Monday, May 2, 2016

Diplomacy by Food

I've just finished reading "War for the Hell of it: A Fighter Pilot's view of Vietnam" by Ed Cobleigh.  By virtue of being born in 1955, I missed participating in the festivities in South East Asia, so have no firsthand knowledge of its accuracy.  However, getting my wings and fighter in the first few years after the war was over, and, since anyone with more than a couple of hundred hours fighter time than I, (meaning anyone wearing more than one silver bar) had flown in the war.  Interacting with and learning from them, I'd say the author is the "real deal" and had been there, done that.  In short, I thought the book was well worth reading.  Poignant at times, downright insightful at others and told with a dry sense of humor throughout.  It was very enjoyable.  (No, I don't know Ed Cobleigh, although if he was using a  nom de plume, I can think of several persons who might fit the bill.)

In any case, at one point in the story, he tells of going to Bangkok for some R and R, and decides to eat in a Thai restaurant.  He decides to order a dish called "Thai pepper beef salad".  Now, those of you that already know where this is headed, "Hush up".  Much like Capt. Cobleigh, those that don't know will learn in their own good time.

"In what seems like no time at all the salad arrives on an oblong platter.  The white china platter holds a bed of lettuce hosting a sprinkling of onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and strips of thin-sliced, rare roast beef.  The salad is moistened with a clear dressing and garnished with bits of red, yellow, and green peppers.  I can't wait to dig in.

The pretty teenaged waitress sets the salad and tea down, then asks in broken English, "You like?"

I reply that it looks very good, but she doesn't walk away as I expect. "

(Insert short jump in the narrative to skip over some narrative that won't fit with a family type blog.  The young Captain has been cooped up away from female company with fighter pilots and flying combat for about a year.  If you get my drift.... 

Back to the narrative.)

"The first forkful of salad tells me I have made a serious, perhaps fatal, mistake. What did they use for dressing on this salad, Napalm?  This stuff is like eating a green veggie welding torch.  The tender parts of my mouth are being cauterized, my tongue is melting.  I am dying of chili overload.  I have never eaten anything this hot in my entire life.  I choke down the first bite and grab a gulp of cold ice tea.  The tea affects the flame in my mouth like pissing on an oil well fire.  In my agony, I steal a look at the waitress still hovering nearby.  
She smiles and repeats, "You like?"
I manage to gasp, "Yes it's very good."I take another bite and things only get worse.  My vision is going blurry.  I am breaking out in a fever, my upper lip is dripping with sweat and curling with pain.  I can feel my heart pounding in protest to the abuse I'm shoving down my throat.  Passing out is not out of the question.  Another swig of tea helps a wee bit, enough for me to notice that the slinky hostess has joined my pert waitress to enjoy the show of a farang dying a fiery death by Thai Salad.
Discretion dictates that I give up this spicy torture and order something else, perhaps a quart of green tea ice cream and yes, there is such a dish.  But I am not going to give up that easily with the flowers of Bangkok womanhood watching.  I force an anguished smile and press on eating as another dark-haired girl joins the gallery."
...He finishes the salad....
"My waitress reaches for the implements of torture and asks once again, "You like?"
All I can do is nod affirmatively.  It is a bold-faced, or rather a red-faced lie.
She smiles and goes on, "I never see American man eat this before."
That is really comforting, If I could talk, I'd thank her.
She finds one lone bit of red chili left on the empty platter and points to it.
"Not even Thai eat that!"
It's a good thing I was reading that passage on my iPad (they just work!), as I had just taken a swallow of Rum and it was forcibly ejected through my nose.  The  case managed to protect it.


I identified with him, knowing exactly what he was going through and why, even recognizing his thoughts.  That could have been me!

I have previously related a story of Bones and I being thrown to the wolves invited to a high level party with local Korean dignitaries in conjunction with the Team Spirit exercise in which my squadron was participating.  A great and wide variety of Korean delicacies were consumed (as well as a VERY large quantity of Johnny Walker).  Much face would have been lost if Bones or I had declined a taste.  My good friend Mr Walker quickly provided the courage to try them all. 

To be truthful, from what I remember of the evening (not an awful lot), the food was excellent.

