FORT LEE, VA. -- Staff Sgt. Wilson Griffin scrutinizes a row of steamtable foods like a drill instructor inspecting a platoon of buck privates. The fried chicken "looks pretty good," the baked chicken "needs more color," and the mashed potatoes are "too thin," Griffin tells the class at the Army's main cooking school, where recruits will become as adept at working mess lines as they have become at firing M16s.
When the Continental Congress authorized the first Army ration in 1775, it probably never imagined that Army cooks would someday be discussing the proper way to garnish chicken. (It probably also didn't anticipate that signing the Declaration of lndependence would lead to beer cans on the Mall this Saturday.)
But here at the Army's Home of the Quartermaster, 22 miles south of Richmond, about 3,500 enlisted men and women each year will be taught more than how to sling hash. While the Army runs cooking schools at Fort Dix and Fort Jackson, Fort Lee boasts not only a newly built facility, but is the only location where advanced courses -- such as food service management -- are taught.
A cook's tour in the Army begins after basic training when he or she embarks on an intensive nine-week cooking course. After completing the course, the cooks go directly to kitchen duty -- getting stationed at one of the hundreds of Army installations all over the world.
The curriculum begins with small-quantity cooking classes, progresses to large-garrison cooking and ends with a four-night encampment in a mock bivouac. Classes start at 7 a.m.
Small Quantity Cooking Assignment: Fried Chicken.
"If it's done, why is blood coming out?" Staff Sgt. Michael Baber asks Pvt. Jerry Davis, 18, of Oregon, as he inserts a knife into the freshly fried chicken breast. Davis, who will be graded pass/fail, has three chances to get it right.
"It's not done, sir," Davis answers meekly, returning to his cooking station. But Davis is no coward; he refries the chicken three times. "The sucker's done, I'm telling you," he says, proudly poking a knife into the bloodless bird.
Assignment: Breaded Pork Chops.
In Sgt. James Kurtz's class, the demonstration dialogue resembles a home economics class, but with a military edge:
"The first thing you do is light the oven to 350 degrees," Kurtz says.
"Yes, sir!" the class of about 15 replies in unison.
"Next you combine the flour, salt and pepper."
Assignment: Cake Muffins.
The atmosphere in Staff Sgt. Ulysses Williams' class is decidely less formal. In fact, it's comical. So much for Army standards: each serviceman's muffins are a different color, shape and size.
"You've got mama, papa and baby bear muffins," Williams says to Pvt. Douglas White, 22, of Missouri, who displays a dozen muffins of varying familial sizes.
Via an unresolved culinary mistake, Pvt. Bradley Smith's muffins have spread over the entire surface of the tin, making the finished product look like a giant rectangular pancake.
"Give them to Mikey," Williams says, after a good-natured interrogation of Smith's cooking procedures. Mikey, in Ft. Lee jargon, is the garbage disposal.
Nevertheless, Smith isn't likely to repeat his disaster. According to Capt. Raymond Struth, due to a shortage of cooks presently in the field, the Army is using more packaged goods, such as muffin mixes.
Large Garrison Cooking Jokes about the quality of Army food will probably never disappear (First doughboy: "Sure looks like rain." Second doughboy: "I know, but the mess sargeant insists it's coffee"). At least on paper, however, the Army has done an about-face, placing an emphasis on fitness and nutrition.
Now, all Army messes have a set of nutrition standards they must comply with, including regulations to offer whole-grain breads, unsweetened ready-to-eat cereals, fresh fruit and margarine, according to Struth, a registered dietitian who teaches nutrition to the troops. Nutrition instruction is incorporated into all levels of cooking classes, Struth said.
At Staff Sgt. Griffin's large garrison cooking class -- where the servicemen prepare food in batches of 250 and serve them at the company's cafeteria -- the caloric values of mashed potatoes (145) and swiss steak and gravy (503) are displayed on cards above the steamtable feeding line. The facility also offers an extensive salad bar, yogurt and skim milk.
Whether or not the servicemen are responding to the nutritional push is another matter. "They don't look at them," says Griffin, referring to the calorie counts displayed daily.
Chances are many are looking at the short-order grill area; Pvts. John Moore and Charles Wilson relax after class with hamburgers, french fries and cookies.
Report to Field Kitchen At a bivouac that could double as a set for "M.A.S.H.," a company of cooks returns from a chemical warfare drill. Shedding their heavy MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) jumpsuits, they proceed to the MKT (Mobile Kitchen Trailer) to light the M2 burners so that they can prepare B-Rations for dinner. (Even when it comes to cooking, the Army uses more acronyms than there are in a District phone book.)
One of the young cooks, nervously attempting to light the portable gas grills for the first time, allows too much leaded gasoline to escape. It catches on fire. "There are lots of cooks without eyebrows," someone comments, after the small blaze is extinguished.
Within the sandy encampment shaded by a natural tree cover, men in fatigues, helmuts and boots work amidst the camouflaged kitchen gear. Pvt. John Mitri, 22, was a cook at a Tony Roma's restaurant before enlisting; after his training here, he will be cooking in Germany.
