In this riveting collection, correspondents share war stories through the lens of food and drink.”
Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food during Wartime by the World's Leading Correspondentsby Matt McAllester
These sometimes harrowing, frequently funny, and always riveting stories about food and eating under extreme conditions feature the diverse voices of journalists who have reported from dangerous conflict zones around the world during the past twenty years. A profile of the former chef to Kim Jong Il of North Korea describes Kim’s exacting standards for… See more details below
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These sometimes harrowing, frequently funny, and always riveting stories about food and eating under extreme conditions feature the diverse voices of journalists who have reported from dangerous conflict zones around the world during the past twenty years. A profile of the former chef to Kim Jong Il of North Korea describes Kim’s exacting standards for gourmet fare, which he gorges himself on while his country starves. A journalist becomes part of the inner circle of an IRA cell thanks to his drinking buddies. And a young, inexperienced female journalist shares mud crab in a foxhole with an equally young Hamid Karzai. Along with tales of deprivation and repression are stories of generosity and pleasure, sometimes overlapping. This memorable collection, introduced and edited by Matt McAllester, is seasoned by tragedy and violence, spiced with humor and good will, and fortified, in McAllester’s words, with “a little more humanity than we can usually slip into our newspapers and magazine stories.”
In this riveting collection, correspondents share war stories through the lens of food and drink.”
Read an Excerpt
Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar
Stories of Food During Wartime by the World's Leading Correspondents
By Matt McAllester
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 Matthew McAllester
All rights reserved.
~EL SALVADOR AND HAITI~
I AM SIT TING IN MY APARTMENT AT NIGHT, ALONE AND IN THE DARK. In San Salvador, electricity is as fickle as the weather—you take what you get. Tonight there is none, so I sit in the dark.
In the dark but not in silence. Directly above my roof, maybe a hundred yards overhead, a Salvadoran army helicopter gunship hovers, its blades thudding against the thick tropical heat. The helicopter's gunner is firing staccato cannon bursts into the hills a mile away, where the guerrillas make camp just outside the capital. Each burst belches out an angry, mechanical growl, very loud: Bbrrrr! Between cannon bursts I hear a little girl crying, having been jolted from her sleep in the apartment across the hall. Her parents, Seventh Day Adventist missionaries who feed me home-cooked meals and proselytize me at the dessert course, are trying to comfort her. Their voices are murmurs through the walls.
I have a battery-operated lantern that emits just enough mottled, bluish light for me to avoid bumping into walls as I navigate my little apartment. I set it on the kitchen counter so it illuminates the gas stove and fry some ham and eggs. I'm hungry, and the cooking gives me something to do besides sit and listen to the cannon fire overhead.
I eat my eggs, sopping up yolk with stale bread. I try to read the paper but the light's no good; I can't make out the print.
My apartment, on the ground floor, is cheerless and shabby, furnished with rattan chairs and table. In the living room, louvered glass slats give out on an overgrown garden that frames a miniature, scum-crusted pool. Vermin of every description enter my apartment through the glass slats, which don't close convincingly. The living room's damp shag carpet is alive with beetles and crickets and slugs. Except in bed, I keep my shoes on at all times. If I were in El Salvador more often than a few days every month or two, between reporting trips to Haiti, Nicaragua, Cuba, Guatemala, or Honduras, I'd probably move to a better place.
The helicopter is still going at it. Sleep is impossible, and it's not late anyway. If I had friends in El Salvador I could go out, but after just a few months here the people I do know—colleagues whose offices flank mine in an office building downtown—aren't really friends. Besides, I have no car here, and taxis are scarce when the gunship is doing its work.
Sending me off on my three-year assignment, my editor in Washington had told me I should think of myself as a sort of one-man news-gathering hub for Central America and the Caribbean—the eyes and ears of a great metropolitan newspaper. He said I should be better informed than the local CIA station chiefs, and have a wider range of contacts. At the moment, I might as well be locked in a sensory-deprivation tank.