That was not always the case.

There was the time the Juvats were deployed to Cope Thunder.  Opposition aircraft were provided by the Philippine Air Force. The Mid Exercise Friday night involved a get together with our Filipino comrades.  They provided the food, we provided the beer.  As myself and another member of the Juvats (let's call him Al) were the youngest, we were selected as the "tasters".  

All was proceeding well, as courses were served and beers consumed.  After several rounds, the waitresses bring a platter full of eggs.  I'm a little wary, as the first Friday night at Kunsan, I'd been given a beer and a raw egg and told to eat it, shell and all.  I managed somehow to get that down and, more importantly, keep it down.  

Hoping to not repeat that experience,  I hoped these were hard boiled eggs. I asked the waitress, "What is this?"

To which she replied, "Balut!"

I ask my Filipino counterpart, "What's Balut and how do you eat it?"

He mumbles something and taps on the top of the egg shell, peels off a portion of the shell, tilts it up to his mouth and swallows the contents.

I take a few swallows of Beer, (Ok, I drained it and asked for another), tapped on the egg, peeled off some shell tilted it to my mouth and swallowed the content.

Fermented, fertilized Duck Embryo is the most awful tasting thing on earth!

Not got anything to do with Balut, but thought it was a cool picture

But the honor of the Juvats was intact, although any other memories of the evening were chemically expunged shortly there after.

After transitioning to the F-15 and returning to the Far East, I had the opportunity to lead a contingent of Pilots, Jets and Maintenance personnel to Chitose AB on the Island of Hokkaido.  The objective was to determine if a USAF F-15 Squadron could operate from a Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) F-15 base with a minimal American presence.
Dragons are cooler than flowers when painted on a Fighter

So, we deployed 12 aircraft 18 pilots, a Flight Surgeon, a Maintenance OIC, a Maintenance NCOIC, and 12 crew chiefs.  All other support would be provided by the JASDF.  It was a great exercise and I was in charge of it!

We land at Chitose, and I'm met by the JASDF Wing King, who speaks even less English than I speak Japanese.  Well, this is going to be fun!

A little later, I get stopped by the NCOIC, who happens to mention that one of the crew chiefs speaks fluent Japanese.  I tell the NCOIC thanks and that I may be "borrowing" him from time to time.  That young SSgt saved the exercise.

But, that's not the story.  The Maintenance OIC was a brand new Lt, fresh out of Maintenance School,  this is her first deployment.  She's from the Rural South and is not accustomed to high falutin' fixin's like raw fish.

Part of the JASDF support of the exercise is quarters and meals.  Quarters were a somewhat refurbished set of WWII quonset huts.  Meals were in the JASDF enlisted dining hall.  

The quonset huts were serviceable, but spartan.  I thought the meals at the dining hall were quite good.  There was a variety of Japanese foods at each meal and they seemed to rotate daily.  Some were excellent, some....not so much.  Much like an American Chow Hall  Dining facility. 

After a few days, I noticed the Maintenance LT was kind of "out of it".  I asked her what was wrong, and she said she wasn't feeling well.  I told her to see the Flt Surgeon, and she mumbled something and walked away.  Later that day the Flt Surgeon and I were up on a sortie and, on RTB, I was bored since he was flying the jet, so asked him if he'd seen the OIC.  He said he had and that she hadn't eaten since arrival.

Seems she didn't like Japanese food.

I stopped by her office after landing, and explained the realities of the situation.  Success of the exercise relied on trust of the other party by both parties and that could only be enhanced by fully participating on an equal footing.  That included eating their food. I explained that I didn't expect her to go all native about it, but she could at least eat the Miso soup, or maybe even just the rice.  I then explained that 2 weeks was too long to go without eating without some physiological risk. If I or the Flt Surgeon thought she was endangering herself or anyone else, she would be sent home and a replacement requested.

No further problems with the Lt's appetite were encountered.

Later in my career, while stationed at Camp Smith, HI, I led a team that deployed with 3rd MEF to Cobra Gold.  3rd MEF Commander and Staff were the JTF Commander and Staff for the Exercise.  My team was there to augment that staff with expertise they didn't have.  The exercise was a month long and the HQ was in Chon Buri a town about 45 miles ESE of Bangkok.  

