Thursday, March 17, 2005


Dinner in Iraq

Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) contractors handle all of the Dining Facilities (DFACS) in theater. This usually amounts to a squad of often Pakistani or Indian foreign nationals, working under a KBR contract. There generally is an American, or British, or Australian DFAC manager, and the Army cooks provide oversight of the contract personnel.

In our case, our Mess NCOIC is considered to "own" and run the DFAC, and he and his cooks supervise, provide quality control, and otherwise oversee the operation. Throughout the day and into the early morning, during the course of 4 meal periods our DFAC feeds the thousands of soldiers and U.S. and authorized foreign national contractors here on our Forward Operating Base (FOB).

This can be very boring for the cooks. They end up watching the doors -- "please wash your hands before entering" or "I'm sorry, you can't carry all those sodas out of here" -- or manning the "clicker" to verify the number of personnel fed per meal. I don't even WANT to know the dollar amount paid for each person served.

But, the food is generally of good quality and KBR contractors have NO familiarity with the "portion control" procedures of the typical stateside Army DFAC. "Can I have seconds?" you might ask, they'll answer, "You can have tenths."

The Army scientifically studies food and nutrition (and the latest of restaurant and hospitality industry practices), and designs a "14 Day Meal Plan." Similar in concept to but far more satisfying than your average Fad diet, the Army Meal Plan ensures that wherever you go, anywhere in the world, your DFAC will serve pretty much the same offerings. The only variety are in the "perks" or treats that any given DFAC will customize into their Plan. (Ice cream bars, baked goods, Gatorade, sodas, non-alcoholic beer, mixed nuts, donuts, etc.)

At first, National Guard soldiers who have never done Active Duty (or those who have but forgotten) are thrilled by all the choices and options. See, on a 2 week Annual Training (AT) period, you see something different every day, few repeats. (Ah, the genius of the 14 Day Meal Plan!)

Okay, so we've been here two months, and all of us are ready to kill, skin, and barbecue a camel just to try something new.

And those of us with less discipline (okay, okay, but I've been doing MUCH better) can actually get FAT here, at least until the spring-summer-fall heat sets in.

Up until about a week ago, I pretty much do the three meals a day, and figured "hey I'm in a combat zone, and these could be my last meals." (Alright, I don't really think that but I don't care, I deserve the desserts. They're my "just desserts.")

But I always go by the main line first, and opt for chicken, ribs, or pork, or punt and do a bacon cheeseburger the size of a baseball glove. "You want more bacon on your bacon? You want two burgers? Any fries?" And at least twice a week, after I load up on something that sends a signal to my stomach, "here comes the lead weight," I see one of the grills set up to grill steak. With steaks on it. Raw steaks that turn into leather steaks while we watch them turn them over and over. And I think, if I can check first (note to self), maybe I can time it just right and actually get a steak medium rare. (That just gave me goosebumps.)

One short aside. Nothing is exactly what you expect or what we're used to. (Except maybe the fried chicken, that's actually pretty good, I think they buy it by the ton from Swanson's.) BBQ ribs sound like you really want them but there's an odd smoky taste to them. Maybe they're smoked locally? Hhhhmmm, maybe that's what's going on at the Trash Point, I need to check that out! (All trash gets burned and often there's this horrible sooty, rubber-laden fog that hangs in the air. Much stronger in Kuwait than Iraq but still enough to qualify for super fund status back home.)

Okay, not so short aside. Steak is never quite steak, which must be why they keep calling it different things. "Salisbury Steak" is a popular name for this beef, dense, kind of tough, always overcooked ("simmered"). "T-Bone Steak," same beef, sliver of bone attached. "Prime Rib," same beef. "What, you don' like meat? You don ' like MEAT?!"

But I'm willing to try. So yesterday I finally remembered to check out ALL the grills before making my selection, and it happens.

I get a steak, actually two steaks. They're juicy -- not "with blood" as Little Manly would say -- but still moist. And when I cut into them in the center, there was a slight strip of pink inside. Pink. Juicy. Still the mystery beef, but a steak cooked almost right. Hhhmmmmm. No dessert necessary for me, I floated out of the DFAC. Okay not floated, but I moved pretty sprightly.

Almost to tease me, the DFAC today had steak and lobster tails for lunch (back to Salisbury Steak style beef again, sad to say), followed up by Alaskan King Crab and Fried Shrimp at dinner. (This is one of those customizations from the 14 Day Plan, and gets factored in maybe once a month or so.) And for frozen seafood and new-name-for-it-today beef, it's pretty darned good.

Listen, before you all start thinking, "man, they eat better than we do," just remember that I had to work through 2 months of Salisbury Steak and Tigris Chew Fish (daring an occasional Curry or Thai Chicken) before I hit the mother load.

And my personal trainer, SGT W, is gonna want to WORK that Steak off of me. "Top, the exercise you need to do is the push yourself away from the table."

(Sigh.) More of those "just desserts."

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