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franklin county times

August suddenly feels a little bit cooler

By By Robert St. John / food columnist
August 4, 2004
I cooked at the River Road Festival in Natchez last weekend. The heat index was 104 degrees. A portion of the weekend was spent conducting an outdoor cooking demonstration using two hot propane burners, which increased the outside temperature by several degrees. I was hot and miserable and the attendees were, too.
Throughout the weekend, I retreated as often as I could to the comfort of my air-conditioned room, where I complained loudly and often to my wife about the heat and humidity. Then I thought of Lt. Col. Mark Prine, and was embarrassed I even uttered a word.
I ran into Prine and his family at a local restaurant a few weeks ago; he was home on leave from Kuwait. I talked to him at length about the food service facilities used in the war.
Prine said it had been 132 degrees, with no humidity, the day before he left for his two-week leave.
Getting it in perspective
Prine is one of 123 members of the 114th Area Support Group of the Mississippi National Guard currently stationed in Kuwait. He radiates duty and honor and simply being in his presence makes one feel humble and proud all at once.
I was amazed to learn of the dining facilities being used in the Middle East. The main facility feeds more than 7,000 people in four 30-minute shifts, four times a day. That's 30,000 people, four meals a day, every day. In addition to feeding the troops at the base camp, Prine says the facility ships food to 30 other dining facilities in other parts of Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa.
He produced a picture of the inside of the main dining hall. It was enormous, with rows of portable tables lined with 7,000 chairs. Last weekend, I was worried about how I was going to feed 40 people a four-course menu from the tiny kitchen of an antebellum home. In Kuwait, they're feeding 30,000 people in two short hours in the middle of a desert!
The current conflict is the largest mobilization of troops since World War II. When viewing news reports, we usually see a few trucks in an Iraqi village or soldiers trying to suppress a small uprising, but none of the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day operations being carried out just to keep the operation running smoothly. Learning how much food is involved to feed all branches of the service is mind-boggling. Prine says huge ships bearing containers of food and supplies arrive every day.
Thousands of gallons of coffee are consumed every day. There are 18 ice plants manufacturing eight pounds of ice, per person, per day. Each soldier uses more than 20 gallons of water every day (more than 2 million gallons) water, which by the way, is produced by the military.
No complaints
When asked how the food quality was, Prine replied, in his typical, non-complaining fashion, "Not bad." True, the U.S. Army's 21-day menu is not going to win any cutting-edge culinary awards, but he did say, "Day 16 is our favorite. It's steak and lobster."
There are also fast food restaurants at the enormous base camp Burger King, Baskin Robbins, Pizza Inn, Subway and a restaurant called The Donut Hole which has a sign above the door that reads, "The best donut in town The only donut in town!"
When asked if he has eaten any local food, Prine said they had occasionally ventured into town for a meal.
On the nightly news, we see bits and pieces of what our military is accomplishing overseas. But it is hard to get the full scope of what these men and women are sacrificing until you see one with his wife and children, at home on a two-week leave, not complaining, not bitter, just proud to be serving his country.
As I sit and write this column on Aug. 2, in the comfort of my soft leather chair, in my air-conditioned office, Lt. Col. Mark Prine is on his way back to Kuwait. His 365-day stint will conclude in January.
Robert St. John is an author, chef, restaurateur and world-class eater. He is owner/executive chef of the Purple Parrot Caf, Crescent City Grill and Mahogany Bar in Hattiesburg and Meridian. He can be reached at robert@nsrg.com.

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