The most common question that I get asked when I return from a medical mission is “What did you eat?”
It’s not “How are you feeling?” or “What was the most common disease that you treated?” or “Based on what you experienced, what is the projected future for the health care system in the country?” No, people want to know what I had for dinner. It may be because I’m a food blogger, but even before I started blogging, this is what people wanted to know when I returned from the field. So much for being concerned about the important stuff. Friends were more eager to learn about the exotic and unusual morsels that I was consuming in the field.
Perhaps the most interesting feedback that I could give from my Haiti trip was the pre-packaged and processed foods. Obviously, in a post-disaster setting, it’s slim pickings and canned or dry goods become more valuable than gold. At times we feasted on canned sardines preserved in olive oil, or creamy Nutella spread on stale crackers that bent in half like wet cardboard. People were known to hoard valuable jars of peanut butter in their tents. And how can I forget the tin of duck meat terrine with vegetables that magically appeared out of nowhere? I’m not sure where it came from, perhaps it spilled out of the cargo from one of the French organizations that we shared the campsite with, but this unusual offering got my deprived taste buds excited. As the contents of the tin bubbled with the heat of the canned gel fuel underneath, the savory aromas made me drool uncontrollably. After all, the highlight of each day was to eat granola bars and fig newtons that I brought with me from the US. Sadly, it did not deliver, and it tasted like something that even my dog would spit up. Alas, canned food is….canned food.
The most intricate and conceptually interesting packaged foods that we consumed were the MRE’s, short for ‘Meal, Ready-to-Eat’, which are the completely self-contained meals that provide nutrition for soldiers in the U.S. military. MRE’s were first introduced for military use in 1981, and have gone through many incarnations through trial and error in famous combats like Operation Desert Storm. Typical contents in MRE’s, which are individual rations intended to provide soldiers with high calorie energy to sustain them during warfare, include an entrée, side dish, crackers, peanut butter or cheese spread, dessert, instant coffee or tea, matches, gum, toilet paper, plastic utensils and a heating device to heat the entrée. Some of the packets even had miniature tabasco bottles, valuable commodities that were traded in the campground black market.
Each large brown package clearly marked with a menu number and the name of the entrée contains individually sealed plastic packages of the various components, so you can save your pack of smoked almonds, chocolates, wafers or tea for a later time. Opening an MRE bag was like unwrapping Christmas presents. There were so many gifts of creature comfort delights tightly packed into each bag. It was always a joyous and exciting moment in the midst of an intense field experience.
The concept of bread and thick cheese spread sounded enticing, but it wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing or tasty as it seemed. The texture of the bread was that of the ends of a loaf of bread, microwaved twice and left out to dry, then reconstituted with water- you get the picture. I suppose it’s impossible to get a soft buttery brioche bun in a military ration.
Flameless Ration Heaters (FRH) were included in each bag, providing a safe and quick method to heat the entrées without the need for fire or gas. All you had to do was insert the entrée bag inside of the FRH bag, pour a bit of water inside, and within seconds the whole device started heating up to a scalding temperature. Within 12 minutes, the entrée was piping hot and ready to eat as if it just came off the stove. It was genius and clever- who would have thought that chemical reactions could satisfy our hunger in desperate situations?
There are 24 MRE menu items in the US military version, with 4 vegetarian options. Each entrée comes with a number, and you can tell when somebody’s had a little too much experience eating MRE’s in the field when they refer to their dinner choice not by the menu but by the number. Menu 1 is Chili with Beans. Menu 2 is Chicken Fajita. Menu 14 is Ratatouille, and so on until Menu 24 which is Buffalo Chicken with Santa Fe rice and beans. Menu 12, the Vegetarian burger, came out of the FRH with a heavy thud, making me wonder if it was made with some type of clay, which still technically qualifies as vegetarian.
Menu 9, Beef Stew, looked like a familiar canned mixture that can be found in supermarket aisles.
Don’t even get me started with the Pork sausage with gravy, Menu 17.
Menu 22, Chicken with Dumplings, came with high recommendations from some folks in the Canadian army who helped us with logistics around the campsite. They claimed that the U.S. MRE’s were the best in the world, tasting better than even their own country’s and the European versions.
