Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Air Force Chow

800th Aero Squadron - HQ and B Flight Chow Line Camp Coëtquidan, France
circa 1918
So in Juvat's last post (here), Buck brought up the topic of the chow hall. Now a chow hall is what we Air Force types called our dining facilities back in the day. In the opening photo you can see what it was like way back in the day. Guys waiting in line to dine, mess tins in hand. (Hhmm, why aren't they called "chow tins"?) No, Buck, I'm not suggesting that you are waiting in that line. Of course, I'm not suggesting you aren't. Just sayin'... Though there is a guy over there on the right of the photo that bears a passing resemblance to Juvat. Hhmm, 800th, 80th, seems too coincidental. Me? I'm under the pine tree...

Buck recalled in passing a number of unaccompanied (read stationed overseas all by one's lonesome) meals in Air Force facilities during major holidays. While the only time I can recall dining in a military facility on a holiday was back in 2008. Onboard USS DWIGHT D EISENHOWER (CVN-69) while she was in port over Christmas*. (No, honey, that's not a "fairy" on the fantail of that ship, it's a wasp. As in USS WASP. I know it looks like a lit up "fairy"... I love it when the haze grays are dressed for the holidays.)

At any rate, the discussion of food in the Air Force brought back a lot of memories. As it's the holiday season, I'll share some of those memories with you. (It's what I do, I share. Just stay away from my beer. A man has to draw the line somewhere.)

My earliest memory of the Air Force dining experience was at basic training. Well, not the first couple of meals, those were very much "WHY-ARE-YOU-STILL-EATING-AIRMAN? MOVE MOVE MOVE!!!! THIS ISN'T A DAMN RESTAURANT!!" (Back in those days the instructors were allowed to yell and scream and even use profanity, were they so inclined.)

Eventually though we had the chance to sit down and have a leisurely meal. (Well, 15 minutes to eat felt leisurely at the time.) Steak and lobster tails.


Seriously.

Steak and lobster tails.

I was ready to re-enlist for 30 years right then and there.

"WHAT-THE-HELL-ARE-YOU-SMILING-ABOUT-AIRMAN? THIS AIN'T DISNEYLAND YOU IGNORANT CHOWDERHEAD!!! NOW MOVE YOUR..."


"What? Seriously? You want to re-enlist now? For thirty? MEDIC!!!"

After the docs certified me as "not insane" I was allowed to return to my flight.


So the food in basic training was not bad. Not bad at all. Of course, folks in different squadrons may have had different experiences. My outfit had good cooks.

Lowry AFB was also "not bad" in the culinary department. That's where I went for what we called tech school. The "tech" being short for "technical" - no, I don't make these things up.

My first operational outfit in the Air Force was Kadena AB, Japan (technically speaking Okinawa, which belongs to Japan but isn't, historically, part of Japan).

The food at the chow hall nearest to my barracks was alright. The food was usually pretty good. But I'm not the best judge of that because for a long time I worked what we called mid shift. Midnight to 0700. The best shift to work if you are a night owl (which I am). There are no big shots around and no arse kissers. (As there are no big shots, there would be, almost by definition, no butt kissers around. No need for 'em.)

The one drawback to working mids is that one day, back in the mists of time, someone, somewhere decreed that midnight chow would be the same as breakfast. Eggs, cereal, pancakes and the like. So for a long time the only meal I ate was breakfast. Before going to work and after going to work. On rare occasions I would hit afternoon chow. Until one day all they had was liver and onions. Or fish. Yes, little Sarge went hungry for a couple of hours that day. (The Missus Herself says that I could stand to miss a meal now and then. I won't disagree.)

I well remember one of our local national cooks in the morning. He was a wizard at omelets but we all believed he only knew two words in English. Neither particularly well-pronounced. (Not a criticism mind you, my Japanese is execrable.) Every morning in the chow line for eggs we would hear...

"Scram?"  (Would you like scrambled eggs?)


Or...

"Om-ret?" (Perhaps an omelet would be more to your liking?)

Both spoken in a very gruff, guttural voice. Think Toshiro Mifune in Red Sun.


Who you ask?

This guy...

三船 敏郎

He played the lead Japanese character in the mini-series Shogun, was in about 170 films, mostly in Japan. He was one of my favorite actors. Sadly Mifune-san passed away in 1997.

