RAWAH, Iraq -- The Iraqi desert has the ability to alter the perceptions of Marines, especially those who have been deployed for a long period of time. Showers are no longer part of the everyday routine, instead they become a luxury. The same happens with food; what used to be considered commonplace is transformed into the extra-ordinary, and the extra-ordinary becomes something else entirely.
Staff Sgt. Robert J. Downing and Staff Sgt. Barrett A. Kahl spent the entire day recently, learning how to transform their food services into something beyond the normal expectations. They traveled to Camp Kassam, an Iraqi Army base near Rawah, Iraq, in order to observe and help in the day’s food preparation.
“We assisted the Iraqi soldiers in a ‘VIP luncheon’,” said Kahl, the battalion field food service system chief with 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 2. “It was a traditional Iraqi dinner for the mayors of nearby cities, the regimental commander, the battalion’s commander, executive officer, and sergeant major, as well as several high ranking civilians.”
The day started at about six in the morning, when the sheep was selected and butchered, before being set to boil inside a pot on an open flame.
“We definitely learned a few things. They cook a little differently than we do. They use what the environment gives them, like wood and a hole in the ground for fire, when we would just turn a knob or switch to start cooking,” said Kahl, a Jarrettsville, Md., native.
Downing, a native of Yorkbeach, Maine, agreed, saying the experience gave him a new respect for others in his profession.
“When I see what’s going on around us, I think to myself, ‘We have a long way to go culinary-wise,’ but then after visiting their camp, it definitely gives an appreciation for the tools and supplies we have,” said Downing, who is serving on his second deployment to Iraq.
While the chicken and sheep were boiling, the two Marines spent their time learning how to make traditional Iraqi pita bread.
“To tell the truth we had a bake-off of sorts,” said Downing. “It was just for fun, to see who could make the most dough rolls the fastest. The chef who was showing us seemed like a great guy, even though I think he won.”
The competition lasted roughly ten minutes, each competitor using a different method for rolling the dough. The Iraqi chef tossed the bread between his hands, squeezing out perfect rolls in seconds, while Downing used a putty knife to cut equal portions before rolling them on the table with his palms. Though the competition was close, the Iraqi chef won by four rolls.
“It was a great experience, comparing different techniques and tools, but most importantly we learned how to prepare their style of food. To be honest, I was impressed,” said Downing.
According to the two Marines, this wasn’t just a one-time occasion, they plan on opening the boundaries between the two culinary cultures and hope it will strengthen the bond between the two groups.
“We are going to do this many more times. We even hope to bring their cooks here to watch us sometime, and we want to blur that invisible boundary between us and them. We are all here together supporting the same mission,” Kahl said. “This type of thing builds trust and communication, they see us making an effort, and as a bonus, the final product was amazing.”
The pita-bread was laid out on large bowls and topped first with rice, and then with the boiled lamb and chicken, which was also deep fried briefly, before being finished with green peppers and juices.
“It was very eye appealing, and everyone who gathered to eat raved about the food,” Kahl said.
The two Marines said after a while they forgot the cooks didn’t speak the same language.
“When it comes to culinary arts, communication is just easier because the food does the talking,” said Downing. “We weren’t in a stressed environment, and everyone was doing what they loved. I guess words weren’t really needed.”
The cooks said they will definitely be using what they learned to enhance the battalion’s eating experience in the future.
“We finally figured out the secret of their Chai tea,” said Kahl. “That alone is a huge accomplishment and will be a great addition to the dining experience.”