Mud Crabs

Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food During Wartime by the World’s Leading Correspondents

Matt McAllester

Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011

214 pp.   $35.40 (Hardcover)

The role of food in framing and enhancing memory is perhaps never more obvious than when it is combined with the largely unpredictable nature of war and violent conflict. As I have seen through personal experience in conflict zones, food can function to maintain reality and normality during even the most trying circumstances.  In many of the stories about war that are written by journalists, extreme acts of violence or valor are given center stage and captivate us with their uniqueness. We are taken to a place far removed from the realities of our daily lives; in these tales we often do not see behind the scenes of what appear to be perfectly crafted linear narratives of the daily lives of the actors. Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar, Matt McAllester’s edited collection of other journalist’s short stories, takes us to those very scenes of life through the recollections of journalists who have experienced some of the worst modern conflicts in the world.

In a rather unique way we are given an insider’s view of how journalists navigate the world of food within their stories, and how food imparts meaning and cohesion to their understanding of their subjects. While food is seen largely as a source of comfort to journalists, helping to keep them ‘sane’ through their work in crisis zones, it can also be a breakthrough point for them to connect with their informants and understand the full impact of war on the lives it touches. The stories chosen by McAllester for this volume underscore the role of food in understanding conflict, including descriptions of ways the medium of food can help an outsider [journalist or anthropologist] expose the disparity between social groups in times of food scarcity.

In the first article, an introduction to the other authors’ pieces, McAllester recounts the story of an elderly woman in Kosovo whom he interviewed while covering the Bosnian genocide during the mid to late 1990s. His desire to know what she was eating and surviving on was dismissed by his colleague as a mundane and trivial question; McAllester rebukes this through his own experience as valuable means to understanding the workings of life under siege through the medium of food. Food shows us the human side of war as, “no matter what role you have in a conflict, you have to step out of it for at least a few minutes every day [for a meal]…or a piece of bread “(p.3). McAllester takes this thought forward into his selection of eighteen stories and portions them into chapters that examine different aspects of food through the experience of each of the war journalists. He separates the book’s stories into four parts, entitled: Survival Rations, Insistent Hosts, Food Under Fire, and Breaking Bread, and gives us a collection that presents many similar themes while keeping the material varied and interesting.

Survival Rations begins with the experiences of Lee Hockstader, a Washington Post journalist in El Salvador and Haiti during the 90’s, the first section of the book deals with the use of food as an escape from reality. Hockstader’s work often leaves him “hungry for pleasure in the vague hope that it may neutralize some of what [he’s] seen” (p.15) especially during the violent episodes he encounters while abroad on assignment with familiar foodstuffs. In the third story of this section Janine Di Giovanni addresses the different ways in which journalists feed their need for  familiarity on the road through imported alcohol, tobacco, and specialty foodstuffs (as a Vermonter I find myself hauling gallon jugs of maple syrup on my travels). For the residents of the areas Di Giovanni and others report upon, the ability to import this ‘comfort’ is impossible or at the very least, outlandishly expensive and dangerous. In times when staple foods are limited, a lack (or surplus) of food becomes a visual representation of divisive positions between those along the spectrum of positions of power and oppression. In terms of governments like Kim Jong Il’s North Korean autocratic regime, food can be seen as a direct understanding of the government’s disdain for its people.

The second selection in this chapter is Barbara Demick’s revealing piece: A Diet for Dictators. Demick presents her article through the eyes of North Korean refugees during the 1990’s, when Kim Jong Il indulged in his gustatory proclivities for French wine and Italian pizza while over one million of his own people died from malnutrition and starvation. Jong Il’s North Korean government produced propaganda during this time urging its citizens to partake in dutiful moderation and eat only two meals each day. While the government portrayed overindulgence as a negative quality plaguing the country, the reality presented by Barbara Demick in her piece was one of scarcity and malnourishment. Necessity for sustenance led to what can only be described as ‘MacGuyveristic’ food creations, with food deprived citizens attempting to make food resources last by mixing inedible thickeners to bulk them up. North Koreans, whom Demick talks to outside of the country, show a reverence for food as both a source of pleasure and fear, and appear to have carried their dislike of overeating with them to their new lands.