MRE’s are military rations, and other countries in the world have their own version. I was disappointed to find out that the Aussies don’t offer kangaroo or wallaby. Instead, their choices include standards like chicken tetrazzini and lamb casserole. Italians, as expected, offer a pasta dominant list with raviolis and tortellinis. The Germans have liverwurst, beerwurst and lots of sausages to keep their civilians happy. It’s too bad that they haven’t found a way to engineer powdered packets of beer to accompany the wursts. The Canadians have a pretty diverse and international menu, offering choices from pork with wine and herb sauce, to Hungarian goulash and beef chop suey. Leave it to the French to claim culinary supremacy even in military pre-packaged rations- sautée of rabbit, ‘Parisian chicken’, and Squid Armoricaine? Ooh la la!
We also had individual meal packs (IMP), a different type of military ration where each food item comes in their own box without all of the other extra items. We often used these, like omelette with salsa, refried beans, peaches in applesauce, and cheese tortellini, for breakfast and lunch.
These silver retort pouches, made with foil, simply need to be boiled in a pot of water for 10-15 minutes for easy preparation.
One morning I decided to try to Omelette with Salsa, thinking, ‘How bad can it be?’ I had delirious visions of a fluffy and buttery omelette, but when I dumped it out of the retort pouch onto the plate, it felt like a 5 pound dumbbell. When I hacked through it with a large fork, I saw a grainy cross section of a yellow fiberglass brick. Perhaps we can use this as building material for new homes in Haiti?
MRE’s are supposed to have a shelf life of at least 10 years, but I’ve heard that they pretty much last a lifetime. It’s scary to know that even after 75 years, you can still heat up and enjoy Menu 21, Lemon Pepper Tuna, or Menu 16, Pork Rib. Obviously these plastic bags are non-biodegradable, if they have to withstand rough handling in a military war zone, and are made to last through generations. I saw many empty MRE bags cluttering the already polluted streets of Haiti, and a few even in the beautiful green mountains of Les Cayes, not to mention the tens of thousands of water bottles consumed by aid workers that have no way of being recycled on this island. I felt sad that foreign aid was coming into this poor and devastated country in this time of crisis with good intentions, and instead creating a ton of unnecessary waste. This is why our team only ate MRE’s in extreme emergencies, and otherwise ate the food that was prepared daily by our Haitian cooks in the campsite kitchen.
The kitchen was really just an area boxed off by a white tent. Picnic tables doubled as both pantry and prep area, although most of the prep was done on the ground. Gas canisters heated 3 stoves that were always bubbling with the day’s dinner offerings. Compared to what most Haitians had in the IDP camps, which was practically nothing, this was a luxurious and sophisticated set up for fine dining. In humanitarian projects, it’s standard to hire local people to do laundry, cleaning and cooking for the team. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, as this significantly frees up time for the aid workers to do their work, and generates much needed employment and income for the local people.
It’s not an easy job to cook 3 meals a day every day for a camp full of hungry foreigners, which at times numbered up to 45 people, but our Haitian nannies did a fantastic job. They even followed strict hygiene and food sanitation practices by washing vegetables and utensils in chlorinated water, keeping everybody healthy and diarrhea-free. In the field, Clorox bleach and alcohol hand sanitizers become your best friends. Even so, it’s very easy to fall ill with food-borne illnesses, as demonstrated by our preceding medical team which at one time had to simultaneously nurse 5 incapacitated team members with IV fluids and medications.
I was surprised to see fresh vegetables in the local markets that were being used in our food. Tomatoes and onions were a staple in every meal, creating the base for all sauces that garnished our proteins. Carrots and green peppers added color and texture while large purple eggplants added much needed variety to some of our dishes.
We even had lime, garlic, green onions and parsley to season the food.
The best and freshest produce were the mangoes, which multiplied and grew like bacteria on the trees which surrounded our campsite. Our tents were under a mango orchard, a blessing on those long hot days after seeing up to 300 patients, but an absolute terror during the evenings when falling fruits pounded down on our tents like bombs.
It wasn’t unusual to have red meats like beef and goat for dinner. Beef cuts were usually lean and tough, as the few cows that I saw grazing in the pastures were just as bony and malnourished as some of the children. To counteract the toughness, these meats were usually boiled first, then deep fried or stewed.
