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Monday, May 17, 2004

The Latest from James
Dateline: Baghdad May 9 (06:34)

"An army travels on its stomach." This axiom of war was stated by
Napoleon and remains as true today as it was in the days of horse
cavalry and gobs of gold braid on the front of your uniform.

Not only is nutritious chow necessary for survival, but is also one of
the few pleasures or luxuries that the troops have. On that account,
the command is doing an admirable job. There are (by my uncertain count)
five different chowhalls in this general area. Why so many you
ask�..that's because most of the troops don't have their own vehicles to
drive to chow. All are run by various subcontractors of KBR (Kellogg,
Brown and Root that is). Since we do have our own vehicles we have
sampled all of the available chow halls and declared the champion to be one
belonging to a nearby armored unit. These tankers have it made, there
chow being provided by the talented crew of the "Gulf Coast Catering
Company." It is not clear to me if the Gulf Coast in question is that
of the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf if you please) or the Gulf Coast
of the United States. Either way, the place is clean, spacious and the
food is excellent.

Let's take a visit!

You drive in on a rolled gravel road, around various rolls of
concertina wire, around an M-1 tank or two, and into a jumbo gravel parking lot.
The tanks are invariably parked in a thicket of trees and bushes. Their
front and back ends always poke out, like elephants hiding in a rose
bush. I noted that a photo of this would provide an amusing seek and find
to the folks back home, and Sean (kill joy that he is) stated that they
parked in the ticket for shade, not cover and concealment. (I of course
knew this, but enjoy being purposely perverse.)

The mess hall is surrounded by giant "Texas Barriers" for
protection from indirect fire (mortar and rocket) fragments. (A "Texas
Barrier" is like a "Jersey Barrier", only 12 feet tall. They grow
everything bigger in Texas, as they say.) You line up in a queue that snakes
through the opening in the barrier wall, standing there with all the
tankers (and assorted hangers on like us). Before you enter, depending
on the mess hall you "clear" your weapon by opening and inspecting
the action, and then dry firing it into a "clearing barrel", a
angled 55 gallon drum on the ground full of sand. In case you are two
blind/dumb to see that there is a round in the chamber, this will prevent you
from carry a "locked and loaded" weapon into the chow hall. I
haven't heard of anyone actually firing a live round into a clearing
barrel. This is good news.

(Navigational note: There are two entrances to this jumbo chow hall,
with two separate mess lines moving towards each other along the back
wall. There are two of everything -- two chow lines, two sets of ready food
tables, two drink chillers, etc. We will look at one and infer the

Then it is up the stairs and into the gigantic white metal prefab mess
hall building. Immediately inside the glass doors are a series of
deepsinks for hand washing. (Some mess halls have the sinks outside the
door.) Here there is liquid soap and lots of hot water to wash away all
that "clean dirt" we mentioned in a previous email. Hand washing in
mandatory as it is a health concern as well as a matter of good breeding.
There a massive piles of off white paper towels to partially dry your
hands before you dry them all the way on your pant legs. Then you step
out of the "washing up" alcove and past a soldier who is keeping a
cryptic count of some kind, tabulating some kind of info about soldier
use of the mess hall on a clip board. He will make an annotation as you
walk past.

On your right is a table piled high with disposable plastic plates, the
traditional high end picnic kind with the three compartments. At the
Armor mess hall there may also be a metal tub of "non-alchoholic malt
beverage" in cans, on ice. Some people just love that near beer. Next
pick up your plasti-ware. Get two forks -- there is a design weakness in
the things and they are constantly breaking off at the handle, or
leaving broken tines in your meat. A spare is a must.

