G. I. Track: Soldiers get their food fixes on assignment and back home

Goat is a local specialty in Farah, Afghanistan, if not necessarily a delicacy. Because the hearty beasts can digest just about any dry weed they get their teeth on, they thrive on the barren landscape on the southwestern edge of Afghanistan near the Iraqi border.

De Soto, Mo., resident Ed Boyer, 47, a 26-year veteran of the Army National Guard, returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan in October after spending some 14 months getting to know the locals and some of the cuisine of Farah. Goat milk and byproducts such as cheese and yogurt were plentiful, and his Afghan friends served him the meat on a number of occasions.

“They know goat; they can cook some goat,” Boyer said. “They’d usually make it into a stew with rice and potatoes. It was good.”

What was disconcerting was his hosts’ usual method of selecting and preparing the meal: Dinner would be led from its grazing area and slaughtered in plain view as the guest of honor looked on. While many Westerners might take this as an affront, Boyer said this act is an Afghan’s way of saying to a visitor, “This is for you, my special guest.”

Many troops abroad have similar access to native fare, but Boyer’s experience was unique in that there was little else besides it and military rations to keep mealtime interesting. Soldiers at major bases such as the one in Bagram were fortunate enough to get fresh salads and regular visits from popular American food chains. Huge trailers from Dairy Queen and Pizza Hut, for example, rolled onto the base selling the troops a taste of the States.

But, hundreds of miles away in Farah, Boyer and his unit were too isolated even for a late-night snack run to Bagram. “There was nothing,” he said. “We didn’t have access to those things, obviously, because we were in the middle of nowhere.”

Although shops in Farah offered plenty of nonperishable goods, there were few local vendors from whom soldiers could buy fresh food. Aside from the odd chicken wrap, the closest Boyer got to native cuisine was a nearby street market. “They had goats hanging up butchered. There’d be flies all over it and people would just cut off a hunk of what they wanted and buy it.”

A villager named Agha usually cooked for Boyer’s camp, taking direction from the troops on how to prepare food for the American palate. The troops begged family back home to send olive oil, herbs and spices, and recipes for favorite comfort foods so they could experiment with new preparations for bland military rations.

Agha used a recipe sent by Boyer’s wife, Cathy, to make chicken and dumplings. Other times, the unit bought naan – a slightly leavened flatbread – from local women and made pizza. The troops topped the bread with Agha’s tomato sauce and a liberal helping of goat cheese and cooked it on a propane grill they purchased in town. “That bread was the best bread,” Boyer raved.

On the unit’s last day in Farah, Boyer made hot rolls and served them up “Missouri-style”: “I threw them out and told the guys the story about Laddie Boys [a former home-style restaurant in Festus] – good ol’ Missouri throwed rolls – and they loved that.”

Indeed, stops at a couple of Jefferson County eateries were high on Boyer’s priority list when his tour finally ended. Poppy’s Ristorante, a popular Italian restaurant in Crystal City, was among them. “The house salad and manicotti, that’s one of the first things I had when I got home.”

And Boyer was quick to drop in at Pogolino’s Pizza Place in Festus for the Clown Special – a pizza loaded with just about every topping available. “When you come home it’s just unbelievable how it tastes,” he said.

A hometown sports-themed restaurant is practically an obsession for 27-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Matt Garvey of Florissant, who is currently stationed in Fallujah, Iraq. “One of the first places he wants to go when he gets home is to The Locker Room in Florissant for some ‘Hurt Me Chicken Wings,’” said his mother, Vickie Garvey. “Most of his early letters home included a reference to going to get some chicken wings as soon as he can. It’s also where he got reacquainted with the girl who is now his fiancée.”

Marine Cpl. Jared McGowan, 23, of Florissant was deployed to northern Iraq last September for his second tour of duty. For the five months he was home between tours, McGowan frequented Imo’s, his favorite St. Louis-based pizza joint, said his mother, Pam McGowan. But, when it comes to a soldier’s unsatisfied cravings, nothing tops home cooking.

“He always says, ‘Mom, what are you cooking when I come home?’” Pam McGowan said. “Usually, it’s chicken and dumplings or lasagna.” And every Thanksgiving, she prepares a family recipe she acquired from her mother-in-law: fried sweet potatoes.

“There’s really nothing to them,” she said. “You just boil them, peel them and cut them lengthwise, fry them in bacon grease and sprinkle them with brown sugar. Jared loves them.”

Julieann Najar of Florissant, founder of A Soldier’s Wishlist, said that although it is difficult to give soldiers most of these home favorites while they’re serving abroad, well-wishers can still help out. Najar matches soldiers with individuals and groups who wish to assist them. To date, the organization has a bank of 8,000 soldiers and 9,000 donors, who send everything from beef jerky to homemade treats.

“Homemade cookies can be sent, but they have to make sure that they put down [on the package] that they’re from A Soldier’s Wishlist, because otherwise they’ll get thrown out,” Najar said. (For safety and security purposes, soldiers are instructed to discard any unsolicited homemade items, but with preapproval from an “adopted” troop, those items are allowed.) Other instructions on how to adopt a soldier and send care packages are listed on the A Soldier’s Wishlist Web site, www.asoldierswishlist.org.

And now is a good time to get involved. “Around October, November, people are sending all sorts of stuff,” said Najar, whose own son is stationed in Iraq. “Right after Thanksgiving through late January, it’s really busy. The slowest time of year is right after Valentine’s Day and the end of May through August [or] September.

“Whenever they get a box, it’s Christmas,” she said. “It’s just absolutely overwhelming. You can send stuff to a soldier, and within a day, it’s all gone.”

Boyer agreed. “Mail time is crazy, especially when you don’t get any for two or three weeks,” he said, adding that dust storms, priority shipments of ammunition and equipment, as well as other snags, frequently hinder the delivery of personal mail.

Even so, all agree that troops are famously generous with their gift baskets. “They take what they really want, and the rest they put out and share it,” Najar said.

“The guys share everything,” McGowan added, “and they appreciate everything they get.”