Guest Blogger Chef Mike on Field Expedient Cuisine

by Kelly from the Path on April 15, 2011

For starters, like most people who attempt to cook, my wife and I practiced our rudimentary skills very early on in our marriage because we liked eating well but didn’t necessarily like having to pay for it. Given my own Mediterranean heritage and our other personal ethnic interests, our tastes naturally migrated to that region and particularly to the flavors of Turkey, Greece, North Africa and the Middle East. As the years have passed, we have found that many – if not most – of our fondest memories are linked by shared experiences with friends over a glass or two (or three or four) of wine and good food. Neither of us can ever recall a gathering where we had a great meal and a lousy time.

When you spend an inordinate amount of each day attending planning meetings, writing reports, sorting through e-mails and eating routinely at the same dining facility, cooking on your own can be cathartic. Like any other creative process, it allows you to innovate, adapt, invent. It is especially agreeable when you can swap ideas with other food enthusiasts and share the results of your efforts with appreciative diners. Not every dish has come out perfectly here – there are challenges in working with limited supplies and Spartan facilities (no oven!) – but the journey ends up being just as much fun as the destination. Personally I believe that I’ll return home better in the pantry and at the stove than I left; piecing together available ingredients from various sources and figuring out how to combine them into something that is more than just edible is not altogether unlike solving a puzzle.

One of the fringe benefits of serving in the military is the opportunity to travel (although not necessarily to places where normal people would voluntarily go) and experience cuisines in their native environments. These are frequently different than their Western interpretations or derivations. Some years ago, I had participated in an exercise in Turkey that ranked among one of the most enjoyable missions of my career. Shortly after arriving at Victory Base in Baghdad, I visited one of the local bazaar shops and found myself in a nice discussion with the Turkish proprietor about my time visiting his country and the different kinds of Anatolian fare that my wife and I prepared at home. This led to an invite to join him and his staff for supper (a wonderfully simple plate of stewed chicken and bulgur infused with sliced hot green peppers) and coffee, coupled with an invitation to use their kitchen at my leisure. I accepted the offer without reservation and immediately scheduled a “first date” on Christmas. Since then I have returned at least three to four times a month to cook, and many other times just for the company and conversation. Some meals were complicated and planned in detail, others minimalist and extemporaneous. Besides earnest attempts at traditional Middle Eastern dishes, I also offered some introductions to home-style American classics (with an occasional Tex-Mex detour). They reciprocated in kind, exposing my friends and me to savory Adana-style shish-kebab, grilled chicken, dips, salads and pastries.

It is the tendency of most everyone in any society to migrate towards what is already familiar. Witness the proliferation of cookie-cutter franchise restaurants and fast-food establishments in the US and even here on our warzone bases. But it is an integral part of our American culture to be accepting and adaptive. Breaking bread with someone is in many ways an intimate act – sharing diets fosters a much better understanding of each other’s customs and ways of life. At its most basic, food fulfills a simple biological need for sustenance. But skillfully prepared and presented, it can be elevated into an art form. Like other great arts – music, theater, painting, literature – it can unify and inspire. Anyone who has ever dined at an elite restaurant can second that observation. Nothing (and I mean NOTHING) I’ve made here has done any of that. But what I have discovered is that the best way to cultivate enduring friendships is one bite at a time.

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