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'Camp Candy Bar' and thought for food

The soldiers toss around legends of a menu C ...

Martin Savidge reports from the field for CNN on major breaking news stories and has anchored several of the network's regularly scheduled newscasts.
Martin Savidge reports from the field for CNN on major breaking news stories and has anchored several of the network's regularly scheduled newscasts.  

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

By Martin Savidge

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- "Camp Candy Bar" is the nickname tossed around for the United States military base (and our media base) at the Kandahar Airport these days, which got me thinking about food.

When people back home ask, "Yeah, but what did you eat?" I often regale them with the story of how in Albania I once downed a wonderful stew with my crew. It wasn't until the final ladle revealed a furry paw that we suddenly started asking for the "check, please."

But at Camp Candy Bar, we eat pretty darned well. We eat what the soldiers eat: "MREs," or "meals ready to eat."

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MREs come in brown plastic pouches with black lettering and each contains enough food for one meal. There are at least two different menus, A and B. The soldiers toss around legends of a menu C.

Each menu A, B (and maybe C) contains 12 different entrees. Meatloaf with Gravy, Menu 24. Thai Chicken, Menu 16. Chicken and Rice, No. 8. Chicken With Salsa, No. 7. Country Captain Chicken (whatever that is), No. 4. Grilled Chicken, No. 5. Chicken with Noodles, No. 6.

As you may have gathered, there's an abundance of chicken dishes. On this, I believe the military is in cahoots with the airlines because I find a lot of fowl while flying. I'm sure it has something to do with poultry's shelf life, say, over something like fish. I've found no fish MREs. According to the dates on the boxes, our MREs were made about a year-and-a-half ago. I doubt fish would make it that long.

There are also a number of beef items (nowhere near as many as chicken) and even vegetarian selections.

Then there's the dreaded No. 22. I find a lot of No. 22s in the box into which you put something you're not going to eat so someone else will. What is it? Pork Chow Mein.

Every MRE must be something that can be eaten with a spoon. It's the only utensil you get. That's something to ponder when you select the Beefsteak or Boneless Pork Chop. Same with the Meatloaf.

Self-heating packages

The neat thing is that along with the entree comes a heating pouch -- no fires to give you away to the enemy. You slide the entree pouch into a high-tech plastic sleeve and then add about an ounce of water (not included). The resulting chemical reaction makes the meal steaming hot. "Steaming hot" doesn't mean boiling hot -- even tepid meals steam in cold weather.

Did I mention it's cold here?

There's usually a side dish, sometimes rice. Bread that's more of a biscuit than a slice. And a dessert such as poundcake, fudge brownie, fruit. There are also the condiments: salt, sugar, coffee, a powdered fruit drink and candy. I'd prefer when it comes to the candy far fewer Skittles and more M&Ms. The M&Ms only seem to come in the No. 22. Sort of their way of saying, "Sorry about the entree but enjoy desert."

Lastly, there's Tabasco sauce. The soldiers put it on, or in, everything. The journalists seem to shun it.

Many soldiers pass along recipes that would make Martha Stewart proud. For instance, mix the peaches, warmed, with a crumbled granola bar and -- voila! -- peach cobbler. There's also a recipe for "Ranger Pudding" involving hot cocoa powder mixed into a paste with dash of dry coffee creamer added. They say it's great with Tabasco.

Anyway I'm eating fine and liking what I eat. But just the other day, a journalist here mentioned that she'd contacted the MRE factory in Indiana to ask if they'd cooperate with her on a story about them. The company said no, citing "operational security."

I don't know why, but suddenly my mind jumped back to that hairy paw at the bottom of a bowl.

Tomorrow: Savidge on why, in his wife's words, "You look awful!" on the air from Afghanistan. "It was Atlanta ringing and it was 4 a.m. Back at CNN headquarters, where it was 6:30 p.m., the wide-awake executive producer began a verbal download into my ear of latest developments and scripts ... ."




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