I lean back from the table in my folding chair and mutter, What the fuck! I'm going nuts. I'm stuck. I can't read. There's no light. I carry the lantern back into the kitchen and fling open the cabinet and fridge doors. What I find is mildly encouraging, thanks to a recent foraging trip to Miami. There is a French garlic sausage. Some packets of Japanese rice crackers, spicy little crescents flecked with red pepper. A jar of Moroccan green olives. Then I remember that Doña Marta, my housekeeper, has left me a batch of her refried beans, irresistibly oily and black as tar, made fresh that morning. I find them on a plate under waxed paper. And there is beer, still cool in the lifeless fridge. This is good. This is solace. I have the makings here of a feast.
I'd begged to be a foreign correspondent, and dreamed of it, but my sketchy fantasies hadn't included gunfire and power outages and loneliness. Ambition, restlessness, a vague idea that it would be good to be far from editors and paid to travel the world—this is what had led me, like generations of correspondents before me, to apply. At my newspaper, the Washington Post, three postings were available—Germany, India, and Central America. When the foreign editor had asked my preference I'd more or less shrugged, saying I'd be thrilled to go anywhere.
Now, months later, I've arrived in Central America at a pivotal moment, just as communism and the Cold War are unraveling. The Soviet Union, having financed and sponsored the region's leftist combatants in order to bleed the United States, has suddenly disappeared from the world stage. Like a slow leak from a balloon, the logic is seeping out of two decades of proxy wars, death squads, massacres, and fraternal bloodbaths.
But it's harder to stop the armed young men who know nothing but fighting and killing. The momentum of revenge impels them; repurposing them will take time.
As I work my beat, traveling among Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Haiti, I'm struck by the relentless grimness that has settled in after so many seasons of violence and despair. In Nicaragua, where the United States has spent billions arming and equipping the Contra rebels, families are bitterly divided and the economy lies in ruins; there are just two or three working elevators in the entire country. Honduras, equally bleak, is crawling with CIA agents who are busy tracking and manipulating the region's various small wars. In Guatemala, a team of American forensic specialists is digging up the remains of leftists murdered by death squads. Moving among these countries is grinding and joyless.
Everything besides work feels like a welcome escape, and nothing more so than food. In Nicaragua, my colleagues and I eat in open-air restaurants after the day's heat has eased. We trade rumors and feast on skirt steaks with chimichurri sauce served with huge platters of French fries. We eat bull's testicles a la parilla, sizzling from the grill, and garlicky shrimp and baby eels drowning in olive oil.
The bills are a pittance, just ten or fifteen dollars a person. But inflation has atomized the local currency, so to pay for dinner we all produce stacks of pesos whose huge denominations obscure their actual value, which is close to zero. Just counting it all takes forever—it's like paying with pennies, only this is paper money—and by the time we've finished, the table is covered with an impressive dune of cash. The photographers climb up on chairs to take pictures of this hillock of nearly worthless bills.
In Salvador, I develop an unhealthy addiction to Pollo Campero, a chain of fried chicken joints whose secret recipe, near as I can tell, involves nothing but salt. On trips to the countryside to track down the guerrillas, I stuff my backpack with pupusas revueltas, pillowy corn tortillas filled with beans, cheese, and meat, the ubiquitous street food of San Salvador.
As comfort food this is all fine, but it provides meager relief. There is bloodshed and trauma everywhere, and the days are blood-spattered and draining. I've always loved to eat, but after a while, my relationship with food is transformed. It's not just that I enjoy food; I am needy. For me, food becomes like alcohol, and consuming it is a diversion that helps keep me sane. I eat partly in hope of forgetting what I've seen, and remembering what pleasure feels like.
