FORWARD OPERATING BASE HASSANABAD, Afghanistan — Just getting the ingredients for Golf Company's one-day-early Thanksgiving dinner was a military operation.
First, the Marines consulted their translators. Then the translators persuaded the Afghan border police to go to a market in what may be the most dangerous part of Helmand province.
Buying the $68 worth of chicken and hot peppers and potatoes and rice and flat bread turned out to be the easy part, however. It was the cooking Wednesday night that nearly caused a squad of casualties.
"Hey, you can't put out a grease fire like that!" someone yelled as one of the self-appointed chefs, Cpl. Cody Baird, 21, of Thurmont, Md., yanked a wok-like pan full of flaming grease off the fire, which was fueled by broken up shipping pallets.
He swung the pan around, his mitt already on fire, and he had to set the pan on the ground before the rest of him went up in flames.
That was, by a conservative count, grease fire number eight, including a crowd-pleaser with flames that reached almost as high as the walls of the camp.
And the actual cooking hadn't begun.
Baird and Lance Cpl. Colin Cummings, 21, of Plattsburgh, N.Y., were still dicing peppers and potatoes and trying to figure out how to adjust the fire to a reasonable temperature so it wouldn't light the oil in the pans.
Not that fire was the only potential danger. Sanitation was also called into question.
"Hey, isn't that the knife you use to kill all those mice?" asked a Marine onlooker.
"It's OK, I used hand sanitizer on it," said Cummings, brandishing the wicked, curved blade.
"Dude!" said Baird, sounding as if he didn't seriously object to a little mouse hair.
Then he turned to dump some scorched oil and refill the pan for the third time.
Finally Navy medic HM3 Robert Oldfield walked up.
Cummings started singing tunelessly: "Oldfield, he's married, so he knows about coook-iing."
So he did. Oldfield, 24, of New Matamoros, Ohio, started shaking Old Bay seasoning that someone had sent in a care package onto the chicken quarters and dropping them into the hot oil, which had briefly stopped exploding into flames.
Baird spooned grease into the pot of potatoes, onions and peppers; set it, too, over the flames; and began stirring.
Suddenly things seemed to be under control. Good smells spread around the tiny camp, and more Marines gathered.
Baird said that the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based troops were conducting so many patrols that it seemed like a good idea to do something special for Thanksgiving while many Marines were in camp.
"We weren't sure if all the guys would be inside the wire tomorrow, so we wanted to make sure we cooked something," he said.
Otherwise, it would have been MREs or big trays of precooked rations.
Finally, after a couple of hours of firefighting and cooking, the potatoes and chicken were done.
For the Golf Company chefs, that meant it was time to put on the rice.
Never mind the additional hour or so of cooking time.
The huge rice pot caused the section of fence the Marines were using as a grill to sag, threatening to dump its contents into the fire.
"That's so unsafe, but I like it," Baird said.
The rice was still cooking — and still hard — but it soon became clear that it would be smart to go ahead and eat.
Some Marines filled their plates and stood near the fire for warmth. Others, including Baird, Oldfield and Lance Cpl. Jeffrey De Young, 19, of Holland, Mich., sat down at a long outdoor table under a small fluorescent light and tucked in.
"This is pretty good for eating," De Young said. "It's like KFC, and we don't get good meals like this often, and if Cummings hadn't thought this up, we'd be eating that stuff in the trays again."
(Price reports for the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C.)
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