John Kelly's Washington

Soldier satisfies urge to barbecue in Afghanistan

A Grillworks grate is put to good use at an Army forward operating base in Afghanistan.
A Grillworks grate is put to good use at an Army forward operating base in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Ben Eisendrath)

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By John Kelly
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

When you gotta grill, you gotta grill, and Sgt. BBQ was not going let a little thing like a war stop him from enjoying that most primal of cooking experiences.

Sgt. BBQ is not his real name, of course. Because the U.S. Army does not always have a sense of humor about these sorts of things, that's what I'll call him. He's a soldier who was on his third deployment to Afghanistan last year when he decided to take on the challenge of grilling in a war zone. For help with that, he turned to Ben Eisendrath.

Ben lives in Adams Morgan. He used to be an executive at AOL. Ben knows his bits from his bytes, but when he was growing up in Michigan, he acquired another skill: building barbecue grills.

His father, Charles, a journalist-turned-college professor, invented a barbecue grill and founded a company, Grillworks, to make them. "I grew up with the grill business always there," said Ben, 40. "It was something that was bred into me. I used to stamp serial numbers into them for my allowance."

In 1999, Charles decided he'd had enough of the BBQ biz and shut down the company. In 2007, Ben left AOL and started Grillworks back up again. He runs it from his Adams Morgan rowhouse.

The grills his company makes are not the flimsy hibachis you find on apartment balconies. His grills are impressive stainless-steel constructions made in Michigan by workers experienced in crafting custom cars. They feature a firebox for kiln-dried wood, a grill that can be raised or lowered up to 16 inches, and a channeled cooking surface that is canted at 4 degrees to catch and collect tasty juices.

In a world of Hyundais, these are Cadillacs. The most popular model retails for $4,400.

Sgt. BBQ was flipping through a magazine in eastern Afghanistan when he came across a photo of Ben's grill. He knew it would be superior to the jury-rigged equipment that he'd been trying to grill on. He found Grillworks online and wrote Ben an e-mail: "My interpreter and I talked with several Afghan blacksmiths about the grate top that I am trying to build but the parts about 'V-grates and 4 degree angles' just don't cross over effectively from English to Pashtu or Dari."

Sgt. BBQ wondered whether Ben might have some old cooking surfaces or factory seconds lying around the workshop.

"He asked if I had any spare parts," Ben told me. "Me sort of having a patriotic streak, I just called the shop and said, 'Let's make up some surfaces and send them to Afghanistan.' We sent four of them, which is not an easy thing to do."

Nor is it easy to barbecue on an Afghan forward operating base. Sgt. BBQ never had Taliban climbing the wire while he grilled, but he did have a couple of rockets land a few hundred yards away one barbecue evening early in his deployment. "But we got a lot of rockets at that location, so it wasn't a big deal," he said.

The bigger challenge was getting meat. "What you have to do is like beg and barter," he said. He worked contacts, and his contacts worked contacts, until the chopper flights to his base held cases of chicken breasts and the occasional steaks for his thrice-weekly barbecues. He and his friends stockpiled condiments from the dining hall. He glazed with packets of sweet and sour sauce and marinated with apple juice and pineapple juice, salt and sugar.

"To many, [grilling in a war zone] would seem strange but most of us had several tours in combat zones so it was never something we considered different," Sgt. BBQ wrote in an e-mail. "We just made the best of the situation because that's what we do."

You can eat your food all different ways. You can munch it raw. You can microwave it. If you're a soldier in the U.S. Army, you can rip open an MRE. But that just provides physical nourishment. It doesn't provide the community we feel at a Fourth of July barbecue, a Father's Day cookout, a Labor Day pig roast.

"It was a really good release for all of us: looking at a live fire and the low sizzle of good smelling food," Sgt. BBQ wrote. "We lived for a while in chaos and that was a respite [of] some sort and I am sure there were good psychological benefits as well. Grilling is a straight-up guy thing and we took it to the next level."

Sgt. BBQ is back Stateside now. He left two of Ben's grill surfaces in Afghanistan for his replacement unit and took two home to take back to Afghanistan with him in case he's deployed again. He doesn't know if he will be.

One thing he does know: When he retires -- he's eligible in a year -- Sgt. BBQ is opening a barbecue restaurant in Mississippi. He's already placed an order with Ben.


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