There is invariable a TV or two bolted to the wall, showing some
versions of the news (CNN, FOX, BBC, STAR, etc.) Then comes the serving
line with helpful serving dudes in catering uniforms and paper hats. (I am
not sure if they are Iraqis, or guest workers from some third world
nation.) Depending on the meal you might get:
- American Cheese omelets
- Sliced ham
- Bacon
- Link or patty sausage
- Hash browns
- Hard boiled eggs
- Biscuits and gravy
- Grits/cheese grits
- Various "walk away" egg, ham, sausage and biscuit sandwiches

- Vegetable curry (yum, yum)
- Fish in cheese sauce
- Ribs
- Baked chicken
- Spicy sausage
- Hamburgers
- French fries

- Lasagna
- Beef Stroganoff
- Pork chops
- Spice boiled fish
- Curried chicken/lamb
- Chicken Cordon Bleu
- Mashed potatoes
- Various hot veggies

There are also a number of ready food items in steam/chilling tables
in the center of the chow hall. They have fast, serve yourself food:

- Pancakes
- French toast
- Whole fruit
- Fruit in heavy syrup
- Butter pats
- Maple syrup
- Instant oatmeal and hot chocolate
- All varieties of American cereal (Apple Jacks, Corn Pops,
Cheerios, Coco Puffs, etc) in presealed single serving tubs (which are used as
bowls after the top paper is peeled off. Yummy.
- Etc.

- Various vegetable salads (cucumber, tomato, three bean, etc)
- Cole slaw
- Various pasta salads
- Baked potato bar (chopped onions, jalapeno peppers, bacon bits,
shredded cheese, sour cream, etc.)
- Taco bar (shells, ground meat, salsa, shredded cheese, whole
jalapenos, etc)
- Whole fruit
- Cold cuts and sandwich fixin's
- Condiments.

- Various side dishes
- Sandwich fixin's
- Salad bar
- Tureens of soup
- Etc

There are cafeteria type dispensers for various juices and fruit
flavored drinks. There are big glass front cooers with various canned and
boxed (!!) drinks. The majority are things like Coke, Sprite, and Fanta
with Arabic script on the can. A big thing over her is little drink boxes
with various fruit juices -€�and other things in them. They are enjoyed
using a little flexi-straw which is glued to the box in a cellophane
sleeve . Orange juice, grape juice, mixed fruit cocktail, grapefruit
juice, and my favorite Pink Grapefruit Juice (um, um tart!). All are
produced by the fine folks at KDD (the Kuwait Danish Dairy Company, Kuwait)

The strangest thing to Americans is the little drink boxes of milk.
They are ultra high temperature pasteurized, and so are shelf stable.
(They do not need to be kept cold, but taste much better if they ARE cold.)
The odd thing is the varieties. They have whole, skim and "Half Cream
Milk". The Half Cream is has a high butterfat content, and tastes
like Half-and-Half. It is actually quite tasty, but I fear you would pack
on the pounds drinking it. The other somewhat strange thing is the
flavored milks. There are also li'l drink boxes with chocolate (not so
strange), strawberry (?), and banana (!!) flavored milk. Obviously the
banana is the weirdest to us, but I kinda like it. It is very banana-ish.

You sit in comfortable tables with red vinyl table cloths on them. You
laugh and share and enjoy the blasting air conditioning. (Burr, it's
friggin' freezing in here Mr. Bigglesworth!) Long guns (M-16s, SAWs
and the like) are stowed under the table for the duration of the meal.

After you have eaten your meal, you can always have desert. For all
three meals there is a wide variety of ice cream bars and other treats in
a variety of flavors: chocolate/strawberry; mango/vanilla;
pineapple/vanilla; chocolate/vanilla; chocolate/pistachio; pineapple/coconut; and
the spectacular (Turkish) MAGNUM BAR (a Dove bar on steroids made in
Turkey.) Ummm! It makes me dizzy. :-P

At dinner, in addition to ice cream you have the option of various
cakes, pies, and pastry confection items out of glass fronted pastry
coolers. All in all, if is a vary fine set-up.

After stuffing the last morsel of food into your mouth, you climb to
your feet (Oh, Ma' belly!) and stager out the door. Your trash goes
into refuse cans at the door. Into your 4x4 and try not to doze off on
the way back to the office. Start dreaming about then next meal.

Have a great day, and as they say on the Food Network, "Good Eats!"
You friend,

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