I. In the mess
In early 1942, Dad was called up for duty at Camp Roberts, California, where he became close friends with Louis Zamperini, the Olympian miler and famous POW. (I have a picture of the two of them climbing telephone poles for stringing wire.) To make an interminable story simply short, Dad was given the responsibility of being in charge of the mess halls for his company. Dad, on a good day, could boil water without burning it, maybe. "Everybody in the Army was doing jobs three levels above their competence" he said. Well, the men were about to revolt. I mean, violently. He was really afraid for his life. Dad changed the jello ratios (this couldn't possibly be right!) and you couldn't cut the jello with a fork.
A young Chinese-American private said "Captain, I know how to save you from this." Dad: "Really, you do?" "Yessir, my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents have had restaurants in San Francisco since the time of the gold rush." "Well, Private Chang, you are now Mess Sergeant Chang!" Major Chang, in charge of the 101st Airborne Commissary, was killed at the Bulge in 1945.
II. Out The Back Of Beyond
I wanted to take my son George swimming so we could feel just what it was like near the place where lava flowed into the ocean. (Very warm!) We had to drive about seventy-five miles around the flow, on the back end, to avoid the police barriers. At one of the little Hawaiian villages (Kalapana?) on the other side of Mauna Loa we stopped at a restaurant and I ordered the clam chowder. Clam chowder in Hawaii! No way, Hose-A! Hawaii ain't got no clams! But it was the best clam chowder I have ever had in my life!
Demanding to see the chef, this young man came out and said that he came from New England, was a member of the Culinary Institute of America and he was "cooking his way around the world". Ordered frozen clams from Boston. The best chowdah, brahs! Never had the like since.
III. In The Land Of The Tango, The Perons And The Banana Split
In Buenos Aires you could order a succulent steak for an American dollar. It slopped over the sides of the platter! With potatoes and a vegetable! I noticed on the menu that there was a banana split for $1.25! "This I gotta see." So I ordered it and waited and waited...nada. Finally I got up to leave. "No no Senor! The chef is not finished yet!" I sat myself back down and two waiters brought out his...creation. A half-dozen scoops of ice cream! Three or four bananas! Whipped cream towers with Nabisco draw bridges and crenelated castles! Cherries on top of everything! "I can't possibly eat this. It is a work of art. Share it with the patrons here." Gave the pastry chef a five dollar tip and departed.
Ben met Anna,
Made a hit.
Ben-Anna split. - Burma Shave
IV. In The Antipodes: Crocodiles, Blackboys and Roo-Tail Stew
South of Bunbury, West Australia, is just about as far as you can get from Concord, New Hampshire without getting your feet wet in the Indian Ocean. Escaping from a really bad maths conference in Adelaide, I hearkened to the call of my hunting buddies, tourist guides and kangaroo hunters for an Australian dog food company south of Perth. Kangaroos are not the cute little animals as portrayed by A.A. Milne, but stupid and vicious (when cornered) marsupials who will try to gut you with their six-inch hind claw if they can. (One had attacked me in Melbourne twelve years previously.) Armed with shotguns and rifles, we set forth. There are millions of kangaroos in West Australia, and you can shoot as many as you want, every day and night. They are a plague to automobile drivers and farmers. They will hop right in front of your car with no warning whatsoever. Hence every car has a "roo bar" like a cow catcher on the old trains. You can't drive a mile without seeing a dead roo by the side of the highway.
Being rather exhausted, I shed some clothing to take a dip in the ocean. "Get out of there!" said the head hunter. "Why?" I innocently asked. "Salties, Mate!" Having little desire to meet up with a salt-water crocodile, I immediately (sooner than that) complied.
You do not really hunt animals in Australia. Fauna of every variety outnumber humans to an extent known only to early Americans. You basically just go where they are and shoot them. I got some taste of this in California on one of those pheasant shoots where drivers, with their dogs, release the birds, a few dozen at a time and drive them toward you. I wounded a bird and shot it walking on the ground. "Haven't I taught you a thing about shooting?" erupted my father. (And since when had my father, a hater of the outdoors in general and Mother Nature in particular, become a "sportsman?") "You wait until it stops!" he said. "No sense in wasting ammunition on another miss!" Dad was of the "If ever you get in a fair fight, you have screwed up" school of thought.
Boy, was it cold in August! Shivering, we set alight a blackboy, a sort of grass tree which will burst aflame and give off a terrific heat for a minute or so. Thousands of them. Pick one. Not to worry, they grow back within a year totally unharmed. On the horizon, we saw other blackboys flare up, from other hunters.
