Is That All There Is?

Person: My father
Location: A Chicago suburb
Recipe: None. Just buy Boost and Ensure..or a dark chocolate bar.

My Childhood Bedroom

My childhood bedroom.

I couchsurfed in my childhood bedroom recently. They say you can’t go home again but, in fact, you can, it’s just that the bed will be a hell of a lot smaller and more uncomfortable than when you were a kid, and lying on it may make you instantly regress to being a teenager, something which your couchsurfing host, in this case my mother, may not necessarily appreciate.

The reason I was couchsurfing in suburban Chicago was because I had to fly home on short notice to see my 78-year-old father, who’d caught pneumonia and been rushed to a nearby hospital. By the time I arrived, he was being kept alive by a ventilator dangling from his mouth.

When I entered the Intensive Care Unit, I wasn’t prepared for what hit me. My father, who’d always been thin, (and who for years I’d credited with bestowing upon me his genetic predisposition to eat whatever I wanted without gaining weight) had transformed from thin to frail and from frail to skeletally gaunt.

Mom and dad at the beach circa 1970.  Thanks for the skinny genes!

Mom and dad at the beach circa 1970. Thanks for the skinny genes, dad.

He lay in bed, his body propped up by pillows, unable to move his mouth, his nourishment, what little he could tolerate, delivered by long, thin needles dangling from his threadbare veins.

Yet rather than consuming, it was my father who appeared swallowed up by the phalanx of machines and wires that surrounded him, including a feeding bottle that dripped cream-colored liquid in dull, metronomic precision.

Feeding Solution

Feeding from the bottle.

The sight of the bottle reminded me of another time my father had been forced to adhere to a liquid diet. I was a teenager, and he’d just undergone extensive jaw surgery to correct a problem with his ill-formed teeth. Yet after the surgery, rather than return to full functioning, he spent months with his jaw wired shut waiting to heal, doomed to an entirely pureed diet that he sucked through a straw with his then-metallic teeth. To this day, I’ve never seen a more angry or irritable person than my father during that period, nor a more relived one when the wires were removed and he was permitted, slowly, to eat whole food again.

Back in my father’s hospital room, I stared at the bottle of liquid nutrients keeping him alive and wondered to what lengths I’d go when or if my time came. It’s not that I live to eat, but would I want to keep going if that most basic of pleasures was taken from me?

Then I thought of older people who find food too salty or can no longer tolerate spicy dishes. I imagined the 5 p.m. dinner rush in the restaurants of Miami Beach and the bland mush of nursing home food. Were these the culinary insults God hurled at the elderly? The slow, interminable deterioration of all forms of pleasure such that, once we reach our final resting place, the dirt that awaits us tastes like manna from heaven?

And then I remembered my paternal grandfather, a man who lived to be 97 and ate nothing but dark chocolate in his waning days, and who for years began each morning with orange juice spiked with whiskey.

My grandfather, Max.  The man who outlived four wives.

My grandfather, Max. The man always had the last laugh.

Maybe there was hope that growing old didn’t have to be a slow plod toward infantilization. And maybe the secret to living to a ripe, old age was to doggedly eat what one wanted, medical studies and God be damned!

The good news is that my dad has beaten the pneumonia, for now, although he needed a tracheotomy to replace the ventilator, and still can’t breathe entirely on his own. This means, eventually, he’ll need to enter rehab to learn to eat again.

For his sake, I hope it’s not as bad as when he had his jaw wired shut.

Les Vacances

Jean, Luthier and International Man of Mystery

Person: Jean
Location: La Roche-sur-Yon, France
Recipe: Jeanago, a mysterious French drink

This post is dedicated to Kristin Espinasse, the wonderful blogger who writes French Word-a-Day. It’s Kristin who keeps me connected to the French language, and to my imaginary life in France, when I can’t be there. Subscribe to Kristin’s blog for your own thrice-weekly dose of her inimitable joie de vivre.

The Couchsurfing Cook was in need of les vacances. So, lickety-split, she hot-tailed it over l’Atlantique to the centre de la cuisine, a.k.a. France.

Typical French fare: A castle in Nantes

There, aided by her host fantastique, Jean, she experienced once again les plaisirs de la vie, and took a walk, not on the wild, but rather le gentil, side of life, at least for a week.

A violin and cabinetmaker by trade, Jean, I quickly discovered, had the soul of a chef; he bakes his own pain de campagne nearly every day. Que dire de plus? Need I say more?

Jean's pain de campagne

In France, or at least at Jean’s home, every meal was an occasion. And with an hour required for preparation, an hour for a leisurely repast, and a half hour to wash and dry dishes, I’d hazard that 7 1/2 hours of a typical French person’s day is dedicated directly or indirectly to food. How the French get other work done, I have no idea. But, no matter. I was on vacation and, tout de suite, this New Yorker found herself sold on a life that revolved, if not entirely, at least frequently, around le cuisine.

It also doesn’t hurt that, despite la vie de la bouche, no one in France appears to gain weight or age, other than with graciousness and youthful glow intact.

So what, you ask, does the French diet consist of? Well, at chez Jean, it included the following:

Breakfast: Croissants or bread with jam, honey, and butter, alternating with yogurt and fruit.

Petit-déjeuner

Lunch: Pasta with seafood, salad, a glass of wine, and chocolate for dessert.

Le déjeuner

Dinner: Duck with vegetable, a glass of wine, and two or three cheeses for dessert.

Le dîner

How people stay thin in France remains a mystery to me. But I’ll let the diet doctors fight that one out. In the meantime, I’m merely lounging on my canapé, waiting for the beurre to melt from my thighs.

The other activity, besides eating, that requires one’s full attention in France is buying food from the local marché, which occurs a few times a week. Saturday is the busiest day because, unlike New York City, stores close on Sunday so people can – you guessed it – stay home with their families to eat.

Visiting the French market.

