The Military's Pricey Restaurant Tastes: Gone Are the Days of Grunts Peeling Potatoes

The following is an excerpt from Nick Turse's book, "The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives" (Metropolitan, 2008).

When you think of food and the U.S. military, you undoubtedly picture a long chow line where a grunt serves up chipped beef on toast, lowly privates peeling potatoes on KP duty, and semi-inedible old C-rations or more modern military field fare like palate-numbing Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs).

But that's the old military, not the new, modern variant -- and not just because private corporations like Kellogg Brown & Root have taken over the mess halls from construction to cooking. These days, like the rest of America, the army loves to eat out. No messy preparation. No dishes to clean up. Not a chip of beef in sight. And, best of all, it's on someone else's tab. The U.S. taxpayer's. Judging by the Pentagon's own accounting, the army, navy, air force, and marines have been very hungry and they've been chowing down.

As it happens, the army has definite gastronomic tastes. Some ethnic foods, for instance, just about never make it to the table. Due to the arcane nature of the Pentagon's accounting, it is almost impossible to know for sure, but the tally on Asian food (although not Asian bases) appears to be:

Vietnamese restaurants 0
Thai restaurants 0
Indian restaurants 0
Japanese restaurants 0
And don't even ask about Afghan food!

But while it's a no-go on sushi, cooked fish is another military matter. In 2004, for instance, the army spent more than $5,000 at Chic-A-D's Cajun Chicken & Catfish Restaurant in Winnsboro, Louisiana. That same year, the catsh-hungry army dropped $6,500 at Capt'n Morgan's Steak & Catfish Restaurant in Diberville, Mississippi, and over $7,300 at Kenny's Katfish Depot in Dequincy, Louisiana. But since, as Napoleon once observed, an army marches on its stomach, the U.S. Army cannot live on catfish alone. Sandwiches are, apparently, also a must, so army eaters plunked down $13,845 at a Quiznos Classic Subs in Louisiana.

In Arkansas, the military dropped significant sums at such "Natural State" restaurants as: Rodeo Cafe ($3,485), Molly's Diner ($5,400), Annie's Family Restaurant ($8,996), and the Crispy Taco Mexican Grill ($19,283), among other establishments. While these 2004 gures were impressive, they paled in comparison to the combined sum paid out to just two El Nopal Restaurant locations in Arkansas (more than $423,000) in 2006. And for dessert, perhaps, the DoD spent a whopping $7.9 million at Arkansas's own White Dairy Ice Cream Company that same year.

But Arkansas was only a drop in the proverbial bucket (of chicken, no doubt). Military folks also sampled the fare at numerous other eateries across the country. Just a few examples from 2004:

  • Copper Mill Restaurant (Logan, UT) $10,878

  • Bristol Bar & Grille (Louisville, KY) $5,026

  • Englewood Cafe (Independence, MO) $5,026

  • Pericos Mexican Restaurant (Covington, TN) $4,050

  • Big Mama's Kitchen (Fayette, AL) $3,705

  • Timber Lodge Steakhouse (Sioux Falls, SD) $2,544

and some DoD favorites from 2006:

  • City Caf (Elgin, TX) $26,350

  • Home Plate Restaurant (Butner, NC) $47,917

  • Pelican Caf (New Orleans, LA) $105,670

While the military clearly savors its catfish and tacos, what it really loves is barbeque! In fact, the military has sampled barbeque all across the United States -- from Shotgun's Bar-B-Que Restaurant in Texas and Bo's Pit Bar-B-Que in Missouri to the Pig N' Whistle in Tennessee and Longhorn Barbecue in Washington State. In 2004, the army shelled out at least $164,828 to get its fingers greasy. In2005 and 2006 combined, the Pentagon spent over half this amount at Corky's Bar-B-Que of Memphis, Tennessee.

While U.S. taxpayer dollars have regularly morphed into barbequed wings and ribs (with not a vegetarian restaurant in sight), the DoD wasn't completely gastronomically timid. In their travels abroad, military officials apparently did manage to sample foreign cuisine, supping at, among other places: Restaurant Schinvelderhoeve in the Netherlands ($2,133 in 2004) and Restaurante El Escudo Sociedad in Guatemala (an astounding $82,291 in 2004) and -- evidently the grand champion -- Singapore's First Street Cafe, where the DoD reportedly spent $151,883 in 2004, $216,646 in 2005, and, an astounding $310,776 in 2006, eating who knows what.

Mostly though, it's home-style comfort food and red meat in red states. In 2004, for instance, the army reportedly paid Shoney's, a purveyor of such eats as country-fried steak, chili-cheese fries, and its signature "Half-o-Pound" (a huge "chopped beef patty" adorned with "golden-fried onion rings"), more than $82,000. Just don't ask anyone to go over the top, or parachute from a plane, while that Half-o-Pound is settling.

The secret of courageous cuisine

In 2004, the Pentagon handed over $154,000 to the Secret Garden Cafe in Loma Linda, California. A call to the Secret Garden Cafe revealed that it was no longer a restaurant at all, but strictly a catering company, due to high demand from guess who? Its new name? Courageous Catering and Special Events. A manager at the new catering business offered the following explanation for its popularity: "We get recommended a lot because we use, like real butter, and we bring really good desserts and we only use black angus beef … and so they like us, and we use, like name-brand sodas instead of generics." The Army Reserve's 374th Chemical Company, she said, had just hired Courageous Catering to provide post-maneuver sustenance. For their inaugural menu, they roughed it with country-fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, beans, corn on the cob with butter for dipping, fresh fruit salad, corn mufns with butter, sodas, bottled waters, iced tea, and assorted cookies and dessert bars. Hold the chipped beef, but pass the black angus and those chocolate chip cookies, Sir!

Tommy Franks rides the rotisserie

In February 2003, U.S. News and World Report's Web site reported that then four-star general Tommy Franks was said to have actually enjoyed eating MREs, but when he had his druthers he "noshe[d] at the Tex-Mex restaurant Chevys." Franks's crowning culinary moment, however, may have been in 2002 when as CENTCOM commander and the leader of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he and Outback Steakhouse CEO Chris Sullivan decided to ship "6,700 steaks, 30,000 shrimp and 3,000 giant onions" as well as "13,400 cans of O'Douls" nonalcoholic beer, all of it donated, to members of the 101st Airborne Division, based in Kandahar. The stunt garnered Outback some meaty press coverage, so it was perhaps less than startling when Franks's decision to leave the military was quickly followed by his decision to take a spot on Outback Steakhouse's board of directors. By 2005, it was reported that he was receiving an "annual retainer of $60,000 in cash and stock," in addition to the $100,000 in restricted stock he received for joining the board.

For years, the Complex has been typified by a revolving door between the armed forces and big-time defense contractors. Franks may be pioneering a new version of this for a new military moment. Think of it as the revolving rotisserie of the military-gastronomic complex. Others may soon join him. In May 2005, just over a month after Franks officially enlisted at Outback, fellow former four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell was the keynote speaker at the National Restaurant Association's annual conference. And the amusement park/pizzeria chain Chuck E. Cheese also seems like it's angling for a top general to join up. In fact, in 2005, it was found that all of the nearly 500 Chuck E. Cheese franchises were screening a montage of military footage, put together by the Pentagon, that even a company spokesman admitted could be interpreted as "prowar."

From the Book The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives by Nick Turse. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2008 by Nick Turse. All rights reserved.

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