An army marches on its stomach, said Napoleon, who knew a little something about food as well as armies, if his portrait is to be trusted.
I recently read a profile of a man seemingly born to fill that marching stomach, Derrick Davenport, a culinary specialist who has just triumphed over 17 other gastronomic overachievers to become the Armed Forces Chef of the Year. Parade reports that the competition has taken place for two decades at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence in Fort Lee, Virginia. It’s judged cooking-show style, after contestants prepare four courses in four hours, taking in hand some challenging ingredients they didn’t count on ahead of time.
Quinoa and arugula salad. Roasted lamb loin in mushroom sauce with butternut squash puree. Edam cheese fritters? These are no ordinary MREs. But the military takes its food more seriously than ever now that troops’ palates have grown more sophisticated. Plus, says an army evacuation medic named Corrie Blackshear, “It’s more than nourishment. It’s spiritual nourishment.”
Nourishment to the tune of 5,250,000 gallons of milk, 448,000 pounds of Thanksgiving turkey and 214,000 gallons of ketchup a year. Fully 24,884,000 pounds of cooked chicken.
This is just part of the 2012 breakdown for all of the U.S. Armed Forces.
I began thinking about gargantuan military food quanities a long time ago when I served as the head of a soup kitchen in Manhattan. I had picked up a copy of the West Point Officers Wives’ Club Cookbook at the Naval Academy bookstore when I was at Annapolis doing interviews for Tailspin, Women at War in the Wake of Tailhook.
It was a spiral-bound community-style softcover of the type I still collect (I have over a hundred) and it had a subtitle I found enticing: Enough to Feed an Army.
I was new to the soup kitchen, which took place once a week at All Souls Unitarian Church on Lexington Avenue, and was known as Monday Night Hospitality. Wandering down to the kitchen one afternoon, just thinking to check out the volunteer options, I encountered a tall, blonde woman with her coat on. I told her I wanted to help. Fine, she said, you’ll cook tonight. I looked around – I was the only one there.
I had cooked for dinner parties before, but the customary crowd at Monday Night Hospitality reached 100 hungry mouths, sometimes more. Don’t worry, said the woman, we have meatballs. And she pointed to the walk-in pantry.
The soup kitchen had always served government-issued meatballs in tomato sauce. Mystery meat. Bad enough to smell, let alone put in your mouth.
That was the only time I served a meal that was not home cooked. I remember trucking in crates of kale from my favorite market Fairway up in Harlem at 134th Street. The produce manager Jaime saw me coming and would break into a smile.
How much ground beef to make meat loaf for 100? How many eggs? I figured it out. I learned to fry chicken in industrial-size skillets. Not 24,884,000 pounds, but close.
I consulted the West Point Officers Wives’ Club spiral bound. It featured recipes from teachers and parents, officers and their wives (and some husbands). It also contained items like reminiscences of graduations past, and the cadet’s prayer. Finally, and here is where I got some guidance, the mess hall weighed in.
Forty-five hundred servings? Making sloppy joes for 100 was obviously something a person like me could do. I would bring my favorite 8-inch chef’s knife from home, wrapped in cardboard and duct tape. And my well-used apron. Sometimes a pan I wanted to employ. I would put those entrees on the table, whatever it took.
And it was worth it. Often, our dinner was the first time our guests had tasted a home-cooked meal in a long while.
I remember an elderly man who used to grab me by the arm and recall his late wife, the loving meals she used to fix him. A man mountain with a tiny rearview mirror attached to his glasses, dressed head to toe in fatigues, how he chowed down. And an Eastern European woman named Margo, and how she pampered my five-year-old daughter while stuffing buttered bread in her handbag.
I learned that for all the differences, these people were more like me than I had known. The aroma of many was more pungent than I could imagine. A shower at home was a foreign concept. But they ate with the same relish I did. As did the volunteers, who devoured our food and brought home leftovers. The perfect sous chef from the West Indies. The mother who occasionally brought her helpful daughter (at 19, she seemed so old!). The high schooler with the handsome face and a bottomless capacity for doing dishes over the capacious sink.
At the end of four years, I had a personal crisis that made it impossible for me to cook at the kitchen anymore. I had a book on deadline that I couldn’t write. Financial woes I couldn’t solve. And finally a meltdown from which I needed time to recover.
I approached a fellow volunteer, a writer named Alex who had spent many dinners at Monday Night Hospitality slinging meatloaf with me. Could he possibly take over as head of the kitchen? Immediately?
Surprised but gracious, he said yes.
He comes highly praised, does novelist Alexander Chee.
His debut novel The New York Times called “haunting,” and gifted, poetic and elegant are also words that have been offered on Alex’s behalf. His new book The Queen of the Night comes out in February of next year from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – in it, Alex tells the story of an opera singer in 1882 Paris and a secret past she had sought to keep hidden.
All this time later, the soup kitchen behind me, I realize something important. I wasn’t the only one who could do this thing of feeding folks with dignity. I was just a writer, cooking for an army of 100 people with no place else to go. The “spiritual nourishment” was mine as much as theirs.