“How do businesses make money here if they’re closed all the time?” I asked Jean, nosy New Yorker that I am, as we perused the aisles.

“How do ze people in New York find time to enjoy ze life?” he parried.

Damn. The man had me. Touché, Jean. Touché.

Of course, I didn’t fall dans l’amour with every dish to which Jean introduced me. Take, for example, bigorneaux, brownish-yellow squiggles of gelatinous sea snails that one consumes as an apertif.

Sea snails awaiting the dining table.

Removing the tiny buggers from their curvy lairs requires stabbing and dragging them out with long, metal pins topped with colorful round baubles. If I hadn’t watched Jean eat one first, I’d have sworn we were supposed to make earrings out of the little guys, not pop their salty bodies into our mouths like so much edamame; consider me unconverted.

I was also introduced to grenouille, their tiny frog legs lightly dredged in flour, then sauteed in butter to give their miniature thighs, knees, and calves a delicate, crusty crunch. A cross between chicken and I’m not sure what, I tried not to imagine where those legs had been or to what kind of squooshy body they’d been attached before gnawing as close to the bone as I could manage, while keep my pinky finger extended to maintain ma haute French manners.

But the real surprise came not from a dish I ate, but rather a refreshing summer beverage I drank, courtesy of Jean. It was one he invented many years ago, and which we imbibed at an outdoor cafe, following a canoe ride down the green-watered canals of the Marais Poitevin, in the Vendée region.

The green canals of France.

Unfortunately, being the international man of mystery that he is, Jean asked me not to reveal the secret ingredient that makes his drink special, though he did give me permission to offer a prize to the first person who can guess what is is.

J'ai soif! Je dois avoir un Jeanoco.

The drink is similar to a popular one in France called a Monaco. In Jean’s version, grenadine is replaced with another sweet syrup, lending the drink a more sophisticated panache. As a hint, the syrup is made from a food that, although nutritionally good for you, can often be found in a food most dentists deplore.

Think you know what turns a Monaco into a Jeanaco? Simply post your answers in the Reply section below. The first person to solve the mystery wins a bottle of the syrup to add to their cocktail mix collection.

And, in the meantime, check out the recipe for the original Monaco to let your own French vacances begin!

Recipe: Monaco
Ingredients:
10 ounces lager, a light, golden-colored beer
6 ounces sweetened lemonade
Dash of grenadine

1. Fill glass with lager.
2. Add lemonade.
3. Top with a dash of grenadine, and stir.

Santé!

* And to buy some fabulous wines on your next trip to the Vendée region, check out the award-winning choices from Domaine Coirier, a warm and welcoming vintner in the town of Pissotte.

Wine crate to go.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Betty on the couch.

Person: Betty Hoops
Location: Aspen, Colorado
Recipe: Vegan Chocolate Cheesecake

“I have a woman who was in the Guinness Book of World Records staying with me!” I tell anyone who’ll listen, after Betty Hoops writes to ask if she can couchsurf with me.

“She set the 2008 world record for hoop running in distance and speed! That means she ran a 10K race while hula hooping, without stopping, dropping, or touching the hoop. She even hula-hoops while snowboarding! How cool is that?”

Betty finishing the Bolder Boulder in Colorado.

Betty is from New York, Westchester to be exact.
For years though, she’s lived in Aspen, Colorado.
“I need the mountains,” she says, when I ask her why she lives there, after explaining how hard it is to get attention for what she does, living so far from New York and L.A.
“I feel a connection there that I don’t get anywhere else.”

Betty on Mount Sopris Summit doing 'Spinning for Peace.'

Betty never imagined she’d be a hula hooper though. Originally, she studied cooking at the C.I.A., The Culinary Institute of America. Then, after 9/11, she left her job at a high-end restaurant in Aspen to come to New York to heal people through hooping.

“I’d be walking near Wall Street carrying my hoops, and these construction workers would yell down from the top of a building, ‘Hey, is that a hula hoop? Let me try it!’ And sure enough, they’d come down, and these big guys, I’d teach them to do it right there on the spot. That’s what’s so great about the hoop. Everyone responds to it.”

She taught anyone who would ask. Policemen. Firefighters. Kids traumatized by what had happened that day.

I get off the R train near Washington Square Park.
I’m supposed to meet Betty here so she can teach me to hoop.

Even though I live in New York City, Washington Square Park is a place I don’t hang out at and rarely visit. But when I first moved to the city in the ’80s, as a wide-eyed kid from the Chicago suburbs, to study theater at NYU, Washington Square Park was my backyard.

My roommate, Susan, grew up in the city and attended Stuyvesant High School.
Her friends practically lived in Washington Square Park and, like Betty, they were street performers: jugglers, musicians, magicians, and fire-eaters. They smoked clove cigarettes, drank beer from paper bags, and got stoned while playing Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan on cheap guitars. They took me to parties in lofts and on roofs, and taught me how to be cool, long before I knew what I was doing.

And now, here it was twenty-something years later, a long time since I’d done anything like hula hoop on a Saturday afternoon in Washington Square Park. In fact, I don’t even know if I’ve ever had a hoop around my waist; maybe as a little kid.

Yet the second I arrive at the park, I feel something change inside. Is it Betty, with her mystical, whirling dervish spirit? Hooping like it’s a religion? Like it’s a prayer? Like the gods are smiling when she spins?

The Couchsurfing Cook gets her hoop on.

She turns on a boom box. “Turn it up!” I say, as music fills a park already bursting with people. And, right there, I’m 20 years old again, without a care in the world. The boom box is blaring Michael Jackson and Cindy Lauper, and all the songs I remember from those first years at NYU, when MTV was new and music was what you lived for.

At first, my hips move in awkward middle-aged lady circles. Not like the bone-thin, grade-school girls who pick up a hoop and start moving their tiny waists in circles too small to detect. “How come it keeps going around them, even though they’re barely moving?” I cry to Betty. “It’s so unfair!”

