By Spencer Ackerman
There used to be a war called the Iraq war, and it’s actually going to continue until December 2011, at which point it will continue in mutated form without American participation. In Washington, there’s a curious effect whereby a war that fails to generate controversy falls out of public attention. Iraq is a settled issue — Obama will withdraw forces in two and a half years and the Republican Party no longer objects — and an unsettled conflict. And this post is actually about food.
Sharon Weinberger at Danger Room recently took a trip to the U.S. embassy in Iraq, ensconced within the formerly-U.S.-controlled fortress that used to be called the Green Zone. (When I was there in March 2007, we were supposed to call it the “International Zone,” but few people did.) It’s a huge embassy that doesn’t have a lot going for it, culinarily. Judging from Sharon’s post, not a lot has changed since I last visited, despite the upgraded facilities:
The shiny new dining facility, or DFAC, at the embassy features gleaming refrigerators filled with a seemingly endless supply of Gatorade, cola, and even near beer. There are over half a dozen separate food stations, including one where fresh Caesar salads are assembled on the spot. The cafeteria is run by KBR, which hires third country nationals — mostly Indians and Sri Lankans dressed in formal attire — to serve the food.
The food is not only all-you-can-eat, it’s also all-you-can-take: Employees can prepare to-go meals and are allowed to take unlimited amounts of soda and drinks back to their rooms. “The carrot cake, you’ve got to try the carrot cake,” one of my lunch companions insisted. (There’s an entire station for baked desserts, featuring several different types of freshly baked cakes and cookies; there’s a separate station for ice cream, both regular and soft serve.)
One thing you quickly learn when embedding with U.S. troops is that you’re never far from a Gatorade re-supply. Your electrolyte balance is very important to warfighting.
Food-wise, DFACs are big cafeterias. If it can be put under a heat lamp and it contains a powerful caloric burst, it will be served to you. The DFAC at nearby Camp Liberty had six flavors of ice cream available at all times. Jellos, individual servings of cereal, juiceboxes (hi haters), burger stations, cold cuts, waterlogged green beans, fridges filled with soda. None of it is going to be Iraqi food. These are creature comforts and coping mechanisms, reminders of home in carbohydrate-smothered facsimile. Even outside the embassy, the Iraqi food is a similacrum. Sharon explains:
The two main restaurants serving expatriates — Freedom Restaurant, which serves Iraqi food, and its uncreatively named neighbor, Chinese Freedom Restaurant, which serves dishes like “Cube + Milk + Nugget” — were all but vacant. Even Foreign Service officers are questioning the size of the staff in Baghdad, noting that it’s taking away resources from other embassies.
My experience was somewhat similar. This is from a post I wrote in 2007 for a friend’s now-defunct foodblog:
The [al-Rashid] hotel, just across the street from CPIC in the Green Zone, used to be the only transit point for visiting westerners during Saddam’s rule. All foreign journalists were required to stay there, as the Ministry of Information operated out of the hotel in order to spy on guests. It remains an ornate place inside, with a beautiful marble forecourt giving way to a maze of shops hawking overpriced watches and bootleg DVDs, but the locals lament its decline since the war. My lunch companions, a Shiite ex-journalist and a Sunni ex-Army officer, discussed in various ways how, unfortunate as it is to admit, life was better under Saddam, and I couldn’t help but think they were spurred to this opinion at least in part by the sub-par offerings of the al-Rashid’s restaurant. The hummus is a pasty mess with stunningly little tahini and no garlic, and the pickled beets were straight out of the can. Sadly, the mixed grill was no better: underseasoned rubber chicken and chewy steak chunks augur the hotel’s decline. And the tea was Lipton, not the delicious chai you get offered by every dignitary you interview out here.
And this was my Embassy DFAC experience:
Green Zone food is the worst of all. The US Embassy might be the largest in the world, but its chow hall is subpar, even by FOB standards. Avoid any steamed vegetable — the rumor is that they’re causing a regrettable gastric illness. Your best bet is to head down to the PX’s food court, which hosts a Subway and a Burger King in individualized trailers. (Nothing beats a receipt that reads BURGER KING IRAQ GREEN ZONE.) [The press credentialing agency] allows transient journalists a place to crash, but the price is to get slopped like a hog. Breakfast is at 6, and if you don’t wake up in time, try to get them to open their closet filled with Otis Spunkmeyer apple-cinnamon muffins and individual-serving cereal. Lunch is a chow-hall buffet out in the courtyard with Salvadoran soldiers and contract guards pointing the occasional rifle in your direction. Dinner is, again, chow hall stuff — burgers, pizza, salisbury steak that tastes like cardboard slathered in unidentifiable goo — but it’s served to you in the lounge in takeaway trays. Ubiquitous are the Fico Fresh-brand Iraqi potato chips, Gatorade by the ton in the fridge — and of course, Fanta.
Nothing like that to make you feel like some horrific mistakes are impervious to change.
Photo by Flickr user Jamesdale10.