Saturday, March 29, 2008

My kind of people

Photograph - Lt. Col. Mohammad is the gentleman on the far left. His image is blurry as, even with my shutter speed at the fastest setting, I couldn't capture a clear photograph of him due to the speed and vigor with which he attacked his lunch.

The Afghans Come for Lunch

Shortly after I arrived in Afghanistan I heard from reliable sources that food is of significant importance to most people here. Not surprising, I thought, as both the Afghan economy and farmland are poor. But I soon learned that the Afghans are like the Chinese in that they really don't place much value on clothing or housing or any other suspected personal artifice, but they insist on eating good food -- and a lot of it -- no matter what their financial state. History and genealogy would confirm this common bond with the Chinese, as a significant percentage of Afghans carry the genes of Genghis Khan; and one minority group, the Hazara, have facial features you'd expect on a world table tennis champion, not a Shi'ite Muslim from Kabul.

Today I lunched with six top officials from the Afghan Army's public health office, and I was astounded by the sheer quantity of food they consumed. I heard before they arrived that they relished any opportunity to eat at the dining facility on our base, and it was clear they understood the logistics of dining here and the variety of food available to them because they worked the buffets as if they had already run reconnaissance on the place. They seemed to know exactly how many pounds of food the rather flimsy paper trays could hold as they loaded on lunches that included grilled chicken breasts, fried chicken tenders, roast beef, chicken wings, deli meat, enchiladas, egg rolls, taco beef, turkey wings, macaroni, french fries, salad and several selections of fruit and potato chips.

In the past I have worked extensively with Cambodians and Indonesians who, to a person, were hesitant to eat anything unfamiliar and who usually subsisted outside their countries on rice and simple grilled chicken. The Afghans I dined with today showed no hesitation in consuming entrees unknown to them. I don't think enchiladas are an Afghan staple, but when my guests learned that beef resided inside the corn tortilla, they nearly lifted the entire tray from the steam table. I fashion myself a pretty big eater, but I felt a post-prandial fatigue coming on just watching these guys dish themselves 6-7 entrees apiece.

For the first time, I felt a solidarity with the Afghans. They are my kind of people. The lunch also gave me renewed hope for the development of Afghanistan because if these men are able to marshal to their advantage the vast mineral wealth found in this country as competently as they mined and consumed the myriad offerings at the dining hall, Afghanistan will be a first-world country before I fulfill my Naval commitment.

Never believe that Afghans lack creativity or ingenuity. I saw at lunch roast beef in a peanut butter sauce, french fries on a bun, chocolate chip cookie-crusted chicken, broccoli-infused enchilada casserole and cranberry Coca Cola. Two men ate sour cream straight up, with no chaser. I lived in Japan for year and thought the Japanese took extensive liberties when preparing American cuisine, but the Afghans brought together disparate elements that would have sent any reasonable Japanese diner back to the sushi bar. And the Afghans consumed enough to shame eating champion Kobayashi.

I was charged with procuring and delivering desserts at the end of the meal, and I wanted to test the resolve of my guests so I brought each one of them two desserts, a bowl of ice cream and a large piece cake, in addition to a selection of cookies for the group. I was lucky to snare the last peanut butter cookie as every treat seemed to vaporize before I could reseat myself.

A coworker asked if perhaps these men ate so voraciously because they seldom enjoyed such a large and varied selection of food. I doubt that is the case. Anyone used to eating light would NEVER have been able to wolf down one-quarter of the lunch these men devoured, and most well-nourished people would be risking nitrogen poisoning from an overdose of protein had they been going tamale-for-tamale with them. I say again, the Afghans are my kind of people.

I wish our encounter had ended in the dining hall, but these dignitaries had a secondary agenda that included the promotion of public health in Afghanistan, so we retired to a meeting room to endure a presentation detailing ... the rancid conditions of most slaughterhouses in Afghanistan. My stomach is pretty strong, but I might go vegetarian for awhile after seeing photographs of a butchering facility located very near our base, and I don't recommend anyone else sit for such a presentation just after a meal. Upton Sinclair would have been too ill to write The Jungle had he visited this place. A cat served as rodent control, and that was the most progressive element of the facility. I'm not going to post any of the photos as too many people would be disturbed by them and a few images might risk categorization as pornography, but the lowlights include blood stains five feet up the walls, men with slaughtering knives in their mouths as they struggle with animals, and a line of dead goats bleeding out into an open trough.

I'm a physician and I've seen quite a bit of human gore, but those photographs really made me queasy; and I realized half-way through the presentation that I was so unnerved because what I was viewing could be my food. My Afghan colleagues, though concerned with the conditions they reviewed, did not seem viscerally disturbed: As they commented on strategies to clean up the slaughterhouses, they munched on M&Ms and Skittles and small chocolate Easter eggs. As I've said, these Afghans are my kind of people.


Patrick Maher said...

Rockin Ron!

I must admit, it king of reminds me of our days sucking down Louis hot dogs...which seem to slide down the average thoat at an average rate of 2 at a time. I do recall that as our hormones raged in high school, we could pretty much put locusts to shame in our ability to devour food. Perhaps these gents have found the fountain of youth...or maybe they had a bong hit or 2 and just had the munchies...hard to say.

Keep safe!

Your age old friend,

sandra said...

home run blog! Of course, stated by a chinese. This description is a far cry from the mre's I thought you'd be eating for a year! At least they are honoring food over there...I'd say my tax dollars are being well spent!

Fat Robbie said...

Ronny, all I can say is pace yourself. You're here for a year, for God's sake.

Incredible story, brilliantly described.

Great stuff.

SCHU said...

Good stuff Doc. See if they need any GS surgical Techs over there cuz you no i luv a good ol buffet.