But she’s an amazing teacher and, within moments, the hoop is spinning round. I’m light and free, and whatever reticence I had before to leave my warm, cozy apartment to be outdoors on a cold, Spring afternoon has vanished, disappearing in the pure, unadulterated joy of a hoop.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________
To see how well I did under Betty’s brief, expert tutelage, check out this funny video she and I got roped into performing in that day – a goofy send up of Cee Lo Green’s song, “F-k You!” made by Columbia Business School students. To see us hooping, go to 4:15 in the 4:33 video. Or, for a bigger laugh, watch the whole thing!

Betty makes her own hoops – a softer form that’s easier for beginners and more fun in the long-term. For a 10% discount on your own hoop, email Betty at bettyhooping@gmail.com and put Couchsurfing Cook in the subject line.

Recipe: Vegan Chocolate Cheesecake

Betty started making this cheesecake for friends when she’d go to festivals or snowboarding, and it was always a big hit. Not surprisingly, it’s round, like a hoop.

Vegan Chocolate Cheesecake and Hula Hoop

Ingredients:

4 ounces soy cream cheese . 236 millilitres
8 ounces soy sour cream . 113 grams
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract . 2.5 millilitres
1/2 cup maple syrup . 125 millilitres
4 1/2 ounces grain-sweetened chocolate chips . 177 grams
4 ounces graham crackers . 113 grams
5 tablespoons melted Earth Balance buttery spread or similar butter substitute . 75 milliliters

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit . 180 Celsius.

2. Blend cream cheese and sour cream in a mixing bowl with the blade set at low speed.

2. Add vanilla extract and maple syrup.

3. Melt chocolate chips in small pan set in larger pan of water or a double boiler. Melt chips over low-medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat as soon as chips are fully melted.

4. Allow chips to cool slightly, then add to cream cheese-sour cream. Blend again to combine.

5. Place graham crackers in a bowl and, using a heavy object (I used the bottom of a glass measuring cup), crush until they form a soft crumb. You could do this in a Cuisinart as well.

6. Melt butter in small saucepan. Add to graham crackers and stir to combine, making sure crumb is sufficiently moist.

7. With your fingers, press graham cracker crumbs into pie tin, covering bottom and sides to equal thickness. You should have enough crumbs to cover nearly the entire tin sides.

Graham cracker crust in a circle

8. Fill tin with chocolate cream cheese-sour cream mixture.

9. Place in center rack of oven and bake for 45 minutes or until chocolate mixture rises to top and is firm to the touch.

10. Allow to cool on countertop and serve.

Vegan chocolate cheesecake ready to serve.

Food During Wartime

Location: Sperwan Ghar, Kandahar province, Afghanistan
Person: Mitch
Recipe: Water

I’m not sure why I agreed to let Mitch couchsurf with me. He was a little younger than my preferred age and, based on what he’d written, his cooking skills seemed questionable, despite having a mom who worked in the restaurant business. Mostly I was interested in the fact that he was Canadian, and since I’d planned to go maple syruping soon, thought that hosting a guy from Montreal around the same time might make for a funny post.

I hadn’t realized he was in the army and that he’d done two tours in Afghanistan. I was fascinated and asked him to tell me about his experience there.

He did. ___________________________________________________________________________________

From emails sent to Mitch’s friends and family back home:

where do I begin. Saturday December 8th my section wakes up at 01:30 we get all our gear on. frag vest, tactical vest, helmet, kneepads, rifle, night vision goggles, rucksack with jacket, 24 hour rations, 5 liters of water, ranger blanket, beef jerky, vise grip attached to 30feet of string, 8 electric detonators, 4 non electric detonators with time fuse, one wall breaching charge consisting of 6 blocks of c-4, 2 x one block c-4 charges, gunshot residue test kit and other various small pieces of kit. altogether it all probly weighed approximately 80-90lbs of kit.

our task was to go in 2-3 man teams of Breachers and be attached to a section of British royal Gurka regiment infantry soldiers. the Gurkas are actually Nepalese soldiers that join the British army to get good wages and British citizenship. every year approximately 30000 people from Nepal apply but they only take 250. these guys walk around with like 100+ lbs rucksacks for weeks at a time. so basically there some of the toughest troops in the world.

we stepped off the line of departure around 03:30 (we were supposed to leave at 03:00 but the Afghan national army always take their time getting ready. it was pretty cold probably around 1 degree. our objective was approximately 3-4 kilometers and we were going to take one of the most direct routes possible which meant thru grape and marijuana fields over walls and thru little villages. it was a brutally hard walk in the dark over very uneven terrain.

as sun rose we had to stop for about 15 minutes to wait for the ANA to do there morning prayers we stopped about 300 meters from our first objective.

when we arrived at the first of our objectives it was around 07:00 and we started hearing small arms and machine gun fire in the distance and then massive thumping sounds followed by the scream of an artillery shell flying overhead down range to its target. the battle had begun in the south with the Canadian Van-doo company.

as the Gurkas and ANA started searching we got the word we needed to breach some doors. the first lock we got to was too big to use the shotgun on plus it was a steel door(high risk of ricochet). we discussed it and decided to use a 1/4 block of c-4, I think it was a bit too much cause it bent the door in half fucked it up good style. then we started breaching the rest of the doors with the shotgun. one of the buildings we blew the locks off of was a medical facility which sucked but we reimburse people for the damage.

In one of the compounds they found some Constantina wire (razor wire) and on the other side of the compound the other engineer team found a pressure plate connected to Det cable, some empty jugs and what looks to be homemade explosives. we completed the search of the compound and area by around 11:00.