On the morning after the meal in my darkened apartment, I am out reporting in San Salvador with a colleague when his pager buzzes: six priests have been murdered overnight at the nation's preeminent university. We race across town and arrive before the police. Four of the priests are lying facedown on their front lawn, their arms splayed at weird angles. Two of them are draped in their nightshirts; the others have on T-shirts or pajamas. They're wearing slippers. One priest is tall; his white gown is crumpled, its hem bunched at his thighs. Just beyond him lies a second priest—dark T-shirt, lighter pants. A third is to the left, and a fourth is nearly skull-to-skull with the third. Two more are inside the house.
On the lawn, the brains of two of the men have been blown cleanly from their heads by the impact of assault rifles fired at close range. Their skulls, emptied of their contents, are sallow, deflated, and misshapen. I stare, then turn away and squeeze my eyes shut tight. I am dizzy and breathless.
Just a few months earlier I'd been in Washington, D.C., living with my girlfriend, wearing bow ties to work, trying out a beard, playing hoops on weekends, cooking elaborate meals—soufflés, Chinese pot stickers, chicken Kiev. I was a dandy, self-absorbed; I'd seen nothing very terrible. Now I am here on this lawn, with these dead priests, staring, looking away, my mouth so dry I can barely swallow. So this is what evil looks like, I think.
The priests were Salvadoran leftists, liberation theologists, men of peace. They were the most famous intellectuals in the country—one the university's rector, another the vice-rector, another a noted sociologist whom I'd interviewed weeks before, a kind man, self-effacing, intelligent. They had been taken from the beds where they slept, dragged into the yard of their residence, and executed by Salvadoran army troops. The army brass, fierce anticommunists, have long hated the Jesuits, whom they regard as the guerrillas' intellectual godfathers.
By mid-morning, the sun is blinding. The bystanders at the Jesuits' house, standing like sentries and gawking at the bodies, cast stocky shadows. The sun has etched dark shadow-rims around the bodies, too, delineating them. It is hot, suffocating.
We get another pager message, this time about a Mexican cameraman, a colleague, who is missing. We set out in a convoy of media vehicles—Jeeps and Land Cruisers with "TV" in big letters taped to the windows like a talisman to repel bullets. There is shooting everywhere—the guerrillas have stormed the capital, capturing chic neighborhoods and slums—and the city is a mess. Shattered glass carpets the sidewalks. The streets are an obstacle course of fallen utility poles and tangled bouquets of power lines. No one knows which wires might electrocute you.
We pile out of our cars in the neighborhood where the cameraman was last seen—a rundown school with its trash-strewn playing field, some abandoned-looking small apartment buildings—and start looking around. It is spookily quiet. We see no one. Then gunfire erupts. Fuck! I throw myself to the pavement and roll to the curb, the only bit of cover available, and my colleagues do the same, all of us piled up, panting, cursing. We can't tell where the shooting is coming from, whether we're the target or simply caught in the crossfire, but the bullets are just over our heads, buzzing like angry hornets. My teeth, my fists, my jaw, my eyes, my ass, my whole body is clenched in terror, and I press my face into the dirt and dog shit at the curb. I have never been religious, but now I am praying: Pleasegodpleasepleasepleasepleasegod.
My beat for the newspaper includes both Central America and the Caribbean, but no air connections link them directly. To fly from El Salvador or Nicaragua to, say, Cuba or Haiti, you have to go through Miami. My habit is to stay a few days in transit with my notes and laundry and receipts strewn over the floor of my hotel room.
I do my expense accounts, work, order room service, see a few friends, try to decompress. But I am jumpy and short-tempered—I find myself flinching at loud noises. I take a stab at talking about the chaos I've witnessed, describing my fear, the paralyzing proximity of gunfire and bullets. It doesn't help. Over drinks with a friend at the News Café in South Beach, bathed in late-afternoon sunshine and gazing at the young models sauntering down the sidewalk, I find it impossible to recount the scene of the dead priests, or convey the ordeal that followed. It's not beyond my powers of description; it's just too starkly out of context. Except for other correspondents, no one can relate. No one wants to hear it.
