This is a page of events and comments for the author Tom Spence. Keep up with book signings, news releases, and promotional videos at this site. (Photo: Tom Spence 1986 - Somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea.)
For the first two months of my United Nations tour in Iraq andKuwait, I was a patrol base commander in the Central Sector. Each patrol base was usually staffed with 8 to 10 officer observers. Everyone was on their own for the morning and noon meals, but we all rotated the cooking duties for the evening meal.
Chicken,fish, rice, potatoes, and healthy doses of curry generally found their way into this international food festival. My contributions were tacos, camp fire stew--a recipe that I had acquired from my sister--and of course, a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving. Not every entrée was to every officer's taste, but we all did our best to sample the dining fare that was presented. I held my own in this subsistence quest until one evening in November.
On this particular evening, the officer from Ghana said that he was making a special dish from home as one of his countrymen was staying overnight at our patrol base. He also cautioned me that it might not be to an American's taste. I had heard that line a few times over the past few weeks, and it usually just translated into this has a lot of curry in it. I liked curry, and the more the better. So I approached that evening without the slightest apprehension.
Why should I have been concerned? In the Basic School, I used to eat worms, grasshoppers, and other assorted insects just to annoy the officers with aviation guarantees. Besides, they were good enough for John the Baptist, and those skinny green grasshoppers are pretty tasty anyway. I didn't even get suspicious when the French and Russian officers came to see me after leaving the kitchen and asked me if they could conduct an extra evening patrol. I agreed and they said they would eat before they left.
All of this considered, I almost gagged when I walked into the trailer where we ate our evening meals. I sat down at the table and was presented with a bowl of what appeared to be, and was later confirmed as peanut butter soup. The smell of boiling peanut butter supplanted all of the breathable air. The soup did have more substance than just peanut butter and as I moved my spoon through the bowl, something floated to the top. It was a fish head, and I must have been mistaken for the guest of honor, because I had more than one in my bowl.
I think there may have been other parts of the fish in my bowl, but the heads had my full attention. They just kept bobbing to the top of the bowl. Having boldly accepted the offer of this officer's home cooking, it would have been in bad taste for me to leave abruptly. My dilemma was whether to consume the meal quickly and excuse myself or eat it very slowly and hope some of it would evaporate. Neither appeared to be a viable solution.
It was at this point that I wondered if the fish heads were really just garnish, perhaps the equivalent of Parsley in Ghana. My independent query was dismissed as wishful thinking with a crunching sound as two of the other officers began chomping on the heads in their bowls. A few minutes later, the Ghanaian officer noticed that I was not eating my heads and he graciously offered to eat them with the rest of his bowl of soup. I quickly spooned them into his bowl, making sure that much of the soup went with them.
I completed as much of my bowl of soup as I could, thanked the cook, and politely excused myself. I did not appear to offend anyone as nobody else even looked up from the melee of head chomping and soup slurping going on. I'm sure that my international host for that evening had gone to some trouble to make this special meal and would have not wanted to know that within a few minutes I had deposited my share along the perimeter fence of the compound.
The good thing about being a man is that you never feel obligated to ask for the recipe.