As we moved to our second objective the gunfire and explosions from artillery and close air support started sounding closer and closer. during one of our crossings of a wadi (water stream) it was pretty muddy on the opposite side of the bank and Kayla was slipping and sliding trying to get up the top so I figured I should just try and jump to the other side over the muddy bank. Well the second I hit the other side all the weight and momentum slammed my ass face first into the dirt which hurt quite exceptionally.

around 13:00 we reached police substation Hajji which was built by my troop earlier in the tour and is in the heart of the worst Taliban area in Kandahar province. It took them 8 hours under enemy contact to reach before they even got started construction. this place gets attacked by the Taliban on average twice a day. we call it the wild west because there have been a lot of running gun battles in that area one of the reasons for this operation.

We took lunch on the outside of the compound with the infantry in the towers doing over watch. at this point we got an opportunity to talk with the Gurkas who are quite funny and friendly guys. they told us about their trip to Wainwright in 2004 to do a training exercise and they thought it was the coldest place on earth, the funny thing is they were there in the spring. they all got a week of leave to do whatever they wanted and did some adventure tours everything from skydiving to river rafting. they really enjoyed the strip clubs and bars and all had a very high opinion of Canada. one of them it was their first exercise since joining the Gurkas and said he paid pretty badly.

Gurkas

after relaxing after lunch, we were waiting for the word to continue advancing. on our path to our last objective which was the market area we had to pass over some trip flares (trip wire attached to a flare) we were all told not to set it off so the Gurkas and us all took care to step over it but once the ANA started to pass it one of them set it off. the ANA are pretty interesting guys they will fight like bastards but a lot of them are clueless with a lot of things they like to smoke pot before they go on operation.

as we were walking we encountered a pot farmer who was telling us he hates the Taliban and stuff because they come to his home and take whatever they want. he was hoping that we would bring more security to the area. as we were walking thru the fields we started to hear a lot of machine gun fire probably no farther than 300 meters from our position. we got into location and over the net came word that there was 5 Taliban seen in the area with rocket propelled grenades.

the Gurkas set up a fire base which also had a sniper and there mortar team. at this point bullets were flying all over the place and the firebase let loose on the Taliban at this point I was laying against a wall and fell asleep for about 5 minutes or so I think I was pretty exhausted I was awoken by an A-10 thunderbolt flying overhead and raining hell down on the Taliban’s position followed by a lot of rounds from the tankers.

during all this the Gurkas caught a man in the area that was identified as Taliban. they brought him over to the ANA soldiers and the man was visibly shaking. the Gurka officer requested that we go over and do a gunshot residue test on him. the results were negative but it doesn’t test to show if he has shot a rocket. so the ANA detained him we went back to our positions in the line and waited for further orders. during the time we went to go sit down the ANA started whacking the guy with a tree branch and pulling his beard and stuff until one of the Gurkas went over to them and told them to cut it out. later on I was talking to that Gurka and he told me they would probably have killed the guy if we were not there.

after the fighting died down we got the go to clear the rest of the market. we showed the Gurkas how to use the shotgun and let them breach a few doors. the guy doing it was having a lot of fun but then the shotgun jammed so we took over again and between Kayla me and the chief we went thru about 30 shells and a half block of c-4 to get thru the market.

over the net we got word that one of the tanks had shot to close to a group of friendly soldiers lightly injuring a Canadian and two afghan soldiers. at this point it came down that we were finished advancing, and we were to re-muster and make our way back to the fob we were to leave at last light.

at this point I was really, really tired I had only taken my back pack off maybe 3 or 4 times thru the whole day and my whole body was really feeling it. while marching out we linked up with the rest of the Gurka company and our engineers. the walk out was somewhere around 4 kilometers but I was running low on water (at this point I had drank about 5 liters of water and was sweating quite heavily). the Gurkas gave me two more bottles of water and we were on our way.

at about 18:30 our company came across some a group of young Afghan males. my Det got called up to go do the explosive residue test and gunshot residue test on them. we tested one of them and the interpreter told us that they had just come back from there evening prayer at the mosque, the tests came up negative, so at that point we let them go and were back on our way. moving at night with approximately 250 people in a line is not as easy as it look in pitch black darkness we had to stop every 10 minutes to make sure everyone was still in the line not to mention everyone was getting really tired.

by the time we seen the silhouette of Sperwan Ghar I had completely ran out of water but knew we were close so I just said fuck it and kept moving. well let me tell you that was probably the longest hour of my life all I could taste was the dust that the line was kicking up as they walked towards the mountain. I was praying to god that we didn’t come into contact because I was so physically exhausted. as we got to the road and started to walk thru the front gate and pass the guard tower I have never felt more relief in my life. I moved as fast as I still could towards our living quarters. I was dropping my gear once I was within 15 feet of the door got to the fridge and grabbed the first drink I seen and consumed it quite furiously.

In all we walked for approximately 18 hours while breaching and clearing buildings with a full load of kit. it was the most physically and mentally demanding day of my life. I don’t think I will ever forget this day and just thought I would write this note so you all would have a better idea of what I’m doing over here. I have to get going to bed it’s like 11:00 and I have another long ass day tomorrow.

Sperwan Ghar, Kandahar province
Afghanistan

___________________________________________________________________________________

This has been a hard month for me physically and mentally. Our troop was tasked to build a strongpoint in the middle of really bad Taliban country, I can’t say where or exactly what or why because of operational security. anyways we left for the strongpoint’s location at about 0200 on January 4th. it was a long trip on a route that is quite rough but we never travel so a lot safer.

At approximately 0500 it started to rain which it hasn’t done much since I been here, maybe 2 days since I arrived here October first. We were to dismount and walk to the site where they wanted the strongpoint built, criss-crossing thru farmers fields in about a foot of mud we arrived at our destination just at first light around 0630.