Anyhoo. That's what the guy who cooked me breakfast for 2 and a half years sounded like.

Now while I was on Okinawa I got married to The Missus Herself. (Before you get confused with the whole Okinawa-Korea thing, let me explain. I was stationed at Kadena when I met the future Mrs Sarge, she lived in Korea. One of the main raisons d'être for the existence of Kadena AB was to support operations (if needed) on the Korean peninsula. As it was envisioned that Korea is where we would fight, we did a lot of temporary duty in Korea. I also used up many days of leave in Korea as well. I spent a long time on Okinawa trying to get permanently stationed in Korea. But that's a story for another day. POCIR**.)

Once a fellow gets married, he doesn't eat in the chow hall any more. One thing I remember about the chow hall nearest to my shop was that they always had roast beef. Always. Fortunately, they did a pretty good job of cooking it. But visiting the chow hall was rare after I tied the knot with The Missus Herself. At least not unless it was lunch time or one of the other meals one might partake of while at work.

Scram?

No. No.


Om-ret, do-zo.

But there is one place I remember in the Air Force that had the worst food on the planet. (And I've eaten in some real dives!) Medina Annex at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. I once had the extreme displeasure of being stuck there for a few weeks back in the day. The food was bloody horrendous. The only thing they did not screw up at Medina was the salad. (Though sometimes the only salad dressing available was what they called "Italian" - looked, and tasted, like light machine oil.)

I do believe I lost 20 pounds during that particular evolution.

That was a time when I spent 3 months on temporary duty down at Lackland in the late '80s. When I returned home from that little stint the kids wanted to know...

"Has Daddy been in prison? Why is he so skinny?"

Let's just say this, if the food is so bad that I won't eat it, it's pretty bad. Some day I might tell that story. POCIR.


But in 24 years, that's the only place in the Air Force I ever ate where the cooks were probably guilty of crimes against humanity. Perhaps they didn't like being there either.

Oh, one last thing. While assigned to NATO AB Geilenkirchen I had the opportunity to go to midnight chow once. And only once. I was stunned, no eggs, no bacon, no pancakes.

They had Beef Wellington, and it was superb.

Seriously.

Have I mentioned lately how much I enjoyed my assignment to Germany?

Sigh...

Beef Wellington.

Good times.








*FWIW, that meal was outstanding. The Nuke assured me that they didn't eat like that everyday. In fact, I believe she said "Not even close..."

**POCIR = Providing Of Course I Remember

16 comments:

  1. So, here I sit, not fully caffeinated, trying to remember the worst chow hall I ever ate in. That would have to be that Army chow hall in Beautiful Sinop By the Sea, staffed by Turkish cooks and kitchen folks, supervised by American contract personnel. But the food there was acceptable, at the very worst. The BEST chow hall(s) were on the radar sites where I was stationed and that's coz the sites received "rats and a half," meaning they got 1.5 times the usual funding per head due to our remote geographic locations. The dining hall personnel were allowed to (HAD to) source their food locally, rather than procure standard rations through AF channels. And THAT resulted in some wonderful food, e.g., locally caught crab, oysters, and fish at North Bend AFS, OR and venison shot on a hunting trip by site personnel at Fortuna AFS, NoDak. Great good stuff, that.

    Oh. I LOVED me some midnite chow!

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    1. Wow, you're up early and commenting without a full load of coffee onboard.

      Still and all, you sound rather coherent given all that.

      Most of your assignments had to have been "off the beaten path" given your career field. The locally sourced food thing sounds like a pretty good deal.

      Still and all, I'm glad I was stationed at fairly big (read mainstream) bases. Not sure how much I'd be into that whole remote thing.

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    2. Still and all, you sound rather coherent given all that.

      I was on my second cup, so there was some caffeine in the system. As for "that whole remote thing"... it was damned good duty. "Things" were a bit more relaxed than at large bases (I know, coz I was stationed at Yokota and Tinker, to name two biggies), you literally knew everybody (often on a first-name basis), and the locals didn't look down their noses at you. I think the phrase "best kept secret in the AF" was coined about (some) radar sites... like San Pedro AFS in El-Eh and Mill Valley AFS on top of Mt. Tam in the SFO Bay Area. I never made it to either of those places and more's the pity.

