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In a tiny Afghan shack, Army cooks seek a Thanksgiving miracle: Fried turkey

These days Army cooks ply their trade only on isolated and dangerous combat outposts, where they have to make due with small, mouse-infested kitchens and limited supplies.

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By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 9:51 PM

IN PECH VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN Afew days before Thanksgiving, Capt. Bo Reynolds gave his cooks a special mission.

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"Everything is better fried, and that includes turkey," Reynolds patiently told his three Army cooks. He then ordered them to figure out a way to fry a 15-pound turkey in their small, dirty field kitchen set at the base of the soaring Hindu Kush Mountains.

Reynolds, who commands a 120-soldier infantry company at Combat Outpost Honaker-Miracle, lost six soldiers this month in a vicious firefight in the nearby Watapor Valley. His men were still recovering from the loss. The 30-year-old commander hoped that a fried turkey would lift spirits, particularly among his troops from the South, where fried turkey is a holiday delicacy.

Reynolds, who hails from Huntsville, Ala., and is built like a defensive end, also was craving a crispy bird.

The order presented his three Army cooks with nearly insurmountable problems. None of them had ever fried a turkey, and they weren't sure how to do it.

They didn't have the right equipment for the job. Their kitchen is little more than a plywood shack with a stove and two ovens. Sticky fly strips, coated with all manner of dead bugs, hung from the ceiling. The kitchen's only fryer was a relatively small device designed for scorching chicken wings and French fries, not 15-pound turkeys. Even if the cooks removed the fryer's cooking basket to make more room, it wasn't clear that they could fit the entire bird into the vat of boiling oil.

"The turkey has to be totally submerged in the oil or it won't fry evenly," said Spec. David Blocker, a 22-year-old Army cook, who earlier in the day had called his mother in Northeast Washington looking for some turkey-frying tips. After measuring the turkey and the fryer, Blocker concluded that it was going to be a tight squeeze.

The other big concern was safety. When a moist turkey is submerged in a vat of oil it produces an eruption of steam, grease and fire. A Google search for the phrase "fried turkey" revealed dozens of videos of near-catastrophic eruptions with flames leaping as high as 10 feet in the air. A blast even half that size would burn down the combat outpost's small plywood kitchen in a matter of minutes. Then there would be no Thanksgiving for anyone.

Sgt. Eric Tulgetske, the senior cook at the outpost, decided the explosion risk was manageable. "I don't think it should blow as long as we make sure the turkey is properly thawed before we put it in the oil," he told Reynolds.

In today's Army, field cooks have become something of a rarity. On the big Forward Operating Bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military has contracted with companies to run dining facilities for the troops. These days Army cooks ply their trade only on isolated and dangerous combat outposts, where they have to make due with small, mouse-infested kitchens and limited supplies.

The isolation, though, does offer some advantages. "Here you don't have to follow as many guidelines when you are cooking," Blocker said. "You can experiment with recipes and you know that creativity can be a beautiful thing."

The three Army cooks at Combat Outpost Honaker-Miracle work with a staff of four Afghans. Over the past six months the men have become good friends, and Blocker has even solicited some recipes from his Afghan counterparts. Recently he made an Afghan curried chicken for the U.S. soldiers on the base, adding his own American twist. He dropped a rasher of bacon, which is strictly forbidden in Islam, into the pot.


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