My Rouses Everyday, September & October 2018

You measured time by the Hindu Kush Mountains on the horizon. When we first arrived in Afghanistan, they were black in the hazy distance. As fall set in, the very uppermost peaks of the mountains turned white, and with each passing week, the white slowly crawled downward, downward — and it was beautiful, until the white was all around us, and then it was not so beautiful. The weather was never what you would call “nice.” There were sunny days, but they were the harsh highland sort. Mostly, though, it rained in the fall and rained in the winter, and when it didn’t rain, it snowed. With winter, all of the color in the world vanished, replaced by a gloomy gray above and the muddy snow below. Eventually, the rain and cold conspired to harden the ground of the entire camp into one massive slab of ice. I am from Louisiana, which means I slipped at least once a day, and never gracefully.

You don’t think about home cooking until there’s none to be had. A hot meal on a cold, rainy day. A hot dog or burger in summertime. Food is fuel, yes — calories and nutrients to stay alive — and yet, when prepared with love and served as such, it is communal, spiritual. It is the difference between feeling full and feeling satisfied.

My task force ran operations around the clock. Life was made up of vast stretches of boredom punctuated by the occasional spike of excitement. I worked nights for most of my deployment. My lunchtime was midnight, and you’d trudge to the improvised chow hall across the dark camp, treacherous ice beneath your boots, and the air was so cold that the sweat in your hair or on your brow would freeze the moment it formed, leaving you an animated snowman.

The chow hall was a repurposed ramshackle building, though I’m not sure what it was beforehand. Out front was a firepit made of cinder blocks. It was about the length and width of a pool table, and there was always a fire going there at night (when it wasn’t raining), and people would gather to talk or smoke in twos and threes. There were no meals prepared at midnight; there were, instead, kitchen warmers filled with leftovers from whatever had been served at dinner. The chow hall was dimly lit at night, and it was a sorry affair — a feeling of abject loneliness swept over you the moment you crossed its threshold, and you welcomed the food the way you’d welcome a frozen TV dinner: If you weren’t depressed before, you would be by the time you set down your fork.

Around the firepit, I would frequently see a soldier named John. He was a cook, and his job — from what I could tell — was to babysit the chow hall at night and direct preparations for the next morning’s food.

There’s not a whole lot to talk about at three in the morning in the Hindu Kush Mountains, standing in front of a firepit, with your feet three inches deep in snow. We talked about the weather, the way it always rained and yet nothing seemed to grow. Afghanistan was like the moon, with the occasional, elusive patch of grass. (Not all of the country is like this, but the mountains certainly seemed that way when I was there). We talked about the next run, and whether we would be on the convoy, and how you only forgot your head scarf once if you were a turret gunner, because by the time you got back to the post, your face was brown from all the dust, but beneath that brown, it was deep red from an unholy combination of sunburn, windburn and cold.

John was a cook, so he talked a lot about food. This food they were serving, it was just wrong, he said. Terrible. Not just the leftovers at midnight, but all of it. The other day they served tacos at dinner, and the locals serving the food had no idea what to do. They’d never seen a taco before! They just handed out the shells as a side. And the soldiers working at night were getting the worst part of it because it was the same slop, but now warmed over.

See, he said, he had this family recipe that he’d love to cook out here. Unit morale was subterranean. It would help, he said. It was a chili; good home cooking. That’s what he could do. He — why, he bet if he cooked that chili, everyone would love it, morale would skyrocket, people would wake in the middle of the night to eat it! Because who doesn’t want to feel like they’re at home? And what feels more like home than a cold night and hot chili?

He talked about it for what felt like weeks. He would cook the chili. He could scale the recipe to feed the entire camp. He probably could get all the ingredients. In fact, he said, he would get all the ingredients. He would do this. So after enduring endless months of what was a thankless job, John’s scheme had evolved into a plan. A purpose. He would begin a midnight dinner service, and on opening night he would serve homemade chili.

The truth is, it seemed ridiculous to me. I felt bad for him. The winter really did a number on one’s spirits, and this guy was clinging to something certain, it seemed, to end in disappointment. Only a few dozen of us worked nights, and we grabbed our nighttime lunch when we could, which was sometimes at midnight and sometimes at 3:00 a.m. The chow hall in the middle of the night simply wasn’t a place where brothers broke bread. It was where you went when you were hungry, where you downed your chow and then left as quickly as possible. But he would change that, he just knew it.

So he started working the breakfast line each day, and he promoted the chili — you’d have sworn that he was going to charge for it — a genuine, homemade meal. Real food. Not this grub, these “provisions,” that we’re serving now. (He didn’t insult the food so much as imply its inferiority; he was, after all, serving those provisions to the commander and first sergeant.)

When the big night came, a whiteboard adorned the exterior of the chow hall. Written there was: Midnight Meal: Chili. I turned up for it, trudging the same dark and icy path as ever — only, when I arrived, I didn’t find the dimly lit, barely standing building I’d become accustomed to. There was a line out the door. The heater was blasting inside, there was music, and where once there were warming boxes of botulism, there was now an exultant John, aproned and ladling generous servings into Styrofoam bowls. He reminded each soldier not to forget the shredded cheese. He couldn’t get sour cream but please — don’t forget the cheese! I had never seen the place so full, the people in such inexplicably good spirits. I got my bowl, sat down with a table of strangers and we ate, and it was as though I’d been blasted back home on a cannon. The meal was extraordinary. Not in the way you find at a fine French restaurant, but in the way your mom could whip up something special.

It was a stunning success. After the chili achievement, he couldn’t stop there. He had this family spaghetti recipe, and — well, if you thought the chili was something, he said, just wait. It took him a few days to get the necessary ingredients (I have no idea where he got them), and in the meantime he made fresh meals at midnight with whatever he had available. Then, the big day. Written on this whiteboard: Homemade Spaghetti. And again, they came, and what once was a building of perfect desolation — congealing leftovers waiting in industrial food warmers — was a standing-room-only crowd eating a homemade meal 7,000 miles from home. Conversation filled the place. It was lively, even joyful.

He never stopped. One morning I saw him negotiating with an engineer, and that evening, a large, serrated-metal grating was waiting for John. It was the sort of thing used for walkways or flooring in construction sites, and here came the locals, laying it atop the firepit. Soon the fires that once gathered soldiers in meager groups of two or three became the largest grill in-country, and John was slapping slabs of beef on it, the smell of barbecue drawing half the camp there. It was midnight, and scores of sleepy-eyed soldiers had come not for food, but for a taste of home. And everyone grabbed paper plates — and John had made beans and potato salad too! — and the once dingy, dimly lit dining facility was suddenly festive. Every seat was taken, and there was this sense of camaraderie — it was electrical, spurred on by one guy who wanted to make chili, who just knew it would change everything. And he was right. It did.

At the end of our tour, the battalion returned home piecemeal as another was deployed to relieve us. The cooks left first, including John. The midnight meals vanished, and with them, the comfort and gaiety that his family recipes provided. A few weeks later, I was back home. But invariably, whenever I think of home cooking, my mind goes to one of the least hospitable places on the planet. It’s where I learned what home cooking really means.