The site was along one of the main road arteries for movement of the population, and cuts right thru Taliban country. the road is so littered with IEDs no one travels this road without a lot of engineers to clear it of mines and IEDs. Probably the last time it was traveled down this far was when the last rotation from Gagetown was here last year.

we formed an all around defense with the vehicles and waited for word to start building at this time it was raining quite hard and the ground was absolute shit mud everywhere, it looked more like Wainwright then Afghanistan. while we were waiting on the final go ahead to build we went and did some patrols with the infantry searching for weapons and explosives. we didn’t find much and the population of the village did not seem to threatening to us so those went smoothly as a patrol does.

on the January sixth we were given the go ahead to start building which was going to be a lot more difficult due to the muddy terrain. as we assembled the observation points and the Hesco bastion walls the time passed really fast but because of the shitty ground the nights were quite uncomfortable on the night of the sixth it started snowing and it was an absolutely freezing wet cold. when we finished construction we moved our troop into the two sea cans that the observation posts were constructed on. that didn’t last long though because the sea cans got repossessed by the infantry officers. It only took us two days to build the strongpoint but we had a lot of help from the infantry.

on the night of the 8th we had to move from sea cans just outside the walls of the strong point, we got the badger to flatten some ground for us for us to put our tarps between our two vehicles. the badger parked next to us but about 3 meters from our tent. at around 0750 I went out and took a piss behind the badger walked back into the tent and laid on my cot about 3 minutes later an large scream flash and massive explosion happened right beside our tent filling it with dust. I jumped from my bed put on my Frag vest and helmet grabbed my bag with my clothes and jumped into our T-LAV. at this point we checked for everyone was ok then I looked up and noticed that the tarp on the top of the badger that the badger crew sleep under was all fucked up.

I exclaimed something like “OH FUCK THE BADGER!” jumped up and ran to see if anyone was on top of it that’s when is seen the sleeping bag of one of the crew I grabbed it and felt a hot piece of shrapnel on top of it and then I grabbed his foot (I’m not going to say his name because some of you might know him but you probably already know about it if you do know him.) my master corporal jumped on top and told me to go call a medic. I yelled at the top of my lungs “MEDIC, MEDIC!!) at this point the two Tactical combat casualty course (TCCC) qualified guys from my section Sap. Clark and Cpl Rochon grabbed there TCCC medic pouches and jumped on top of the vehicle. I then seen a warrant officer and a guy with a medic bag running towards our location and I grabbed the medic and brought him the badger at this time Sap. Pittman and another TCCC guy were on top giving first aid. he was breathing on his own but he had a massive wound to his face and was missing part of his jaw. the crew of the badgers sleep on stretchers so he was already on one when they took him off the top of the vehicle and got him to the medical tent to await an air medi-vac. afterward our whole section got into our tracked light armored video (T-LAV) and no one really said anything to anyone everyone’s face was grim and sad and the mood was very sullen.

when we finally returned to one of our forward operating bases for a much needed shower and hot meal. we were all terribly dirty and didn’t have much in the way of clean cloths. I went and used the internet for a bit and sent a few messages letting people know I was still kicking it. went in the mess and made myself a soup and an improvised grilled cheese sandwich using some stale bread and some cheeze whiz not exactly like home but better than nothing.

we departed back for the strongpoint the next morning at first light with some warm food in our bellies and a good shower we were ready to take on anything. our convoy was large and was big enough to supply 3 police sub stations and the strongpoint we had just built. at approximately 1000 hours the 3rd vehicle in the order of march exploded with one of the largest IEDs I have seen yet. our driver immediately dropped our ramp and my section ran to the scene to secure the location. sapper Clark and myself were instructed to jump on the vehicles and treat the wounded. I had a sick feeling in my stomach before Clark opened the door praying that the guys inside would be ok. to my relief they all escaped with minor injuries, but the vehicle was a mobility kill which means that it couldn’t drive on its own power.

it was decided that we would spend the night at the closest checkpoint and continue on in the morning. this time though we would have more soldiers dismounted to visually check the route our section was picked and we got on our way. its kind of hard to explain the feeling of walking on a road that you know is most likely mined or booby trapped but it’s a little unnerving to say the least. you feel exposed and basically at the mercy of the bomb makers and hope they skipped a step and made a dud that won’t function or that we find the bomb before it has a chance to hurt anyone.

well we missed one and next thing we know a vehicle about a kilometer behind us exploded, as one of the people checking the road I felt absolutely terrible because we missed something and someone could be dead because of that, but once again the vehicle that the soldiers were traveling in survived the blast but was once again a mobility kill. I have to hand it to those Germans they build sturdy tanks it barely had a scratch.

when we finally got the strongpoint everyone was a little shaken up but moral was high. we stayed for a few nights at the strong point and then the orders came down to use the exact same road that had claimed two of our vehicles in the two previous days and that we were to be extremely vigilant in our searching for IEDs. the day started off slow and we had to stop for about an hour and a half because one of the vehicles got stuck and when they went to pull it out they didn’t hook up the lift points or used to much power and ripped the front end off the vehicle so we had to wait for them to put it on a flatbed truck for transport to a mechanic. the day was extremely cold sitting around waiting, then it started to snow and seeing that it had been raining for the better part of 10 days there was huge puddles on the road. my feet were soaking wet and really uncomfortable but the rest of me was dry because of the awesome gortex rain suit we were issued here.

we were about 700 meters away from our second checkpoint when an explosion happened about 60 meters behind me this time they hit another large vehicle and again no serious injuries at this point we were all like what the fuck is going on we made it to our checkpoint and were told to halt for the day. all the dismounted guys from my section jumped in the back of our T-LAV and got the driver to crank the heat and we started to dry off our socks and gloves as best we could. all of a sudden people started jumping in the vehicles and getting ready to leave in the same direction we had just came I was totally confused then we got word that another vehicle had hit an IED and that the rest of the convoy had to turn around and head back the way they came. this was getting to be too much I had just walked down this road twice and seen fuck all it was very frustrating. the worst part of it all is that one of the people in my section was in the convoy that had to turn around and all her kit was on our truck so she was stuck out at the strong point with nothing no toiletries, no sleeping bag, no change of clothes and worst of all she isn’t with us and we were still going to push towards the FOB.

