I am the Pop-Tart whisperer.
Put me in a room full of Pop-Tarts, hermetically sealed in their foil wrappers. Without opening them, I can tell you the flavor and the type of frosting of the processed bakery treats hidden within.
They speak to me: The stately notes of Unfrosted Blueberry. The exquisite croon of Strawberry Frosted. The delightfully decadent blare of Frosted Chocolate Fudge. The dissonant chaos of Brown Sugar Cinnamon.
It’s a skill I picked up in Afghanistan.
Specifically, I was in Khoja Bahauddin, a forlorn outpost in Takhar, an impoverished province of northern Afghanistan. It was the fall of 2001, and I was on assignment for The Boston Globe.
As U.S. warplanes bombed the positions of the Taliban and al Qaeda in the dusty, drought-stricken expanse of Takhar, American cargo jets were dropping food parcels in and around pockets of resistance to the Islamist militants like Khoja Bahauddin.
I won’t say that my ability to pick out the Frosted Chocolate Fudge kept me alive. But it kept me sane.
Malnutrition was rampant; Afghanistan had known nothing but war for decades. The yellow packages, stamped “Food Gift from the People of the United States of America,” contained a 2,200-calorie daily ration of foods such as barley stew, rice, shortbread cookies, peanut butter…and Pop-Tarts.
I had only been in Afghanistan for a few weeks when I first encountered the parcels. By that time, local militias and merchants were reselling the packages, and the whole plan had come under criticism from relief agencies. Afghans were feeding some of the more unfamiliar items, such as peanut butter and jelly, to their livestock.
“Ordinary Afghan people do not understand what to do with this food,” an employee of the anti-Taliban government’s foreign ministry told me.
And the Pop-Tarts? Dropped from 30,000 feet, the pastries tended to smush. So in addition to being strange and disgusting to local palates, they were also unattractive. No one wanted them.
Except me. A diet of bread and lamb kebab was getting to me. There were few healthy alternatives. My party of American and Russian reporters would get very badly ill any time we tried anything else. The Pop-Tarts — discarded, crumbled, caked in the fine dust that covered everything in Takhar — represented a taste of the past.
As a child of the 1960s, I had been raised on this food. We had them in the house back when they came in four unfrosted varieties, in packaging that suggested you cut them diagonally and serve them on their sides, like a pie.
I remember the joy in our house when the Frosted Strawberry flavor first appeared. I shall never forget the horror we experienced when we discovered that, left too long in our brand-new toaster, Frosted Strawberry Pop-Tarts burst into foot-high flames. I still cannot shake the sense of disappointment when I discovered, later in life, that fresh strawberries tasted nothing like the filling in a strawberry Pop-Tart. The strawberry filling is better.
I remember those blissful days just after Kellogg’s introduced the Frosted Chocolate Fudge Pop-Tart, and the bitterness I felt toward my father when I realized that his favorite flavor was the revolting Brown Sugar Cinnamon. I hated them, and to my horror, they became the most ubiquitous Pop-Tarts. When Al Filipov died aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, there is a long list of things knew I would miss about him. His Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts are not among them.
So in those days of war and grief and discovery in 2001, picking through the discarded packages, I learned to distinguish the flavors I could stomach, and avoid the dreaded one I could not. It has to do with the feel of the package, subtle differences in weight and texture, the distinctive physical and metaphysical profile of each variety. It’s all there, in plain sight, if you’re looking.
Now, for a middle-aged man with a tendency to gain weight, Pop-Tarts are not the ideal diet. When I returned to the United States and the peacetime diet of an affluent society, I put aside my Pop-Tarts and my Pop-Tart whispering ways.
It was only during my return to northern Afghanistan in 2011 that I needed to call on this force once again.
I was back to report on what had changed in 10 years: the good (the food situation had improved, and everyone, it seemed, had smart phones and cheap data plans) and the bad (the Taliban, whose demise in the north had been cheered by Afghans in 2001, had returned, in part because people feared them less than the drug-dealing warlords who had replaced them).
During my month-long assignment, I spent a week or so embedded with a U.S. army company of the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The American troops only infrequently ventured from their guarded compound, and we spent long days lolling in the heat. A large table was covered with food, from parcels sent from Americans back home who wanted to support the troops.
Here, too, were more Pop-Tarts than anyone could want. Again, the hated Brown Sugar Cinnamon dominated, and while the flavor was still horrific, it reminded me of a loved one with horrific taste in food. I won’t say that my ability to pick out the Frosted Chocolate Fudge kept me alive. But it kept me sane, as did the presence of Pop-Tarts themselves: You close your eyes, you take a bite, it takes you home.