Christmas Dinner at Camp Ramadi
Ed. Note: Baghdad Dispatch is written by two female Marines with local connections; Marine Capt. Mary Noyes, an attorney (right); and Marine Maj. Meredith Brown, an Iraqi Women’s Engagement officer (left). Their respective columns will appear in alternate months. Noyes moved to New Orleans in 2006; Brown is a native of Marrero.
As we approached Christmas in Ramadi, my thoughts turned to the holiday and culinary traditions that I was missing. My husband and young son are home baking cookies, butter tarts and mincemeat tarts. They have put up the Christmas tree and hung the wreath on the door and the stockings by the fireplace. Gifts have been purchased, wrapped and placed under the tree. My son has written his first letter to Santa Claus and placed it in the mailbox for the mail lady to pick up and carry to Santa. Don’t you love the imagination of a 4-year-old?
In Camp Ramadi, Al-Anbar we’re hoping that our own Christmas feast will come together without a rogue Iraqi trying to lob a mortar round into the camp. Every now and then this happens, especially on days of significance. None of us worry about it too much because his aim is terrible and he doesn’t have the proper weapons systems to effectively launch a mortar. The real concern we have about Christmas dinner is that we might run out of food. You see, we’re not going to eat Christmas dinner at the messhall this year. We did that at Thanksgiving and found it lacking, bless their hearts. We are going to make our own Christmas dinner. A bit of a challenge when you consider the fact that we don’t have a local grocery store to purchase the ingredients or a kitchen in which to cook.
OK, let me explain how all of this came together. When we were out buying cows (yes, dairy cows), in early November to give to the widows, one of my colleagues, commonly known as “Princess,” decided that we were going to make our own Christmas dinner. She asked me if I could cook. My response to her was “I’m a New Orleanian. Of course I know how to cook; and I love to cook.” This response thrilled her because she has been to New Orleans and has enjoyed the culinary treasures of Bayona, Acme Oyster House and other lovely dining spots in our fair city.
Since Princess was going home for Thanksgiving, she thought that we could pull off a nice Christmas dinner if she mailed all of the ingredients that we would need to make a green bean casserole, a yam dish, fresh bread using our other colleague’s bread maker (some of these State Department civilians are self-indulged), homemade cranberry relish, dressing and a rib roast. We wanted to fry a turkey but we couldn’t manage to get a turkey fryer to Ramadi in time. And then there was the issue with buying and transporting the turkey. Turkey isn’t a common item to be purchased in Iraq. One colleague offered to buy one in Jordan as he traveled through there on his return from leave. A turkey from Jordan sounded too risky of a proposition to consider. Obviously, ham is out of the question as we’re in the center of the Middle East and eating pork is considered sacrilegious. So we settled on the rib roast from the Post Exchange in Baghdad.
When Princess returned from leave the other day, she was weighed down with her luggage, none of which contained clothing. Mind you, bringing a lot of luggage to Camp Ramadi isn’t an easy feat, even if it’s filled with clothing. In order to get to Camp Ramadi, one has to fly in a helicopter; and in order to get on the helicopter, one has to haul all of her luggage from the staging area (where the passengers wait while the helicopter lands) to the helicopter, all the while moving quickly in the strong winds generated by the helicopter. Princess with her pile of trunks, suitcases and carry-on bags wasn’t to be dissuaded from bringing Christmas dinner to us just because it had to be carried 200 meters through high helicopter winds. Ever the charming and diplomatic State Department employee, Princess lathered on her lip gloss and went to work convincing the flight line crew that they should help her with her bags and the bags of her traveling companion Mike, who had hand-trucked all of the food-laden luggage to this point. Now, it’s important to understand that there aren’t a lot of females – American, civilian females – that ride helicopters from Baghdad to Camp Ramadi. Needless to say, Princess’s lip gloss and charm convinced the soldiers that worked on the flight line to lend assistance to this nice lady.
When Jen opened her luggage for us, she revealed cans of green beans, two Dutch ovens, cans of chicken broth, bottles of spices, bags of bread stuffing, cartons of fried onions, pounds of frozen bacon, jars of homemade cranberry relish, a rib roast large enough to feed 20 people (we invited 24 so we’d have to make it stretch) and beautiful paper plates and napkins with the perfect theme for celebrating Christmas in the desert – a palm tree decorated with Christmas lights. Others in our section contributed goodies, such as a beautiful dried fruit and nut tray and homemade cookies. There will be no alcoholic beverages served because we are at war.
Once all of the food was stowed away in its appropriate place, it was time to design and issue the invitations. We had a finite amount of food and plates and, since we don’t have the ability to send someone to the corner store for more of anything, we knew our list had to be precise. We also knew that everyone we invited was going to attend because the messhall option isn’t worthy of consideration when a homemade meal is being offered. Princess wrote the perfect invite that elicited giggles from all of those invited. It invited us to “table the war” for an hour or two in order to enjoy a homemade, American Christmas dinner. The war being ever-present in our minds, we designated a code word for the occasion – Jesus – in order to be sure that there would be no infiltrators.
With the invitations delivered, we set to the task of assigning people with Christmas chores. Princess, who had already made the homemade cranberry relish, would make the green bean casserole and stuffing; Chris would cook the rib roast; Mary and Georgia would decorate the table and the trailer; Jeff would be on bread duty; and I would make the yams. As I pointed out earlier, we don’t have access to a kitchen so we had to be creative in how we cooked our meal. The plan was to have Chris use the grill made by the Seabees to cook the roast, Jeff would use his bread maker to turn out fresh loaves of bread, and Princess and I would cook the green bean casserole and yams in the Dutch ovens in the coals of an open fire – no kidding. We also took advantage of the fire by burning all of the classified material that has accumulated in our secure spaces. After all, we are at war.
By the time y’all read this story, Christmas will have passed and Mardi Gras will be around the corner. Several of y’all probably wonder how Mary and I passed our Christmas Day out here in the war zone. What is important to know is that the security situation in Anbar has improved tremendously over the past 18 months. So much so that we are planning a nice Christmas dinner, most of which will be cooked outside. And don’t worry about the radical Iraqi that might take it into his head to lob a mortar at the camp… he always misses.