Waking up the next morning I realized we were not getting in a rush to move anywhere and we were told we could sleep late because there was no timings for the day. I laid in my sleeping bag and watch as it snowed outside our tent.

when I finally got the courage up to brave the cold and get out of my warm sleeping bag it must have been like 1000 hours January 17th we started to work on our tent and we went and got some firewood and a guy in my section went across the street and bought a barrel off the locals to use as a burn barrel to heat up our tent we made some air holes and cut a hole in the top. We then dug a hole about a foot and a half in the ground and put the barrel in it got the wood and started it up. Everyone took off their wet boots and put it beside the barrel to try and dry them up and it was mighty hot so it started to work quite quickly. So quickly in fact it melted a plastic on the side of my master corporals boot where the lace holes are it was pretty funny.

around 1400 word came down that we were to move on a route that was most likely IED’ed but the plan was a lot different from our normal course of action and it was on a different route I can’t say the details but as we were pushing away from the checkpoint we didn’t even go a kilometer before we found an IED. because we were pressed for time they blew it in place rather quickly and we moved on. when they figured it was safe we mounted our vehicles and pushed towards the FOBs. we made it back without incident but I felt just terrible knowing that Kayla was all alone out at the strongpoint with some people that she doesn’t know with no kit and we were destined to be

eating hot dinner and having a shower I felt so bad I couldn’t stop thinking about it. she’s a tough gal but she was really looking forward to having a shower and cleaning her cloths and stuff. I decided that I would do all her laundry and clean all her kit so when she does get back here she can just relax without having to do any work I know she’s going to be in a bad mood I would feel like shit to be in her position.

anyways shit happens and I got to go eat some supper.

Recipe: Water

Ingredients: Your imagination

1. Imagine that you are without a sink and faucet and have no spigots neatly labelled hot and cold.

2. Pretend you have to fetch water from a well that is miles from your home.

3. Visualize walking that distance as a daily activity and the time it takes to travel those miles in all kinds of weather, sometimes with shoes whose soles are worn so that you can feel the earth beneath your feet.

4. Picture that, as you walk, you need to pay close attention to landmines, gunfire, and dangerous people lurking in shadows who could harm you.

5. Feel what it’s like to finally arrive at the well and begin hauling up water from the earth’s depths.

6. Hear the sound the water makes sloshing in the bucket, as you lift it towards the sky.

7. Notice how your arms feel as you pull hard on the now-heavy rope.

8. Begin to carry the water back home, walking as slowly and carefully as you can so as not to spill a drop.

9. Upon arriving safely at home, take a metal cup and dip it into the bucket to fill it with water.

10. Quench your thirst, and taste water, as if for the first time.

Where Would Jesus Eat?

Would you like fries with that host?

With “The Book of Mormon” by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone opening on Broadway this week, New York City is about to be overrun by a bizarre and mysterious phenomenon with which few urban dwellers are familiar. No, not LSD. It’s the elders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a.k.a. LDS.

Now, being the strapping, young churchgoers that they are – and with a bevy of wives and gaggle (or is it pride?) of children to feed – the question of where to find sustenance in the neighborhood nearest the theater district, the ominously named “Hell’s Kitchen,” presents Mormons with a moral dilemma of Biblical proportions.

"No, Jesus! Don't eat there!"

But have no fear ye descendants of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the Couchsurfing Cook is hereth to provideth ye with wholesome restaurant recommendations sure to solveth that most pressingest of religious conundrums:

“Where would Jesus eat?”

Nook Restaurant

Nook, an intimate, 25-seat restaurant is perfect for the secretly gay Mormon who feels naturally comfortable in closet-size settings.

But Mormons of any sexual orientation should feel quickly at home with dishes that hew to traditional American fare, while offering flair-worthy presentations that offer a playful nod to potentially gay diners; a touch that will likely be noticed by only the most discerning or paranoid Mormon elder.

The burger and fresh-off-the-farm-boy salads are standouts, while the hearty Hungarian goulash, served over plain-jane egg noodles, is the perfect “transition” dish for gastro-curious Mormons.

True, the earthy, phallic-shaped mushroom cigars may look inappropriate entering the mouth, but if anyone asks why you’re eating them, simply say, “It’s not polite to ask, and I have the right not to tell.”

Nook doesn’t serve alcohol, perhaps as a polite nod to the faithful (though BYOB for non-Mormons is permitted). But be forewarned that this restaurant may be a poor fit for Mormons who are also chubby chasers; seating at Nook is extremely tight.

Great for dates, not great for guys or gals into chubbies.

Bali Nusah Indah

With its claim to fame as having a larger Muslim population than any country in the world, there’s plenty of potential converts at Bali Nusa Indah, one of the few Indonesian restaurants in New York City.

Could he be open to reading a book that will change his life?

But it may be Mormons who leave converted by the rich, spicy curries at this Theater District gem. Bali Nusah is the perfect spot for the Mormon with an adventurous palate who wants to ready his tongue for going on mission. Start with a simple salad containing a lovely peanut and lemon grass dressing.

A salad never hurt anyone. Did it?

After that, it’s baptism by fire with exotic-sounding dishes that range from mildly to medium spicy like ayam pelecing, a broiled boneless chicken with chili sauce or sambal goreng udang buncis, stir-fried spicy hot shrimp and string beans.

Learn to pronounce these dishes before you go on mission.

For the Mormon with a large brood, the best choice may be the Dutch colonial rijsttafel or rice table. With as many as 40 small plates to sample, each capturing Indonesia’s diverse cultures and tastes, it’s hard to imagine that any of your wives could complain that there was “nothing she could eat.”

Balkanika

The Old Testament and the Koran may have once done battle in the Balkans, but at Balkanika, a new restaurant owned by Istanbul-born Pando, the intention is to spread culinary peace and love across this former war-torn region.