I live nowhere that is really home, my friends are far away, and the places I work are joyless and terrorized. The idea that a good meal can wash away the taste of terror is ridiculous. But my thoughts keep wandering in that direction. I want a blowout meal, something spectacular. I want it as balm, as a diversion, as fortification, as an escape. I find the best Italian restaurant in town, a sedate place in Coral Gables, take a table on my own, and start ordering. I order the San Daniele prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella and tiny pungent olives. I order littleneck clams, risotto with saffron, and a Roman chicory salad. The waiter nods and starts back to the kitchen, but I smile ruefully and tell him, Sorry, I'm not quite done. I order more—veal with mushrooms and a good bottle of Barolo. I eat slowly, delighting in the meal. This is gluttony, pure and simple, but I'm not just hungry for the food; I'm hungry for pleasure in the vague hope that it may neutralize some of what I've seen.
The trip to Florida will be short, I know. There is news in Haiti—a power grab by the army, a bloody interlude, nocturnal gangs roaming the capital. But I crave some touchstone of normalcy and home. So in the few days I have in Florida I find it with my grandparents, well into their seventies, who live in a retirement community in Boca Raton.
The drive from Miami to Boca is under an hour, and I know exactly what to expect when I get to my grandparents' condo. My grandmother will have the front door open, and she will be standing just behind the screen, surveying the parking lot, so by the time I park and step out of my car she will be out at the second-floor railing, beaming and bellowing my name.
She is tiny and shrunken and fragile, bony in my arms. Her arthritic hands are knobby and liver-spotted.
"Did you drive on I-95?"
She is terribly anxious, and I can hear the fear in her voice.
"Of course, Nana, there's no other way to go."
"The TV said there are crazy people shooting at cars there! It happened just a few weeks ago. Honey, I wish you wouldn't go on that road, such crazy people."
My grandparents—dotty, off-kilter, fussy, familiar—are well past their prime. Listening to their patter is like revisiting the sound track of my childhood.
They live a mile from the beach but never go. They spend their days indoors, avoiding the sun, shuttling between doctors and hospitals. With visitors the talk runs to health problems, funerals, obituaries, taxes, and restaurants. My grandparents love to eat.
We set off for the early-bird special at a French place, and on our way they introduce me to neighbors who recognize me from my grandparents' bragging.
"The foreign correspondent! How are you, foreign correspondent?" The neighbors shout so loudly that I take a step back.
My grandmother grips my arm as she shuffles to the car. I insist on driving. Their own driving is insanely slow and they notice absolutely nothing on the road that's not directly in front of them, slow-moving, and very large. I make a point of sticking to the speed limit, which requires some effort. They both tell me to slow down anyway.
The restaurant is busy with early birds: retirees who favor pastel sport shirts, beltless pants they call slacks, and white patent leather shoes with rubber soles. Sun streams in the restaurant windows. It doesn't feel like dinnertime, but I have a huge appetite nonetheless. The early bird special—country pâté set on a nest of hydroponic lettuce, poached lobster dabbed with a jarring citrus glaze, gooey chocolate mousse crowned with a maraschino cherry—is Floridian French. It's a bizarre hybrid, and a weird sendoff. The next morning I get a southbound flight, and in a few hours I am away from south Florida's strip malls and sprinklers and shuffling retirees. Suddenly, I'm in another world altogether.
Excerpted from Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar by Matt McAllester. Copyright © 2011 Matthew McAllester. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this
In this riveting collection, correspondents share war stories through the lens of food and drink."Mother Jones
"A fascinating read."San Francisco Chronicle
"An exceptional choice for those who enjoy finding out the hidden culinary lives of the people whom we read about in the daily press. . . . Highly recommended."
Indiana Food Rev
Meet the Author
Matt McAllester is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a contributing editor at Details magazine. He is the author of Bittersweet: Lessons from My Mother’s Kitchen, Blinded by Sunlight: Surviving Abu Graib and Saddam’s Iraq, and Beyond the Mountains of the Damned: The War
Inside Kosovo. He is also Visiting Professor of Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, where he teaches international reporting. His website is www.mcallester.com.
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