For the most part Iraqi cuisine is relatively simple fare, heavy on regional staples like pita bread, rice, and lamb. So when our commander, CPT Mac, decided to ask his Iraqi counterpart for a authentic Iraqi meal he was totally unprepared for what appeared in front of him.
His first inkling that this was no ordinary meal was when one of the Iraqis placed oversize bowls in front of each of the invited guests. Calling the cavernous dishes bowls stretches the definition to the breaking point – these curved plastic dishes were large enough to mix a batch of concrete in. Each bowl was carefully lined with steaming layers of pita bread, giving the impression the dining table was marred by great bread lined craters. Any reservations CPT Mac might have had about the strange bowls were countered by the excited faces of his Iraqi hosts, who were scarcely able to contain their ravenous excitement as the bowls were carefully laid out.
A minute later the cook wheeled out an enormous steaming pot – his sweaty face beaming with the singular pride of a father bringing a Thanksgiving turkey to the table. He wheeled the pot over to CPT Mac and carefully placed the main course in the middle of the bowl. The cooks obvious pride in his culinary masterpiece did little to assuage CPT Mac’s shock when he realized his meal was staring back at him. To his credit CPT Mac didn’t let the Iraqi’s see his sudden wave of nausea, but in that instant all the Americans suddenly regretted asking their hosts for an authentic Iraqi dinner.
The delicacy that looked back at CPT Mac was the apex of Iraqi cusine – fresh, boiled sheeps head. And when I say whole – I mean whole. Apparently the entire preparation involved little more then cutting the head off and dumping it in a vat of boiling water. The cook made his way around the table, gently placing a steaming head on every dish with practiced care. By this point the Iraqis could no longer contain themselves, and the entire scene started to look like a clip from an Indiana Jones movie. The Iraqis used their bare hands to eagerly tear chunks of meat off the sheep’s heads, pausing only to pull of clumps of matted wool. For a few minutes all conversations ceased, and the room filled with the happy sounds of eating. Two of the senior NCOs decided to make a game of the dinner, and spent the next few minutes daring each other to eat random pieces of the head. After a few rounds of “eat the mystery body part” they finally dared each other to eat the animals eyeball. As the first NCO sucked out the eyeball his face took on a decidedly pale shade of grey and the contest quickly ended. CPT Mac did his best to appear to enjoy the meal, pushing the head around the plate and pretending to place pieces in folded pockets of empty pita bread. But the Iraqi sitting next to him wasn’t fooled for a moment, and figured the CPT’s reticence was due to the lack of eating utensils. He turned to CPT Mac, gave a broad and brain spattered smile, and reached over to help the commander with his meal. He pushed his hands into the braincase and started to pull out quivering, glistening morsels. As he pulled out each piece he would hold the piece for the commander’s inspection, as if it were a rare and luxurious pearl snatched from the seafloor. Although the Iraqi was doing his best to be a gracious host, the sight of the Iraqi’s dirt stained hands pushing their way into the animals skull was almost too much for CPT Mac to bear. As the Iraqi offered the pile of slippery chunks to the commander all he could manage was a weak smile. Fortunately the Iraqi wasn’t offended, happily munching away at the shuddering mass he had so assiduously pulled from the sheep’s head.
Later, as I relayed the story to Naz (one of our interpreters) he looked at me with stunned disbelief. Naz snorted out “You mean the commander didn’t like the head”. When I explained that eating a sheeps head wasn’t part of America’s culinary tradition he just shook his head and said “When I buy 4 sheep heads for the interpreters it is never enough – we eat the s**t out of the head”. As he said this he was practically drooling at the memory of his last meal. I spent the next few minutes listening to Naz explain the nuances of this particular dish, and by time he finished I resolved to avoid this dish at all costs. I may have a cast iron stomach… but sucking the brain out of an intact sheep’s head is a little much. MREs never sounded so good.