Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

Serious Reads: Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar, edited by Matt McAllester

20111123-eatingmudcrabscover.jpgWartime reporting deals with some of the most troubled places on earth, and the reporters who bring us news from warzones must have stomachs of steel. But rarely do we hear about what those reporters are putting in their stomachs while facing conflict on the front lintes. Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food During Wartime by the World's Leading Correspondents, edited by Matt McAllester, is a collection of stories from foreign correspondents detailing their food adventures across the globe.

The most compelling aspect of this book is the correspondents' no-holds-barred approach to detailing their overseas experiences. Often the authors note that they could never share the information from this book in their newspaper or magazine. This gives the book an insider feel, but also exposes the reader to the horrible realities of war. These are no Bourdain-like reminiscences of exploring foreign cuisine. The authors share the realities of MREs, the eating habits of famous and infamous political figures, and the struggle of surviving for weeks on burned rice and filthy water.

Several stories describe visits with foreign leaders. Barbara Demick tells the tale of Kim Jong Il's voracious appetite for European foods in the face of North Korean famine and starvation. Matt Rees reveals Ariel Sharon's tendency for overeating, and reflects on how the Israeli leader's girth was related to his political decisions and status. Jason Burke describe how Benazir Butto would slowly eat Pakistani candies at all hours of the day, fueling herself through public audiences, speeches, and an attempt to return to power. For these reporters, food was a highly personal lens through which to understand some of the most powerful and private international figures.

Often the correspondents describe what they themselves were forced to eat during their extended stays overseas. In some cases, such as Sam Kiley's experience in Rwanda or Scott Anderson's stay in Northern Ireland, they ate much better than many of the country's citizens. But often, correspondents shacked up in abandoned hotels, safe houses, or other isolated areas where food was hard to come by and cooked in unsanitary conditions. Tim Hetherington shares the desperation felt by combat soldiers in Afghanistan when forced to eat MREs—Meals Ready-to-Eat, meager army rations—for weeks on end. These authors have felt the pangs of hunger, ate what fare the locals ate, and shoulder the weight of their experiences so that we can have a better look at the realities of war.

While Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar is at times hard to read, its content is enlightening and informative. It provides an inside look at conflicts around the world, and the authors bare their souls as they remember their eating adventures. It is the unique ability of food to create communities where there were none, to welcome guests even with slim offerings, and to provoke nostalgia for a certain place and time. These correspondents' tales of food were often deeply reflective and personally revealing, making this book a compelling and highly worthwhile read.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.

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