I still think about it from time to time, when I am craving something that is no longer possible, something that probably doesn’t even exist, something that I can never go back for. It was the best cheeseburger I have ever tasted. There wasn’t anything inherently special about it, and maybe it didn’t even taste that great. But it was a cheeseburger in a combat zone, a very rare treasure, and that made it remarkable.
Soldiers would travel through dangerous territory, risk the wrath of IEDs, mortars and rockets, then stand in a slowly snaking line in the hot sun, sweating their asses off to shell out hard earned cash for a bag of greasy Nirvana from the indomitable Burger King vendors. Why go to such lengths to eat a humble cheeseburger? These Whoppers that were so challenging to procure created a momentary transcendent connection to favorite memories: high school dances, first dates, football games, family barbecues, college graduation parties, honeymoons, newborn babies. They were a conduit to the memories of American life that we all craved but couldn’t have. Before dining facilities had been constructed and supply lines had been formally established, Burger King had opened up in a tiny metal hut on BIAP and was selling burgers at an unbelievable rate to thousands of homesick soldiers.
One of my tent mates brought me a Burger King Whopper one day. A supply and arms room clerk, she had to make daily runs to BIAP’s Supply Yard to check on shipments for our company. Any trip away from the Engineer Village compound was an excuse to do a little shopping, exploring, and “dining out”, and when she returned, she handed me a wonderful smelling paper bag with little oil stains forming on the bottom. I don’t remember if there was a specific reason why she brought back a cheeseburger for me. Maybe she owed a favor because I had kept an eye on the supply tent while she was picking up supplies. I suspect that she just wanted to do something nice for me, because that is the kind of person that she has always been, and I remember uttering surprise at the sight of a real Burger King Whopper. It had been ages since I had eaten actual American food. A cheeseburger in the Middle East! What a concept!
After choking down lackluster food for months on end I had come face to face with what I will forever remember as the World’s Greatest Cheeseburger. The bun had been toasted on a grill, the beef patty (I hope it was beef) was tender, juicy, and a little salty, the cheese had melted perfectly and fused onto the patty, and there was the perfect amount of mayonnaise and ketchup to add sauciness to the Whopper. I recall a small piece of onion as well — not too much and not too little, but just enough to enhance the flavor. I don’t remember if the cheeseburger came with lettuce and tomato, but it would have surprised me if it did. It was quite difficult to get fresh vegetables during OIF 1 and tomatoes and lettuce wouldn’t have traveled well back to camp, but I digress…
Once I had tasted that Whopper I became a bit obsessed with cheeseburgers but never had another like that first from the BIAP Burger King. I went back once during my deployment, stood in line for two hours sweating profusely and questioning the rationality of it all, but when I finally got the burger it didn’t taste nearly as delicious as the first. Cheeseburgers in the chow hall were a joke — overcooked, rubbery, tasteless hockey pucks on bland bread with boring accoutrements. Nothing came close to that first Whopper. It had ruined me for cheeseburgers! It still ruins me.
I somehow ended up with a centerfold of a burger — yes, this is true. No pictures of sexy men in my corner of the tent, but I did have pictures of food! I often looked longingly at my sexy burger (so pathetic) and thought of the day that the yummy Whopper had been delivered into my astonished hands. The World’s Greatest Cheeseburger was exceptional for two reasons. I was so homesick that the novelty of classic American comfort food made me feel nostalgic as I slowly savored every last bite. The fact that, as she stood in a very long line for a very long time in the horrid Baghdad sun, a friend made the decision to pass along a kindness to me in the form of a humble cheeseburger. That act of kindness has resonated through the years.
To prove that I did not hallucinate my entire cheeseburger encounter, check out the links below! The first is by a WordPress blogger who was also in Iraq during OIF 1 and who also experienced the wonder of the Whopper on BIAP. I recommend this article for another veteran’s take on life at BIAP and the challenges of procuring Burger King. Enjoy!