The team was billeted in a small hotel within a few blocks of the facility being used as the JTF HQ.  It wasn't spectacular, but it was clean, comfortable and most important for sleeping in Thailand in the Summer, air conditioned.

The team pretty much filled up the hotel, so the manager asked what our work schedule was so that the restaurant could accommodate.  One thing I'd always heard about the Thais was they were very polite and would go way out of the way to be hospitable.  

This trip confirmed that for me.

I told the manager (Owner?), when we would need breakfast and dinner and that most folks would take lunch where/if available.

The next morning, we're up early for breakfast and the menu has a fairly American line up of items.  Eggs, toast, bacon, coffee.  Unfortunately, the eggs were runny, (something I've got a strong aversion to dating back to my Balut encounter), the Toast and Bacon burnt (yes, Virginia, it is possible to screw up Bacon!).  The coffee was surprisingly good however.  OK, I think this is probably the first time for them and the cook.  We'll give them the Benefit of the Doubt.

Dinner is spaghetti.  No one can screw up Spaghetti, right?  Except it's Vienna Sausages (because Sausage is Sausage and Vienna is relatively close to Italy, right?) sliced into almost meatball size with ketchup over some kind of noodle.

Rinse, repeat the next day.  Breakfast is the same.  Dinner is pizza.  The crust is so thin it would make a tortilla look like a layer cake.  The sauce is ketchup, and there's something that vaguely looks like cheese on it.

The grumbling has started.  The exercise is not going well, so I don't have any time to handle the chow situation, nor do I have anyone I can tell to handle it.  But finally, after about 4 or 5 days of "American" Food, the manager stops by my table and asks "Mr. Juvat, how are things going?  Is there anything I can do for you?"

I reply,

"Not really, everything is excellent in your hotel and the food is superb. I appreciate your trying to make us feel at home.  But one of our exercise objectives is to try to gain an appreciation for our hosts and their culture.  Since it's difficult for us to go downtown to restaurants, do you think it might be possible for your chef to provide traditional Thai meal options for Breakfast and Dinner?"

I watch as  a wave of relief rolls across his face when I said that.  "Of Course, Tomorrow we'll have a traditional Thai Breakfast.  Thank you!"

Best breakfast I'd had in quite a while.  Dinner was equally as good, and included ThaI pepper beef salad, which I ordered.  When the waitress delivered it, the manager came over and asked if I'd had it before.  I said no, but, being from Texas, I liked spicy foods.  He said "Good, you'll like this..."

"But, even Thais don't eat these!" as he pointed to the peppers.
Good advice!


  1. Oh dear, you had to go full balut. Man, you never go full balut.

    1. NOW you tell me! I did notice that the two sacrificial "tasters" seemed to be the only Juvats that partook of "Philippine Viagra". Older and Wiser I guess. (I certainly was after the experience!)

    2. Good Lord! You actually ate a Balut? I've NEVER been THAT drunk ;-)

    3. Actually, getting THAT drunk occurred after the Balut! (and it wasn't drunk enough.)

  2. Never have been to Thailand. There's a new Thai eatery opened up not far from here though and I've been thinking of giving it a try. (Thanks to you, I now know to avoid anything that looks to be a red pepper!) I did spend two years in Japan. I went out of my way to try local foods. Due to our rotating three-shift duty day, a lot of our free time was late into the night/early morning. As a consequence the local people we befriended were the bar tenders and waitresses we met. They had their own sub-culture and their own little late-night world where meals were served and movies shown beginning at 3 in the morning. They invited us in . . . and we took advantage of the welcome. There was one particular bar tender/owner who befriended me. He had a passion for Frank Sinatra and insisted on being called "Frank." (I never did learn his real name. Not that I didn't wonder. The need just never came up.) Frank talked me into bar tending for him one night. The customers though that a Gaijin mixing and serving drinks was a hoot. They all bought me drinks. I tried to be polite and sampled them all. To this day I don't remember the end of that particular night. Another time, Frank took me along on a bar-hopping tour of Fukuoka. He had me sample food and drink at places that I'd never have found on my own. One place stands out in my memory . . . a chicken restaurant. They served a delicacy . . . raw chicken. It's sorta gummy, raw. Liberally applying soy sauce and wasabi helped . . . but not a lot. But, I couldn't let America lose face in this foreign land. I soldiered on, washing everything down with copious amounts of Sapporo beer. I lived. I didn't get sick. I was a good ambassador.

