher selection of vegetables, although there’s a tendency to off-key combinations–chopped green beans, kidney beans and onions, anyone?
The best base for coffee lovers is far and away Kandahar, which not only offers free espresso drinks from machines in the DFAC, but boasts a Tim Horton (Canadian) and two Green Beans (the American equivalent, found at all the big FOBs). In the district centers you are usually going to be drinking bad, watery American coffee unless someone has invested in an espresso machine–or unless you have a cook or soldier from Puerto Rico who will make thick, dark coffee.
Needless to say, you will not find a selection of wines or beers at any base in Afghanistan; U.S. soldiers are forbidden to drink while deployed. They can order non-alcoholic beer, though, and last night at FOB Walton in Kandahar Province, home to a polyglot, multinational team of 30-some soldiers mainly involved in training the Afghan police, some men drank fake beers while eating a credible Tex-Mex dinner (rice, refried beans, barbecued beef, carrots.)
I asked the night’s chef how he made the canned carrots so palatable. Sgt. “Top” Burek explained, “The key is to drain all the water and bake them. At the FOBs they boil them.” FOB Walton is run by Col. John F. Cuddy on highly democratic lines, where even lieutenant colonels share dishwashing duties and the men who are the more popular cooks rotate duties. Besides Burek, Capt. Matthew Ryan is one of the favorites.
For Thanksgiving, Ryan says he will prepare cornbread, squash if possible, and assorted pies, in addition to the classic turkey provided to all American bases. He will use as many fresh ingredients as he can. Ryan, a New York state National Guardsman from Buffalo who serves both as an intelligence officer and Civil Affairs chief, explained, “I did a reforestation and some wells at Blickkilli Bazaar–so I feel confident sending my men there.”
Ryan, a part-time tree farmer, is used to making from-scratch meals. His Thanksgiving meal last year featured a 41-pound free range bird raised by a friend. But he has had to adapt to local conditions. “Usually it’s like Rachael Ray’s cooking–she doesn’t start with anything raw. You start with Triscuits and Cheez Wiz and you make a meal.”
Ann Marlowe, a New York writer, has just completed her fourth “embed” in Afghanistan.