Welcome to the Balkans! We're not at war anymore!

And spread is the operative word here, with its countless mezes or dips that may be hard for your average Mormon, raised on meat and potatoes, to wrap his mental pita around. The meze sampler of 17 spreads from ajvar (red pepper with eggplant, onion, and garlic) to tarator (yogurt, cucumber, and dill) is enough for an elder and at least three wives to enjoy, and the light-as-air bureks, phyllo pastries filled with spinach, leek, beef, or cheese may make some Mormons swear they’ve died and gone to heaven.

The meze sampler at Balkanika. Perfect for a large Mormon family.

The selection of Balkan wines from Bulgaria and Turkey are little known in the West, and not at all in Utah, but should be heartily enjoyed by agnostic and atheist diners.

The one dish at Balkanika Mormons will want to avoid are the “Sexy Balls,” thankfully served only at brunch. These healthy creations, made from pumpkin and flax seeds, nuts, and fresh and dried fruits taste delicious to those who don’t believe Joseph Smith is a prophet equal to Moses, but could admittedly traumatize the young ones in an LDS family for years to come.

Dining with the devil.

___________________________________________________________________________________

So grab your golden plates and walk, run, or bike over to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to see what the Couchsurfing Cook can verify is a truly hysterical yet moving musical, “The Book of Mormon” and try these great restaurants for a pre- or post-show meal:

Nook Restaurant . 746 9th Avenue . 212.247.5500

Bali Nusra Indah . 651 9th Avenue . 212.265.2200 ‎

Balkanika . 691 9th Avenue . 212.974.0300

Should We Give Them Cake?

Location: Cork, Ireland
Person: Susan Rita
Recipe: Gur or Chester Cake

Once upon a time, there was a food blogger who wanted to go on the gur. To be “on the gur” is Irish slang for playing hookey.

She’d been blogging every week since January, while also working two jobs, and she was tired.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t take a break because, as they say, “The blog must go on…”

One day, to cheer her up, her friend Susan Rita stopped by to sing her a song she’d written. It was a blues song about cellphones, and how people are talking on them all the time.

The song reminded the food blogger of Twitter and Facebook, and all the other ways people today are always blathering on all the time. Sometimes, it did seem to her as if people really were just talking to themselves!

The food blogger sometimes felt this way about her own “talking.” She couldn’t figure out how to stop the nagging feeling she had that talking (in the form of a blog) was meaningless, when all was said and done.

She thought about the people in Japan who had lost their homes, and didn’t even know where their next meal was coming from. They were scared and cold and hungry. How could writing a food blog help them?

She thought about the post she was writing for St. Patrick’s Day about Gur cake, an Irish dessert made with stale bread soaked in tea to make it soft again. Susan Rita had told her about it after she went to Ireland to research her roots there.

At the Cork Butter Museum, Susan Rita had offered a piece of Gur cake to the man at the entrance, Mr. Humphreys. He was so excited when he saw it, because it reminded him of his childhood, when he’d skip school and buy it for a tuppence at the local bakery.

The food blogger thought about the Irish people. They were resilient too, just like the people in Japan who had survived the earthquake. She thought about giving someone in Japan a piece of Gur cake, as a symbol of transforming tragedy, the way the Irish people had turned stale bread into sweet cake.

The Gur cake reminded the food blogger of a Buddhist story too.

The story was about a woman whose child dies. Inconsolable, she goes to the Buddha to ask him to relieve her suffering. He agrees to help, but says first she must collect a mustard seed from every person in the village who has not experienced suffering. The bereaved woman agrees, but at each home, the person she visits relates their own story of suffering and, in that moment, she realizes she actually isn’t alone, and her suffering disappears.

Gur cake may not be the answer to life’s pain. But perhaps it can serve as a small reminder that, when all seems lost, we have the capacity to create beauty from nothingness.

Gur or Chester Cake.

With special thanks to Paul and Derek from Jim Brady’s Restaurant and Lara from Moran’s Restaurant and Bar in New York City who vetted the Gur cake.

Hear Susan Rita and her Ruel String Band sing her original blues song: ““.

DONATE TO JAPAN’S RELIEF EFFORTS.

Recipe: Gur Cake, adapted from a recipe by Sheila O’Donoghue-Baratizadeh posted on Traditional Irish Foods
Prep Time: 1 1/2 hours
Cook Time: 1 hour
Servings: 14-16 squares

Ingredients:

Bread Stuffing Part I:

6-ounce loaf ciabatta or Brennan’s bread (allowed to sit for two days wrapped in paper towel to dry) – 170 grams
3 cups hot (not boiling) water – 660 grams
2 tea bags (Irish Breakfast or black)

1. Place ciabatta bread in a five-pound aluminum loaf pan (29.8 cm. x 14.3 cm. x 8.1 cm.).
2. Cover bread with tea water that’s been allowed to steep 2 minutes and cooled slightly.
3. Press the bread down and turn it a few times to make sure both sides are wet.
4. Cut ciabatta in half and allow to soak in tea water for an hour until fully soft.

Shortcrust Pastry:

8 ounces all-purpose flour – 228 grams
1 ounce sugar – 29 grams
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces cold, unsalted Kerrygold Irish butter or regular butter, cut into small squares – 114 grams
2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon ice water

1. While bread is soaking, begin making shortcrust pastry by mixing flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl.
2. Add butter to flour, using fingers to mix, until flour resembles small bread crumbs.
3. Make a well in center, and add well-beaten egg yolks. Use a knife to combine eggs into flour.
4. Dust table surface with 1-2 tablespoons flour. Turn dough onto floured surface; dough will still be crumbly. Slowly add ice water to dough by teaspoons to help it stick together.
5. Knead dough with hands, adding ice water in small amounts as needed until dough forms a smooth ball.
6. Divide in two, wrap each in plastic wrap, and place in refrigerator until ready to use.

