Best Breakfast: A soldier responds to that crab cakes essay
The January 2016 edition of Southwest: The Magazine includes an essay of mine, titled “Crab Cakes With Kenny.” It’s about breakfast, crab cakes, baseball, and my brother. Several people have emailed to tell me the stories of the best breakfasts of their lives, from Lou Mitchell’s in Chicago to Bill’s Bread and Breakfast in Putnam, Connecticut. (It occurs to me that readers on airplanes are in just the right position to be two things: contemplative, and hungry.) One letter stands out. It’s from a man named Marcelo, who spent nearly 40 years in the Army. I’m copying and pasting it below, unedited. When I read Marcelo’s line, “In my dark moments I wondered what I would do if told to start a nuclear war,” I figured sharing his words was the least I could do.
It seems I have been in the Army since I can remember. Unofficially at 15. Committed at 17, in it through to adulthood and still there after retirement. In all about 37 or 8 years. Three wars; lots of skirmishes. I am far from it now, but it is still inside me: the lessons learned, the mistakes I made, the leaders I emulate. What I eat, how I eat, when I eat, where I eat, do I want to eat? It is all in there. Like tattoo sleeves peeking out inopportunely under a starched French cuff; you can dress me up, but it still shows. It is the ink of Army life that is still in me at all depths. When to do with food, my soul looks very much like the standard Army menu and the mess hall schedule. In times of crisis, or bliss, I still revert to it.
When in garrison the Army eats at a mess hall on post. Good no frills fare by most standards and often excellent. Much better than college food, by any measure. But nothing to write home about or remember fondly. Wherever deployed, today’s Army eats food created in kitchens somewhere in the US. The meals are created mechanically and packed into large flat cans that are slightly flexible. They look sort of like the one time broiling pans people use for Thanksgiving turkeys except they are sealed up. Unopened, I am sure they keep forever. Field kitchens warm them up over a steam bath and serve them to troops who may get a hot meal a day if they are lucky. It is hygienic, fast, easy, and economical in a fast moving environment. It was not also ways so.
When I first went to the field, food was cooked in each unit for the troops in that unit. Cooks were judged daily on the quality of their fare. They cooked biscuits in field ovens, made gravy on a stove, and cutlets in broilers that were heated by an open flame. It was a difficult job that required nearly constant work. Up early to make breakfast and often up past the small hours of the night to make sure people on guard duty got enough soup or sandwiches to keep warm. There were endless hours of cooking and scrubbing and therefore the dreaded duty of KP. Kitchen police. In the Army’s special lingo that did not involve arresting carrots for misbehaving, or taking in onions for being over the limit. It meant that you got to clean up after all meals, for a whole day. To insure cleanliness and prevent mass food poisoning, the standards for food safety were strict. The Mess Sergeant was the enforcer. A man not to trifled with, if you failed to meet his standards, he could talk to the First Sergeant and ensure you got more practice the next day.
I was junior and in the business of following orders. As inconceivable as it may seem today, in my dark moments I wondered what I would do if told to start a nuclear war. Panic for me involved the possibility of seeing the horizon lined with Russian tanks headed West. I knew their order of battle, and I had seen the satellite photos. It was possible. Russian doctrine and training made them able to cruise across Western Europe to the Atlantic in 7 to 10 days. To prevent that, we trained constantly. We were in the field for long periods of time, punctuated with short returns to base for refit and some semblance of a normal life. In one year I counted over 250 nights in the field. And the field was cold. Cold and rainy in the summer. Cold and muddy in the Spring and Fall. Cold, snowy, and windswept in the Winter. The local soldiers referred to our training area, close to the Eastern block, as “the land beyond the moon.” The winter wind was so fierce and sharp, it had a name, “the hawk”. Almost incessant, the hawk kept us in a different, desolate state where you actually worried about freezing. We trained for war, and the environment was intended to harden us.
There was no trace of civilization in that life. We maneuvered, conducted live fire, and maintained ourselves and our equipment in what was often a foot of wet sloppy earth slurry churned up by the tracks. On good days, the mud was frozen. The only comforts were sleep in short snaps, mail call, and food. A shower, a once in 4 to 6 week proposition, was so extravagant a luxury, that it did not count.
When the unit was in one place for more than 4 hours, Cookie (what the NCOs called the Mess Sergeant) would set up the kitchen trailer and cook. Mostly soup, sometimes real meals, and most memorably, breakfast after being up all night moving from one position to another. It was simple fair: Coffee strong enough to keep the dead awake, pancakes, eggs, bacon, and links in excess, all smothered in a ¾ inch deep lake of syrup that was so hot it would burn your tongue. By the time you got back to your firing position, it had skinned over. Sometimes the air was cold enough to allow snowflakes on syrup ladled up 3 minutes before. But if consumed fast enough, it was hot, sweet, and the picture of protein and carbo-loading to make you body go another day. As long as everybody was fed, you could have as much as you wanted. Occasionally, to ensure I would stay awake and warm, I would ask Cookie for a third of a cup of extra syrup and fill the rest with coffee. I never counted the calories but I would not be surprised if 5500 was about right. I always lost weight in the field and that breakfast was worth every KP session. I can still feel it bringing me back to life.
I have tried to replicate that wondrous experience of reawakening and warmth that breakfast chow provided. I can’t do it in a restaurant: “We do not do that, ” and it is too messy and difficult to do at home. Scout winter campouts are about it. When I do, it touches all the nerve endings still raw from those days. I realize that like long forgotten perfumes, those days and memories cannot be relived, or explained, and should be left in that vault of personal memories. But the knowledge of the best breakfast on earth still lingers among the ghosts of my fellows, decimated by wars and time.