    1. That was pretty ballsy, so good on ya! Being a good ambassador and not letting our country lose face frequently involves copious amounts of alcohol. But such are the sacrifices one must make in the line of duty.

      If you like spicy food, the salad is quite tasty. Just trust the force regarding eating the peppers, learning from someone else's experience versus always experiencing it yourself is the height of wisdom.

  3. Thank you for the morning laugh, I'm going to have to read this book!!
    I too had the wonderful experience of eating Thai peppers when I was
    stationed at Udorn RTAFB. Eating the peppers and later passing them
    was an unforgettable experience!!

    1. Yes, the gift that gives and then gives again! The good news is assuming you survive, you are confident in the fact that no harmful bacteria could possibly survive. So you've got that going for you.

  4. One of the best memories of my living overseas was all the strange, but often delicious food one could find. I don't think I was all that adventurous before I asked for those orders, but joining a squadron accustomed to living it up, with food and drink, helped indoctrinate me. Although I never even considered balut. More power to ya!

    1. Believe me, it was not voluntary. Horrible stuff! I started watching the youtube vid and got to the first shot of the egg contents and almost lost it. Posted the vid anyway as I didn't want loyal readers to miss any cultural opportunity there might be in watching.

    2. By the way, tailpipe fire was extinguished. FCF complete- back to FMC.

    3. Glad to hear it. Off topic, but related, I'd hold off on trying Thai Pepper Beef Salad for a while :-)

  5. Germany didn't offer a lot of, to us, exotic food. We did eat once a month at a restaurant that served wild game. Some of the dishes seemed to be mystery meat. Ah well, the beer was good.

    1. Haven't spent a lot of time in Europe, so can't really speak on the subject. Vacations in France, Italy and a couple of TDYs to Germany led me to believe the food was excellent and the wine (and beer) sublime. No 'Flippin' Duck Eggs!

  6. So, there I was........I'd decided that my weekend "training" flight/shopping trip/boondoggle would be Kadena AB. I usually allowed one or two of our newer female helicopter pilots to go along to see parts of the world not called Korea. My friend and "running buddy" was a former Delta stewardess (back when they were so called) who had gone back to Southern Miss for her degree and commission prior to R/W flight school. Five foot nothing and bright red hair, a handful to those not her friends. Anyway, after the requisite shopping out the gate we were back at the "O" Club for dinner. The special that night, Mongolian BBQ. We all, my friend excluded, know that raw ingredients are chosen, given to the chef, grilled and served. Queued up in the BBQ line, my short friend was having a hard time seeing what we were about to eat (Mongolian BBQ apparently not commonplace in her home turf of lower Mississippi. The closer we got to the table where we chose our ingredients to hand over to the chef, the more apprehensive my pal became. Increasingly agitated about what she was soon supposed to eat, she could no longer stand it when she finally saw the various platters of sliced/diced meats. Fear took over and she loudly proclaimed "Alemaster, this $h!t ain't cooked!" I don't know how many 06s were assigned to Kadena at the time but I believe every one assigned was dining there that evening and every wife dropped forks at the same time. AAR, my friend really enjoyed her grilled BBQ. regards, Alemaster

    1. Now THAT'S funny. Skoshi KOOM or Main Club? The 18th didn't spend a lot of time at the main club. The Skoshi was our hangout. Good food, good folks from all over the island, and the blue beanie wearers were discouraged from visiting. That having been said, there were one point five million O-6s and wives on base. I'm glad your friend made an "impression" on them.

    2. Main Club. And for a short lady, she had quite the voice. Alemaster

    3. We've got a very petite first grader here. Cute as a button and probably all of 30" tall. Voice like a Foghorn though! Never a problem finding her in the hall.