One of the tastiest meals that I enjoyed in Haiti was the braised goat with militone and carrots. Militone is a type of green squash that is native to Haiti, and it tastes like a cross between braised cabbage and boiled broccoli stem. Another item that made my day was roasted beet salad, cubed into bite size pieces and mixed with a white cream sauce of some sort to render it bright fluorescent pink.
Meatballs with rice and sautéed militone was a surprise gourmet dinner that we had one evening, coincidentally on one of the long days of back to back amputation cases in the operating room. Oh, the barbaric life of a field doctor…
There was only 1 day during the whole month that we had a welcome break from animal meat with freshly caught ocean fish, marinated with citrus and herbs and deep fried in oil.
As you can imagine, this was a wildly popular item and the fish went fast. By the time I got to the dinner table there was only 1 fish head left.
Most of the time we had chicken drumsticks, predominantly deep fried and at times stewed in a canned tomato sauce mixture. I have never had so many chicken legs before in a month- not that I’m complaining, since it’s a miracle to even be able to get this type of food in a humanitarian mission setting, but I was always left wondering where the breasts, thighs and wings went.
With sauteed vegetables, rice and sprinkles of canned yellow corn, these meals were at times the only thing that kept me sane on those grueling and exhausting days.
Thank goodness for these wonderful Haitian women, and bless their hearts for working tirelessly to feed us every day, and continuing to feed my colleagues on the ground as I write this.
At times we got interesting renditions of popular Western foods, like pizza and pasta. Many of these cooks have worked for NGO’s in the past, and have learned to prepare Western and ‘ethnic’ foods with local ingredients to please foreign palates. Spaghetti with peculiar variations of marinara sauce made frequent appearances at breakfast time, although I later found out that this was a common Haitian meal to start off the day. While I was in Liberia, one of our Liberian cooks even knew how to make kimchi, as his previous employer was the Korean embassy. He was more than eager to show off his pickling skills, and he always made a nice fresh batch of napa cabbage and radish kimchi for me. It was a surreal experience to be eating pretty good kimchi with fire-roasted armadillo meat and steamed cassava in the middle of the African bush.
I almost feel embarrassed to share the fact that we were even spoiled with the occasional baked desserts, like pound cake and cookies. When I returned to the US, my friends took turns wining and dining me, thinking that I was living on dried crackers and breadcrumbs all month. I didn’t even expect to eat so well in Haiti, and I was secretly looking forward to losing some weight and being able to fit into my tight designer jeans, but alas, I weighed exactly the same when I came home. It doesn’t help that those MRE’s, formulated to sustain soldiers in combat, are incredibly high in caloric count.
Marketplaces were slowly opening back up and food stalls started lining the streets during my time in Haiti. My culinary curiosity for local delicacies wanted to sample everything in sight, but my rational judgement held me back. Unidentifiable meats and questionable hygienic preparation meant a high risk of contamination with parasites and bacteria that could ruin me within hours. My sole purpose in going to Haiti was to assist in the rescue efforts- if I was sick, I was absolutely useless and it did nobody any good.
Everything sold in the markets was deep fried in an attempt to minimize harmful bacteria, but it wasn’t very convincing to see these fried products sitting out in the hot sun covered with a dense veil of flies and insects. Sausages and hot dogs were a common sight, but they were anything but Kosher.
An interesting road side bar packed with unlabeled glass bottles of colorful liquids caught my eye, but I didn’t see any customers let alone a patron.
The only thing that I did sample were some freshly fried donuts run by a couple of young girls near a mobile clinic that we ran one day. They weren’t Krispy Kreme quality, but with mashed bananas and lots of sugar inside, they really hit the spot.
So that’s my answer to the ever popular question of “What did you eat in Haiti?”. Contrary to what people envisioned, I didn’t have squirrel intestines or fire roasted centipedes, or pick beetles out of fallen tree barks. It’s amazing how people’s imaginations run wild when they have little knowledge about the culture and history of a developing country. One of these days I’ll post an entry about the food that I ate in Liberia, West Africa during my first humanitarian mission. What I had there can easily produce an entire season of Bizarre Foods.
Come to think of it, there is a question that I get asked even more than “What did you eat in Haiti?”
It’s “What’s the first thing you want to eat when you get home?”
For me, it was a warm and comforting bowl of pho.