In 2003, when I was in charge of The Washington Post’s bureau in Baghdad, my responsibilities included ensuring that a half-dozen colleagues didn’t go hungry. We had been subsisting on military rations and cans of beans and tuna fish that we had squirreled away before the war. When our supplies ran low, I headed to a shop that I had frequented before the American invasion.
The Malik market had been a culinary smuggler’s dream. There was Heinz ketchup, Kellogg’s corn flakes, Campbell’s soup and Ritz crackers. Seemingly everything you’d find in an American Safeway was packed into this little store — and several items even had Safeway price tags. I later learned that the owner’s son traveled to Jordan once a week, where he filled up three taxis with a few of everything off the shelves at the Safeway in Amman. In 12 hours, after a couple of well-placed bribes to customs inspectors at the border, the food was for sale in Baghdad. Chilled, smoked Norwegian salmon? Yup. Philly cream cheese and a bottle of capers? Sure. I even saw a Butterball turkey in the freezer.
“Aliseesh,” the owner said, teaching me the Arabic word for it. Who, I asked, buys turkeys in Baghdad? Nobody, he said. His son picked it up on spec, and it had been sitting in the cooler for a year.
But like so much else in Baghdad at the time, Malik had been gutted by looters in the wake of the invasion. There were some broken jars on the floor, but everything else had been taken, even the freezer case and the turkey inside. I despaired for a moment, and then it came to me: I’ll just do what the owner’s son did. I had a colleague visit a supermarket in Amman and fill up a GMC Suburban. The result, unfortunately, was more tuna and two cases of Cheez-Its. There was, thankfully, also a case of pinot grigio, and the realization that with a proper shopping list we could sustain ourselves.
Soon the need for shipments became less acute. The end of dictatorship meant we could move into a hotel with a decent kitchen, and then into a comfortable house a block from the Tigris River. I hired a chef named Munther, who scoured the markets for ingredients to indulge his experiments with Western cooking. One day we got a Waldorf salad. There was creme brulee for dessert, albeit a little too sweet and runny. When a young reporter in the bureau came back with a Whopper and onion rings from the new Burger King at the military base next to the airport, Munther decided to copy the meal. The burgers, made from sheep that had been grazing on garbage, were a bit gamy, but the onion rings were perfect — crunchy, circular, and the size of half-dollars.