I’ve eaten at many a four star restaurant. I’ve eaten food prepared by some of the greatest chefs on this planet. I’ve also eaten more than my share of McDonald, Wendy’s, and Burger King hamburgers. None of them compare to the surprise meal I received from a stranger.
We were in Saudi Arabia and just a few short months away from the invasion of Iraq. We were camped maybe five kilometers outside a small Saudi village named Al-Qaisumah. The town is important to this story since it was the only outpost of civilization for dozens of miles. It also had the only pay phone we could use to call home.
I remember well the first time I managed to call home. Going to use the phone was right up there with a major expedition to the Moon. Or so it felt. You got down there, and the phone was in front of a small store. The store was made of adobe, had small windows, but was also the closest thing to a 7-11 we were to see for some time.
The first time I used the phone and called home, I dragged everyone out of bed. A simple time computation said it was two in the morning. I recall my folks saying it looked like we had things pretty good over there. Air conditioned barracks, TV, three hot meals a day. I responded by telling them that I didn’t know what army they were seeing on the news, but I wasn’t in that army. I was living in a tent in the middle of nowhere, and for entertainment we got either Armed Forces Radio or Baghdad Betty, depending on how the wind blew, and I was eating MREs (Meals Ready to Eat or Meals Rejected by Ethiopia – take your choice) three times a day.
And that leads me to the story of the Second Best meal I ever had.
We’d gone into town to use the phone. When we got there it was no surprise to find that half of 1st Armored Division was lined up waiting to use the phone. In years to come I reflected that situation would have made some lucky terrorist very happy. Fortunately, nothing happened.
After standing in the sun for several hours, I made my calls. We didn’t have a lot of luxury items, so after we made our calls, we were allowed to go in the little store to buy something to eat.
I remember stepping into the cool interior of the store. The thick adobe kept most of the heat at bay, and a simple window air conditioner kept the place rather cool. Several overhead lights illuminated the store. Somehow, it reminded me of my grandfather’s store in New Mexico. He sold a little of everything, just like this place did. Over there was a wooden bin with nails, there were sundry items like cloth or laundry soap. Several free standing shelves were full of canned items ranging from fruits and vegetables to canned chicken and meats. Another held staples such as rice and flour.
The proprietor also had several shelves with things you might find at a convenience store such as the Saudi version of Little Debbie snack cakes, bags of chips, and candy bars.
But truth be told, I was hungry. As I mentioned, I’d been living on MREs three meals a day, and while they’re perfect for that kind of a situation, a person gets tired of the same old stuff every day. I wanted something different, and a snack cake wasn’t going to cut it.
As I wandered through the store, I saw there were some refrigerators in the back. They wouldn’t look out of place in my local 7-11, but the contents were as alien to most of my buddies as something from the Moon or Mars might have been. There were sodas, and you could tell it was a Pepsi only by the logo on the can. Everything else was in Arabic. There was also a notable lack of things like cold teas and of course beer. As I studied the contents, I saw something that got my pulse up.
On one shelf were several small white bags about the size of a small bag of potato chips. The contents of the product were written in both Arabic and English. “Laban” the bag read.
Oh, yeah, I told myself, and grabbed two. The cold bags felt good in my hands.
Now for those of you unfamiliar with Laban, the closest I can describe it is the Arab spin on yogurt. It’s unflavored, and is popular for breakfast or pretty much anytime. It’s usually part of a meal, but I was used to eating it just like that. Put some sugar in it, stir well, and that’s what we called breakfast back on the ranch.
I went to check out, and placed the two bags on the counter. The man who was running the cash register looked at me with shock, and then the bags, and back. “Sir,” he said. He spoke good English. “Do you know what this is?”
Obviously he thought I was some American unfamiliar with the foods of the Middle East. I know some of my buddies looked at me like I’d lost my mind when I ate it.
I nodded, and answered, “Yes, Sir. I do. I was raised on this.”
His eyes got wide, and he asked, “Are you from Saudi?”
“No,” I answered. “My Grandfather was from Lebanon.”
He dropped his hands to the counter, pushed the bags towards me, and said, “No charge.”
I thanked him for his hospitality, went out the Humvee, and had a breakfast fit for a king.
I don’t know if this man I’d never met and will never see again knows how much I appreciated his generosity. That simple act made that meal one of the finest I’ve ever eaten.