CIA cookbook dishes up spy tales

"Black Friday" campers wait for a Wal-Mart store to open. This year, expect to see FERC folk.
"Black Friday" campers wait for a Wal-Mart store to open. This year, expect to see FERC folk. (2008 Photo By Noah Berger/associated Press)
By Al Kamen
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

And now, just in time for the holidays, here's something for that special someone who has everything: It's the CIA's latest cookbook, "More Spies, Black Ties & Mango Pies." This is the sequel to the spy agency's out-of-print 1997 cookbook. The bureaucracy moves slowly, it seems, or maybe good cooking just takes time.

The more than 200 recipes -- with names like Post-Soviet Thai Crab Cakes With Jam Sauce -- mostly come from agents and family members whose names aren't given and whose places of assignment remain murky. This means there's no one to complain to if you carefully followed the directions but the dish was inedible. (Same as with any black ops gambit.)

For example, there's a recipe for Om Ali (Mother of Ali) Pudding, which is described as a "dessert . . . similar to a sweet bread putting." The unnamed contributor assures us "the recipe is from the wife of a Middle Eastern diplomat, given in a shared third language."

Even so, entertaining yarns about coping in exotic and less-developed countries -- including scrounging for potatoes while being tailed or what to do after the flambé sets a top guest's napkin on fire -- precede many of the recipes.

The stories, mostly from wives of the spies, often evoke a bygone era and mindset. "Living in Southeast Asia in the mid 1960's, my husband once had to leave home very early, before the cook had arrived for the day," one CIA spouse wrote. "He wished to eat before he departed," but "the kitchen was outside and locked."

"The garden boy had a key," she reported, "so he was called upon to prepare breakfast. He said he knew how to make soft-boiled eggs. Time passed. My husband grew impatient. I went out to investigate and found a huge pot of bubbling, boiling water filled with eggs and the egg timer!" The Chinese Five Spice Chicken recipe that follows looks pretty good, however. And there's the Top Secret Hot Dip.

Another operative talks about eating aloco (plantains) and shish kebab at an outdoor shack/restaurant run by "Mamma" in West Africa. "The following recipe captures some of the flavors of that meal," he or she writes, "although I have substituted beef for rat. . . . (Mamma served just the Aloco and rat with our beer.)"

The Calamari Risotto, looks especially tempting and comes with precise details on how to clean the squid along with a note that "the smallest, youngest squid taste best, as old, larger ones can be very tough and chewy. In this case, bigger is definitely not better!"

In addition to the recipes, there are useful tips for high-altitude cooking, "using meat of uncertain origin," metric conversions and such.

The book's greatest shortcoming is that there's no section -- or even a page or two -- of favorite drink recipes. Given the CIA's legendary mastery of this important part of spook life abroad, that should have been included. (Unless the concoctions are classified.)

The hardcover book, available perhaps at some bookstores but for sure at for $29.95, was compiled by the agency's Family Advisory Board -- agency spouses who promote attention to employee families' needs. All royalties benefit the board's education scholarship committee.

The 1997 book sold out at 60,000 copies. First printing on the new one was 10,000, and we're told that another 10,000 are in the works. Amazon doesn't appear to be selling the book, though it has one used copy listed for $12.95. Wonder what they'll with pair this in the "customers who bought this item also bought" section. The CIA World Factbook?

Thanks for nothing

Everyone's hoping for a big -- okay, decent -- holiday shopping spree to boost the economy. But some federal workers may not be out there this weekend doing their part, at least judging from this recent notice some employees at the Labor Department got from the National Finance Center, which handles federal payroll processing.

"Due to the upcoming holiday, the automatic processing of salary payments will be delayed at National Finance Center for pay period 23. As a result, employees who normally receive their salary payment via direct deposit over the weekend should not anticipate receiving their deposits prior to Monday (November 30). Also, depending on the financial institution, some employees may receive their salary payments as late as Tuesday (December 1)."

Unclear precisely how many employees will be affected by this. Sounds like quite a few. But let's not blame the NFC. After all, these minor holidays have a way of sneaking up on you.

Green Friday

On the other hand, let it not be said that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission isn't doing its stimulating best to get those malls full on Friday -- and to help the environment at the same time. We're told FERC Executive Director Thomas Herlihy recently sent this e-mail to the agency's 1,300 employees:

In an effort to conserve energy, the Commission, including the headquarters and regional offices will be closed on Friday, November 27, 2009. All FERC employees (including employees working from an alternate worksite) will be excused from duty, except those who cannot be excused for reasons of national security, defense, or other public need.

Now you can be green and shop till you drop.

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