Isabel Hilton pens the last story in the Survival Rations chapter, entitled ‘Miraculous Harvests,’ which deals with famine in Maoist China, and her experience in Beijing as a foreigner in 1970s. During Hilton’s time in China foreigners were segregated from many of the institutions of Chinese society, which subsequently relegated her point of cultural contact to experiences with Chinese food. Through this medium, Hilton examines a number of issues that appear to underline the evolution of the Chinese’s cultural relationship with food. With the decline of Maoist policies, Hilton concludes that the government began to rewrite the country’s food history and blunt the shame of famine and want with overproduction. Hilton notes that this desire for a food surplus at any cost has led to an increase in food adulteration and contamination [such as the tainted milk scandal at the 2008 Olympics] as farmers and producers attempt to keep up with government demand for ‘miraculous harvests.’

 Variety in cultures and histories continues through the other sections of the book, and follows the same method of using food-based stories of individual experience to demonstrate the larger social issues presented by both structural, indirect, and direct violence. Perhaps my favorite story of the volume is that of Joshua Hammer, a bureau chief for Newsweek in Palestine during the Second Intifada, who was taken hostage by the Fatah Hawks. His captivity included sumptuous multicourse meal including traditional Palestinian baklava and tea. When interviewed later about it, Hammer states that it was one of the best meals he’s ever had in the Gaza strip. This compliment leads to the Israeli government refusing to grant him interviews with its leaders  - and even denying him access to the Palestinian prisoners held in Jerusalem – because they viewed his work as pro-Palestinian, one-sided, and ‘dangerous.’

McAllester shows in this compilation of stories that food and meals can help establish the basis of a journalist’s experience, and often reveal significant back-stories left out of the headlines. Other pieces in this compendium present similar narratives, demonstrating a multi-vocal view of the important position of food in understanding both foreign and local identities. In one article, food plays a role in bridging cultures as an Iraqi chef decides to recreate Whoppers for his American employers after seeing some at a military base. In yet another article, Benazir Bhutto links food to a sense of identity as she compares the prices of oranges—an often used ingredient in Pakistani cuisine—to understand regional dynamics, and reacclimatize herself to the needs of her people after spending time in exile. We are treated to a brief story about the role of liberal-owned food establishments in the Iranian student revolutions of the 1970s and today, showing how these eateries and cafés sustained the revolutionaries’ appetites for intellectual and gustatory nourishment. Despite the differences in setting the selections all demonstrated an excellent style of writing, one which intertwines each journalist’s own form of participant observation within a historically based narrative.
While all of these fantastic ideas are presented in each of the individual works, there is, unfortunately, no clear attempt to pull them all together as a unified reader on food and memory.  What is clear in the stories, however, is the journalists’ desire to shed an anthropological perspective upon their subjects and to reconcile what they knew about the area with what they learned about it through food.  As McAllester notes in his introduction, “sharing a meal with a stranger is the best way to make you strangers no longer” (p. 4). This method of using food as a way to connect and interact with other cultures represents an interesting lens through which to examine the affirmative characteristics of food memories. Unfortunately, in my opinion the organization of these first-hand accounts leaves much to be desired, and lacks the note and citation sections required to deal with what are in truth complex topics of culture, choice, and consequence.

In addition to being unique food journey for readers of Indiana Food Review, there is also a voyeuristic addictiveness to the stories in the book, which beg one to read and imagine the pleasure of encountering these well-described scenes of feasts and landscapes. For the more culinary minded, it is interesting to ponder the complexities of making the meals and drinks described in the text under duress, especially given a wartime pantry. A number of recipes that are reproduced throughout the book—like the burfi desserts that Benazir Bhutto ate, and traditional Bosnian borek pie—allow the reader to put their taste buds to good use as well, and add another dimension to the text. The text also represents the template offered by McAllester, a professor of journalism, on approaching the topic of food in war, and realize the large gaps that food studies could fill in the pictures offered in this volume.

The book, which is 209 pages, offers a nice glimpse at some of the world- changing moments of the late 20th century through a food narrative. It is quite an exceptional choice for those who enjoy finding out the hidden culinary lives of the people whom we read about in the daily press. Another strength of the compilation, the largely neutral presentation of subjects who are focused upon in these accounts, reveals that the humanizing aspect of food is not lost upon war journalists.  A pleasurable read such as this would be a great addition to a course on the subject of food and memory, or even as lightly intellectual fare for the food enthusiast. Highly recommended… and a much better breakfast read than your newspaper.


Aziz Fatnassi- Indiana Food Review
Ph.D Student Indiana University Anthropology

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