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  2. The worst chow?
    Toss up between any mid-rats and whenever they served steak on the tin can.
    Mid-rats (aka midnite chow) were only prepared when the ship was underway.
    They were prepared by the ship's baker in the midst of his duties of baking for the next day's three meals, so they didn't get the proper attention and always came off as an afterthought.
    Conversely, in port, if one was on really good terms with the baker and happened to be roaming about in the middle of the night, he could, and did, prepare a veritable feast.
    Steaks were just something that were better left for ships with larger galleys.
    They were grilled ...on a grill that, at most, could handle ten steaks.
    For a crew of 300 that meant starting to grill them at 9:30am for serving at noon.
    Once they were grilled they were placed in the oven, standing on edge to preserve space, to keep hot.
    The result was some really awful beef jerky.
    FWIW- the steaks started out as pretty good pieces of meat.
    The Chiefs had a separate mess.
    They could, if they chose, have their meals prepared by their own mess cooks.
    When steak was on the menu, the mess cooks cooked them "to order."
    Mess cooking for the Chiefs was pretty good duty ...and not just because of they ate what the Chiefs ate.

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    1. I can see that preparing steaks for 300 on a can would be a stretch.

      Sounds appetizing doesn't it, placed in the oven, standing on edge? [Shudder]

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  3. We ate well in the Engineer company because we had our own cooks who had to live with the troops they fed. The worse meals ever were in the Consolidated Mess Halls. Some of our cooks had worked in the Consolidated Mess Halls. They said it was the worse assignments they ever had.

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  4. Rarely ate in the chow halls except when a student in Newport. As a kid my parents would take all of us to his battalion chow hall at Custer Hill where would dine on the 27 course Thanksgiving meal provided to every soldier. It was, soup to nuts and it was memorably good. It was probably 30 years later that I saw the Army do that again when my detachment was based on a deserted island off the coast of Kuwait and the mess hall at Camp Doha sent us a helicopter loaded down with the standard Army full course Thanksgiving meal for troops. They treated us like them even though we were Navy. I thought it was damned nice of them and tasty and hot too.

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    1. One thing I noted in my career, the dining facilities always went the extra mile at the holidays.

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  5. Navy chow:
    Boot camp, coco crispies w/chocolate milk, and no mama there to say me nay.
    Midrats, breakfast version superb, leftover version (boiled boondocker, crispy dried rice, pseudo-beefy glue sauce, bluish beans) horrible.
    I love properly prepared navy pork adobo. Navalized beef, not so much. especially (shudder) "steak."
    Sunday breakfast on Nimitz, limited eggs to order. Timed it right one time only to find the cook's nasal effluent sizzling on the flattop alongside the eggs.
    Squadron cooks always hooked me up with fresh donuts at 0400 on the boat.
    The "Jet Grille" at Base Ops at Oceana. Good lord that woman could COOK!
    Holiday meals were superb on the boat, pretty darned good ashore.
    I don't remember a single holiday that didn't feature at least one badly lacerated cook's finger. Slicer complacency.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Slicer complacency...

      Not saying that I've never had that happen to me...

      But I still have all ten, couple of buddies need to take their shoes off to get to ten.

      I hate it when that happens.

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  6. Medina Annex in 1962 was the off Lackland part of OTS. Medina was way too serious. No one wanted to get sent there!

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    1. Still was in '87. People still didn't want to go there. Too damn serious by far!

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  7. Naval Station Guam early 70's, Ney award winning galley. The food was good to very good about every day. But on Sundays the lines were long as many that were stationed there would bring their families for the excellent brunch / dinner.
    Then while I was on a tin can we had some of the best mid-rats when a certain cook had the duty. We also had a full time night baker who would have a few loaves of bread just out of the oven for mid-rats.
    Some of the most inferior food was at NavSta Great Lakes (not boot camp) where all that I can say is that it was food and it would make a turd.

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    1. On the sweeps, sometimes, we made our own when the cooks failed show for breakfast. I found a way around that.

      I used to ask the Special Boat crews why they always came alongside us to eat our chow and they, sadly, told me that 'first ship' galley sucked and the rest were no better.

      If you're brighter than a 20 watt bulb, you understand that the way to garner friends and influence men is through their stomach. Absolutely every time I needed a guy with a large boat to help me move stuff to my ship, I could, reliably, count on the SBU guys. They played water taxi for us between the ships at Sitrah.

      It had nothing to do with me. We didn't do it for the quid pro quo, it was simple humanitarianism.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)