Looking up, I got dizzy for a second. What was Scorpio doing way up there? Back in Bakersfield, California, Scorpio's tail was floating just above our backyard fence. [Back in Hawaii, this constellation is called Maui's Fishhook, that dredged up the island chain.] Perhaps the earth really isn't flat after all.
At 3 AM we trooped into the bunkhouse for a meal. "What is this, oxtail stew?" I asked the cook lifting some sort of spine from my bowl. "No, mate, that's the tail of the roo you shot an hour ago." Ah, to be sure. That explained the buckshot I charnked down on a minute before. Rootail stew. Rather tasteless, actually. Roos have no fat on them. MacDonald's used it for hamburger helper for years before word got out. "Oh no! We're eating Kanga" said the fast-food junkies. (But apparently it was OK to eat a cow.) Japan still imports roo meat by the ton.
V. Chèvre, à la Mongol
Yes, I have spared you a picture of a goat on a spit. Besides, Mongolian children are the cutest in the world. My wife, a fine judge of such things, agrees wholeheartedly.
"How many of you like Mongolian barbecue?" asked Colonel Batbaatar, a faint whisp of a smile playing over his lips. Well, I mean, who doesn't? We, all twenty or so American and Canadian parachutists raised our hands in the affirmative. "You just think you have had Mongolian barbecue", he said. "Tonight we will have the real thing." We were at the Army's Parachute Rigging School just outside Ulaanbaatar and the Army was going to treat us to a real Mongolian barbecue after a hard day of jumping and parachute packing. We were right on the Great Silk Road with migrating camel trains sauntering nearby and had had fermented mare's milk, yak milk, throat singing, horse racing and wrestling at the Naadam Festival and I don't know what else inflicted upon us. I wasn't sure what "real" Mongolian barbecue consisted of but we were about to find out. Mongolia, about the size of France, has twenty times the goats and sheep as it does people. Very much like New Zealand in that regard.
A goat was brought out to us on a spit, still smoking. At least the hair was smoking. The goat was intact, horns and all, looking at us (accusingly?) with heat glazed-over eyeballs. We were each given a knife and fork, and told to dig into the stomach area. Surprisingly, it wasn't at all bad, once you got over the shock of eating the intact animal right there. I believe everyone else in the world skins the goat first before cooking it. But what would you expect from a parachute rigging school where you had to take a shot of Chinggis Khan vodka at the slightest infraction of any kind throughout the day? There was more than a little vodka swigging at dinner that night, 'tis true.
VI. Thanksgiving 1969 And Our Little Father - The Best Dinner In the World, And One Of The Worst
I cannot help but recall 1969's Thanksgiving Dinner in Spaso House, the American Ambassador's residence. Thanksgiving and the Marine Ball are the two November events in Moscow nobody wants to miss, especially with the onslaught of winter. Everybody working for the American, British, Canadian, Australian and new Zealand Embassies is invited. Hundreds of people! Our Commissary Officer, fresh out of college in Alabama came upon a freight car full of okra somewhere and bought it on the cheap. Okra, a dollar a pound! in the embassy storehouse the paper told us. Two takers, the officer and the doctor, from Arkansas. Okra: 50 cents a pound. Zip. 25 cents! Nope. Free Okra! exclaimed the embassy newspaper. Again zip. Well, that thanksgiving all of us had fried okra, baked okra, fricasseed okra, okra au gratin, okra avec okra...you name it, we had it! Ambassador Beam had hit upon a solution. The eager young commissary officer was stationed elsewhere. "But I thought everyone liked okra" he exclaimed.
It was a really, really cold night at the Yaroslavl Train Depot. Even the natives thought so. Forty degrees below zero and falling. At that temperature, smoke from the chimneys would freeze and gently roll down the roof and lie upon the ground, a beautiful gray fog. I had taken the train up from Moscow with a friend at embassy, to help with interviewing the Russian champion female parachutist for Parachutist Magazine. Since we were late and knew the hotel restaurant would be closed, we opted to eat at the station. I ordered the Bouef Stragonov. (No, it is not Bouef Stragonoff!) Wowzers! Broke da mouth, Brah! I asked to see the chef! This middle-aged woman came out, apron and toque and everything. "This is the very best meal I have ever had!" I said. "Well, it was Our Little Father's favorite too." "Our Little Father?" I inquired. "Why, yes. Tsar Nicholas was Our Little Father. My grandfather was his personal chef and I inherited all of his recipes." "You could make a zillion rubles opening a restaurant in Paris with this." "It would be forbidden".
How my life has degenerated. Now it is a big deal to get "Two Whoppers For Six Dollars" at Burger King.