Several soldiers gathered over a table of T-Rations (among them, frankfurters in brine, mixed vegetables, beans in bacon sauce and strawberry Kool-Aid), discuss their lunch of MRE's (Meal, Ready-to-Eat.) "They were nasty. The ham smelled like cat food," says one, in typical fashion.
A large tent within the site shields the Army's bread-baking machine, a Rube Goldberg contraption on wheels that can churn out 4,320 loaves in a day -- enough to feed 17,280 troops. Fort Lee is the only cooking school that teaches field bread baking.
There are only about five of these left in active Army bases in the U.S., according to Struth. Used during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, the machine's every accessory is camouflage-colored, including the proofing cabinets and ovens.
Basic Non-Commissioned Officers Class (BNOC) Sgt. Laura Slane, 28, is making creole summer squash and baked fish with lemon slices. Slane has been a cook in the Army for eight years and has returned for advanced training.
Women comprise 16 percent of enlisted Army cooks, according to Army spokesman Maj. Bruce Bell. It's a "very average specialty," said Bell, considering women total 16 percent of enlistment in the Army as a whole.
But according to Slane, being a cook in the Army is more difficult for females. Not only is it a lot harder for a man to take orders from a woman, Slane says, but she had "to prove herself" first before being accepted. Nevertheless, says the diminutive Slane, being a cook in the Army "is fun."
Advanced Non-Commissioned Officers (ANOC) Class If you have to black out completely, stop cooking. Since kitchens are hot, infrared sensors could find you. (From "Army Food Service Operations.")
"We need to know more than how to feed the troops, we must know how to survive in combat," says Sgt. Harry Lowery to an advanced class of non-commissioned officers.
Somebody has to determine the most tactical setting for a field kitchen. Not only that, but somebody has to know how to arrange the kitchen once the site has been selected.
Lowery reviews the desirable features for kitchen site placement, among them: protective slopes, good access to roads, location near the troops and accessibility to a natural water supply. Among the undesirables: steep slopes that would make the field kitchen wide open to enemy attack and clay or loose dusty soil that might contaminate the food.
To illustrate the best way to arrange a field kitchen once a site has been selected, Lowery asks two members of the class to go up to the blackboard. There, the students move the sticky-backed pictures of trucks, fuel, trash cans and kitchen tents in various positions on the board.
While there is "no one way" to arrange a field kitchen, says Lowery, there are obviously some parameters, among them a smooth traffic flow through the serving line "so that the troops can get away from the area easily if they must move fast." Additionally, Struth said that there are various regulations governing the distance between the garbage cans and the cooking area; the grease pit and the water sources and so on.
While many servicemen and servicewomen will be on leave July 4th -- and will likely be eating anything but Army food -- here is how civilians can experience a patriotic holiday. These recipes -- as basic as American food gets -- are adapted from Fort Lee's small-quantity cooking classes.
FRIED CHICKEN (4 servings)
1 chicken, cut into pieces
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt (or less to taste)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Oil for deep frying
Wash chicken thoroughly under cold running water; drain well. Mix flour, salt, pepper and paprika together. Dredge chicken in flour; shake off excess flour. Fry in oil heated to 325 degrees until golden brown or done. Drain well.
CORN O'BRIANSTART NOTE cq END NOTE (6 servings)
3 slices bacon
1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1/4 cup onions, minced
2 17-ounce cans corn, cooked
Pinch black pepper
1/8 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon minced pimientos
Fry bacon in frying pan. Remove from pan. Saute' peppers and onions in bacon fat until tender; drain off excess fat. Crumble bacon and mix withcooked corn, peppers, onions, pepper, sugar and pimientos. POTATO SALAD (6 to 8 servings)
2 pounds potatoes
Water to cover
1/4 cup onions, chopped
2 tablespoons salad oil
Salt to taste
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons white vinegar
3/4 cup chopped celery
1 egg, hard-cooked and cut into eighths
1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish
2 tablespoons chopped pimientos
1/3 to 1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/8 teaspoon paprika
Cover potatoes with water; bring to a boil. Cover and cook until tender. Drain well; cool slightly and chop into 1/2-inch cubes.
Combine onions, salad oil, salt, pepper and vinegar. Add to potatoes; cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Combine celery, egg, relish, pimientos and mayonnaise. Add to potato mixture. Mix lightly but thoroughly to coat potatoes. Garnish with parsley and paprika and serve. BAKING POWDER BISCUITS (Makes 2 dozen biscuits)
5 1/2 cups flour
6 tablespoons nonfat dry milk
3 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup soft shortening
1 3/4 cups water, approximately
Sift together flour, milk, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl. Blend shortening into dry ingredients by rubbing flour and shortening between hands. Mixture should resemble coarse meal.
Add enough water to form a soft dough. Place dough on lightly floured board and knead until dough is smooth, about 1 minute. Roll out dough until it is of a uniform thickness of 1/2 inch. Cut into 1 1/2-inch biscuits. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet in rows of 4 by 6. Bake 15 minutes at 450 degrees or until lightly browned.