Marines battle it out on barbecues
AS I DROVE onto the Kaneohe Marine Base Saturday, I was struck, as I always am when I go "aboard" the base, at how peaceful and relaxing it seems. There were families barbecuing, in-line skaters playing hockey, golfers walking a lush, green course, sunbathers on a mostly deserted beach and people standing in line at the minimart to buy six-packs of beer.
It seemed more like a college campus than a military base, albeit a heavily armed college campus with lots of people in camouflage uniforms walking around. The atmosphere was so laid back I couldn't help thinking, you know, if it weren't for occasionally having to go to war, living on a base like this would be pretty sweet.
I was there to be a judge in the "Command of the Grill" steak cooking contest, a little diversion sponsored by Weber grills to support the troops and provide R&R from the fact that we currently are at war. You don't have to tell anyone on the Marine base that. They've lost more than 27 soldiers in Iraq. And many of the soldiers here have been there and returned.
LIKE Staff Sgt. Daniel Newcomb, a large, strapping Marine who looks as though he was sent down from Central Casting. He's the base "postal chief" and was in charge of delivering mail in Iraq in 2003.
He was also one of six Marines participating in the cook-off, five men and one woman, all in camouflage, hustling around six brand new grills starting coals and marinating or otherwise seasoning some of the best New York strip steaks I'd seen in a while. The steaks looked as though they'd be best with just a couple of shakes of salt and pepper, so it seemed like the contest would be who could screw up a perfectly good cut of meat the least.
I'm leery of judging food contests, and I've been asked to do quite a few. Once you've judged a cooking contest, you pretty much never want to taste whatever entree it is you were judging ever again.
One exception was when I judged a military "SOS" recipe contest. SOS is a legendary military dish consisting of creamed chipped beef on toast. It is known affectionately as SOS ("stuff on a shingle") although "stuff" isn't the word most soldiers use. Judging the SOS contest didn't turn me off to creamed chipped beef on toast for the rest of my life, mainly because I was turned off to it from the beginning. But after eating SOS in various guises for a few hours, you really, really don't want to ever see or smell it again.
But the "Command of the Grill" thing was different. Once the steaks got cooking, the area outside the NCO club smelled like a carnivore's dream.
The six contestants, Newcomb, Staff Sgt. Petronella Williams, Maj. Kevin McCollough, Sgt. Steven Burkett, Sgt. Clinton Rosemeyer and Staff Sgt. Craig Middleton, had reached the semifinals by virtue of 50-word essays explaining why they considered themselves the best steak-cookers on board the base. (You don't go "on" a Marine base, you go "on board." Don't ask me why. It looked like good old terra firma to me.)
Sgt. Rosemeyer confided in his essay: "I'm entering the contest because people tell me they like my cooking. (Either that or they're lying to me.)" He got extra points from me for honesty.
Staff Sgt. Middleton said he learned to grill from his father-in-law in Texas, and "even my picky wife says I'm the grill master." Minus points for picking on wife.
No one would really be losers on this day. They'd get to keep the Weber kettle grill they were cooking on, along with a truckload of barbecuing paraphernalia. The winner, though, would get a trip to New York in May to compete in the "Command of the Grill" finals involving military bases across the country, a luxury Weber gas grill, and his (or her) recipe would appear in a cookbook whose proceeds will go to various military charities.
IN THE END, judging was a terrible joy. A joy because all of the steaks were fantastic and terrible because only one could win. Some were marinated in peanut oil and spices, others dry-rubbed with spices and then glazed with honey-butter. But in the end, the postman delivered. We three judges agreed Staff Sgt. Newcomb's perfectly grilled steak covered in sautéed portobello mushrooms, green peppers and onions won the steak war.
I drove "off board" the base saying a little prayer for the men and women of this ironically idyllic campus, a prayer that they would be safe and that, in time, their lives would be filled with family barbecues and not fighting a war in a desert half a world away.
Charles Memminger, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org