Bread Stuffing Part II:

4 ounces currants – 114 grams
1 1/2 ounces all-purpose flour – 42 grams
4 ounces brown sugar – 114 grams
1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 ounce butter – 28 grams
2 tablespoons Pumpkin Pie Spice or British Mixed Spice
(alternatively, you can use 2 teaspoons cinnamon, 1 teaspoon cloves, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1/4 teaspoon cardamon)
1 large egg, well beaten
1/4 cup whole milk
1/2 lemon rind, finely grated

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Farenheit – 190 degrees Celsius.
2. Use hands to squeeze tea water from bread and return to loaf pan.
3. In a separate, clean bowl, mix flour and baking powder. Add sugar, rub in butter with fingers, and add spices.
4. Add currants to bread and mix well with hands to combine.
5. Add bread mixture to flour and mix to combine.
6. Whisk egg into milk, add grated lemon rind. Set aside.
7. Remove dough from refrigerator. Place on table lightly dusted with flour.
8. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll each ball into rectangular shape, same size as aluminum loaf pan.
9. Grease bottom and sides of pan with butter.
10. Place one rectangle of dough on bottom, trim to fit, and press into pan bottom. Use fork to prick holes in dough.
11. Add milk, eggs, and lemon rind to bread mixture. Stir to combine.
12. Fill loaf pan with bread mixture. Distribute evenly to cover pastry bottom.
13. Place second rectangle of dough on top. Trim ends to fit. Prick top evenly with fork.
14. Place in middle rack of oven and cook for approximately one hour until golden brown on top.
15. Remove from oven and allow to cool in pan. Serve warm or at room temperature. If you’re not making royal icing for the top, whip cream makes a nice accompaniment.

Women on the Verge of a Dietary Breakdown

Location: Finale Emilia, in the Italian province of Modena
Person: Samantha
Recipe: Spaghetti Carbonara

March is the month in which human beings – trapped inside for months to avoid winter – finally allow ourselves to, well, go a little crazy.

And, being the wise creatures we are, we humans have also realized it’s better to ritualize our weather-induced insanity, rather than let it run amok by, for example, grabbing a club and galumphing over to Frank’s cave next door to knock him upside the head because he and Brenda totally dropped the ball on our plans for a joint Florida cruise!!!!!!

Ah…that feels much better.

How do humans ritualize March madness? Well…

Catholics, and some Christians, celebrate Mardi Gras.

Jews celebrate Purim.

Sports fans celebrate the NCAA Playoffs.

And women celebrate….
Wait a second? Are you kidding me?
That’s how we’re supposed to let loose after months of having to trudge through the snow in our Manolo Blahniks???
By celebrating Women’s History Month????
NO FRIGGING WAY!!!!!

You call this a party???

Okay…deep breath…stay calm…must think…Ides of March…ideas…
Wait! Got it!

Alright people. Listen up:

I’m hereby announcing the Female Version of March Madness:

This March, instead of a respectable, feel-good holiday about all things femme, I’m advocating a release of seasonally-induced craziness (as opposed to the hormonally induced one, already discussed in an earlier post) by exercising our right to a Hall Pass:

In other words, a week in which women can eat all the de-stressing, comfort food we want, without having to worry about our weight!

Just imagine it ladies: ice cream, pasta, tater tots (even if some cheerleading instructors among us consider them a controlled substance).

Mercedes on Glee fights for her right to tot.

That’s right.
Stand away from the pantry, boys.
This March, we are WOMEN GONE CULINARILY WILD!

The Couchsurfing Cook goes mad.

Here in New York City, my Italian friend, Samantha, got a few of us ladies off to a smashing start the other night by making spaghetti carbonara. Her recipe is simple and delicious and, better yet, I’ve provided a non-bacon version for the vegetarian and non-pork eaters among us.

Last, but not least, in another bout of madness for the CS Cook, I’m hosting my
first-ever contest:

Take a picture of your favorite comfort food and tell me in 200 words or less why you love it.

The winner, chosen at random, will win a copy of The William Sonoma Comfort Food Cookbook or, if you’re anti-cruelty, The Vegetarian Meat and Potatoes Cookbook.

The contest is open to all. You don’t even need to have XX chromosomes to enter. Deadline for entries is Sunday, March 13, 2011, at midnight. Winner announced March 16, 2011.

Samantha's amazing Spaghetti Carbonara.

* Check out the Website Samantha writes for, NUOK.IT, the Italian’s guide to all things New York.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Servings: 3 to 4

Ingredients:

8 ounces spaghetti – 250 grams
3 egg yolks
12 ounces bacon (We used Wegman’s uncured bacon or substitute equal amount of turkey bacon or baby bella mushrooms) – 340 grams
ground black pepper
Pecorino romano cheese (to taste)

1. Chop bacon into small pieces. Cook in skillet over medium heat until crisp but not burnt. If substituting mushrooms, first heat 1/4 cup (59 milliliters or 2 UK liquid ounces) olive oil in skillet. Once hot, add chopped mushrooms and a pinch or two of salt. Allow to cook 10-15 minutes until tender.

2. In small bowl, beat egg yolks, then add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Cook pasta in large pot of salted water. When done (al dente, a little chewy still), pour approximately 4 ounces (118 milliliters), approximately half a glass, of pasta cooking water into a bowl and allow to cool slightly.

4. Once cooking water is warm, add three-quarters of it to the egg yolks. Whisk to combine.

5. Return skillet with bacon to stove under low heat.

6. In a colander, drain pasta from large pot, then toss in pan with bacon.

7. Add eggs to pan. Toss to combine. Turn heat off and keep tossing.

8. If pasta looks dry, add more of the pasta cooking water to moisten.

9. Serve immediately in individual bowls. Top with grated pecorino romano and pepper.

** Want to know the inspiration for the black and white photos above? They came from this year’s TED Prize Winner, graffiti artist JR. **