When you think of food and the U.S. Army, what do you picture? Long chow lines with a grunt serving up chipped beef on toast (aka "shit on a shingle")? A lowly private peeling potatoes on KP duty? Unidentifiable slop in a mess hall? Semi-inedible C-rations or palate-numbing Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs)? Well think again, my friend.
These days, the Army loves to eat out. Hell, who doesn't? No messy preparation. No dishes to clean up. No fuss, no muss. Not a chip of beef in sight. And, best of all, the tab's being picked up by somebody else. Of course, when the Army goes out to eat, that somebody else turns out to be you and me. And when it's on us, it's no longer an Army of One. Judging by the Pentagon's own accounting, our Army (not to mention the Air Force, Navy, and Marines) has been very hungry and feeding in herds. So where, you might ask, do Army men and women head off to when they nosh in an official capacity; how many taxpayer dollars are they spending; and what, exactly, are they eating?
It turns out that the Army has definite gastronomic likes and dislikes. Some ethnic foods aren't even on the table. Due to the arcane nature of the Pentagon's accounting system, it is almost impossible to know for sure, but the tally on many Asian cuisines (although not Asian bases) appears to be:
Vietnamese restaurants: 0
Thai restaurants: 0
Indian restaurants: 0
Japanese restaurants: 0
And don't even ask about Afghan food!
But while it's a no-go on sushi, cooked fish is another matter entirely. In 2004, for instance, the Army spent over $5,000 at Chic-A-D's Cajun Chicken & Catfish Restaurant in Winnsboro, Louisiana. While five grand probably buys a lot of catfish, it apparently failed to sate the Army's voracious appetite for these bottom-feeders, because that same year the Army also dropped $6,500 at Capt'n Morgan's Steak & Catfish Restaurant in Diberville, Mississippi.
Since, as Napoleon once observed, an army marches on its stomach, the U.S. Army cannot live on catfish alone. Sandwiches are, apparently, also a must as the Army plunked down $13,845 at a Quiznos Classic Subs in Louisiana.
Army stomachs also couldn't seem to get enough of the fine food Arkansas has to offer and so significant sums were dropped at such "Natural State" restaurants as: Rodeo Cafe ($3,485); Molly's Diner ($5,400); Annie's Family Restaurant ($8,996); and the Crispy Taco Mexican Grill ($19,283), among other establishments.
But Arkansas was only a drop in the proverbial bucket (of fried chicken, no doubt). Army folks also sampled the fare at numerous other eateries across the country, including:
Copper Mill Restaurant (Logan, UT) $10,878
Bristol Bar & Grille (Louisville, KY) $5,026
Englewood Cafe (Independence, MO) $5,026
Pericos Mexican Restaurant (Covington, TN) $4,050
Big Mama's Kitchen (Fayette, AL) $3,705
Timber Lodge Steakhouse (Sioux Falls, SD) $2,544
While the military obviously likes its catfish and Mexican food, what it evidently loves best is barbeque. In fact, from Shotgun's Bar-B-Que Restaurant in Texas and Bo's Pit Bar-B-Que in Missouri to the Pig N' Whistle in Tennessee and Longhorn Barbecue in Washington State, the military has sampled barbeque all over the U.S. -- at least thirteen BBQ joints in all in 2004 when it shelled out at least $164,828 to grease those Army fingers.
While your hard-earned cash was turned into barbequed wings and ribs, the military seems not to have plunked down a cent of your tax dollars at a single vegetarian joint. And yet while vegetarian and Asian food seem not to be at the top of anyone's list --despite the $3,555 dropped at the Chinese Inn in Poplarville, Mississippi-- the military wasn't completely gastronomically unadventurous. In their travels abroad, Army officials did manage to sample foreign cuisine -- supping at, among other places: Restaurant Schinvelderhoeve in the Netherlands for $2,133 and Restaurante El Escudo Sociedad in Guatemala where the military dropped an astounding $82,291 in 2004 (perhaps while discussing human rights over the odd beer or two with their Guatemalan counterparts).