  7. LOL, you got two of the THREE worst ones... The other was the 100 year old egg... That was the Japanese version of Balut! Re the Thai Beef Salad, somebody should have clued you in! We knew ahead of time to stay away from those !$%@! peppers! Especially in Pattaya and Bangkok! The good Mongo was out at Ghengis Khan, just out the main gate at Kadena.

    1. Actually, the manager did. The salad was spicy, but not overwhelmingly. I finished it with a satisfying tingle in my taste buds. Then... I decided I'd try a little sliver of the peppers.... BIG mistake!

      I've eaten at Genghis Khan. Good stuff!

      Never heard of the 100 year old egg. I'm sure that's a good thing however. It's been 30 years since the Balt experience. I can tolerate a slightly runny yolk, but the albumen had better be solid!

    2. Small world. I have also dined at the Genghis Khan, excellent food. (Though I had forgotten the name.)

      We airmen put on airs that night. Cognac and cigars. Thought we were above the hoi polloi we did.

    3. Mongolian BBQ, Cognac and Cigars? WAY above the Hoi Polloi.

  8. Thai food brings back a recollection of a time at U-Tapao where we had a 3 plane det. I was hanging around Maint Control one day and someone comes in asking if there any IFF experts around. I said I knew a little about it as I had been to the APX-72 school as part of our transition to the P-3B. "Great, get down to the Thai Navy avionics shop and see if you can give them a hand."

    Turns out their (Thai Navy's) IFF test bench was down and as a result all their Stoofs (S-2F) were down until the IFFs were repaired. In order to check out the test equipment I had to break the USAF PME seals on the box itself, which sent them into a tizzy. In their culture those seals were sacrosanct and they thought hellfire and damnation was soon to rain down upon us. The seals were just little strips of paper glued across the locking tabs of the various components with "DO NOT REMOVE" printed on them along with some USAF verbiage. After I got them calmed down and had a look inside I found the problem, a loose connection on a tube socket. A little solder job and the unit was back in commission. You would have thought I had single handedly won WWIII.

    The Thai officers insisted on taking me to lunch at their club and ordered a small feast. I can't remember any of the particular dishes but some were very hot. Fortunately there was plenty of beer to put the fire out. I don't think I was able to taste anything for at least a week after.

    1. Pretty sure one week was min taste bud recovery time.

      I enjoyed my time in Thailand, good people.

  9. The story about eating squid triggered a memory . . . at a Japanese fairground, enjoying the sights, a bevy of young, beautiful, exquisitely dressed Japanese women, all of whom were carrying, and eating, squid heads on a stick. A bizaar sight . . . all those delicate hands with tentacles dangling around them. (To be fair, I tried that delicacy and found it to be very good. It just looked strange.)

    1. Here's a mirrored view of the phenomenon (eating food from a different culture). Young Korean's eating American BBQ. Some of the similar comments. "Looks weird." "Tastes good." "Not what I expected."

      The more things are different, the more things are the same.

  10. Y'all are a bunch of goddamn fools. ANYONE knows that the scorching acidic fire of hot peppers--be they Mexican, Thai, whatever--is quelled by MILK (a base) NOT water, beer or tea which only intensifies the burn. (Walks off muttering about the idiocy of all the young whippersnappers..)

    1. Yeah, VX, I know. But Capt Cobleigh was trying to impress the young ladies, drinking MILK would not have enhanced his virilic image. I, on the other hand, being raised Texan, and warned by the Manager about the peppers, enjoyed a fairly spicy but not overpowering salad. Nothing other than a refreshing sip of tea in between bites. (The water being inadvisable, and, since the exercise was post-tailhook, beer being disallowed. )

      And yes, VX, I'll stay off your lawn! ;-)

    2. Which brings to mind...

      cruise flick bitd

  11. One of the great things about serving overseas is having the opportunity to try on a bit of different culture. I was always amazed at the guys who would get off the boat for the first time in 100 days and head straight for mcdonalds or kfc when a five minute walk, a phrasebook and politeness would find you a fantastic meal for nest to nothing.

    Usually. I got stranded at Stavanger one time and didn't have any idea how the money worked. Held out a handful to the cashier at the mess and ended up paying about $300 for fried eggs and smoked herring. It was good, but not that good.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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