But going abroad to eat is the exception to the rule for the U.S. military. Most of the time, it's red meat in appropriately red states, although home-style comfort food is also a fave. In fact, in 2004, the Army reportedly paid Shoney's, a purveyor of such eats as country-fried steak, chili-cheese fries, and their signature "Half-o-Pound" (a huge "chopped beef patty" adorned with "golden-fried onion rings"), over $82,000. Just don't ask anyone to go over the top or parachute into action while that Half-o-Pound is settling.
In the July 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine, journalist Ken Silverstein decried "The Great American Pork Barrel" and noted that, through the magic of "earmarks" (local pork projects tucked inside federal budgets), some $100,000 was allocated in November 2004 for "goat-meat research in Texas." With a logic that might escape all but those best versed in the government's hide-the-pork hijinks, the goat-meat project was slipped into the Foreign Operations bill. But the Pentagon has that kind of pork barrel beaten by a country(-fried) mile. After all, it's got honest-to-goodness pork, miles of it slathered in barbeque sauce, clogging the military budget like so many arteries. $82,000 at Shoneys. $165,000 to various barbeque restaurants nationwide. And over $154,000 handed to the Secret Garden Café in Loma Linda, California!
The Secret of Courageous Cuisine
When I called the Secret Garden Café, I was told that they were no longer a restaurant -- they had been transformed into a catering company due to high demand from guess who and were now strictly Courageous Catering and Special Events. I was also told that their operation was growing ever larger as Army reserve units craving courageous cuisine clamored for their cooking. But why, I asked a manager, were they so popular? The answer was simple:
"We get recommended a lot because we use, like real butter, and we bring really good desserts and we only use black angus beef? and so they like us, and we use, like name-brand sodas instead of generics, and all that kind of stuff, so they like us?"
Black Angus beef. Name brands. Top-shelf desserts. What's not to like? Recently, the Army Reserve's 374th Chemical Company procured Courageous Catering's services. For their inaugural menu, they roughed it with: country-fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, beans, corn on the cob with butter for dipping, fresh fruit salad, corn muffins with butter, sodas, bottled waters, iced tea, and assorted cookies and desert bars. Hold the chipped beef, but pass the Black Angus and those Milano cookies, Sir!
Tommy Franks Rides the Rotisserie
In February 2003, U.S. News and World Report's USNews.com reported that then four-star general Tommy Franks actually liked eating MREs, but when he had his druthers he "noshe[d] at the Tex-Mex restaurant Chevys." CENTCOM commander Franks' crowning culinary moment, however, may have come the year before when the leader of U.S. forces in Afghanistan talked Outback Steakhouse CEO Chris Sullivan into shipping "6,700 steaks, 30,000 shrimp and 3,000 giant onions" and "13,400 cans of O'Douls" nonalcoholic beer to members of the 101st Airborne Division, based in Kandahar. The act garnered Outback some meaty press coverage, so it was perhaps not a complete shock when, after launching what turned out to be interminable campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, Franks decided to leave the military and take a spot (and the salary that comes with it) on the Outback Steakhouse Board of Directors.
For years, America's military-corporate complex has been well known for its revolving door between the Pentagon and big-time defense contractors like Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. Tommy Franks may, however, have been pioneering a new incarnation of this old favorite -- think of it as the revolving rotisserie. And now he's not alone. In May 2005, just over a month after it was announced that Franks was enlisting in the Outback Steakhouse army, fellow former four-star general and ex-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell was the keynote speaker at the National Restaurant Association's annual conference.
Today's military men and women are, it seems, eating up a storm at home and abroad -- from barbeque joints in Texas to a mystery eatery in Guatemala -- and you're footing the bill. They might even be making key contacts for the future. How long until some general leaves the military to join Shoney's? Or Tommy Franks tires of Outback and takes the Pig N' Whistle national? We're now living in the age of the military-gastronomic complex, so get used to it. Join up and eat up, or just hang on to the rotisserie for dear life because, like everything else the military touches, it's sure to spin out if control.
Nick Turse works in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University and is Associate Editor and Research Director of TomDispatch. He writes for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice and regularly for Tomdispatch on the military-corporate complex and the homeland security state.
Copyright 2005 Nick Turse
This article first appeared at Tomdispatch.com with a short introduction by Tom Engelhardt.