SOUTHWEST ASIA – La conversacion es la comida del alma: “Conversation is food for the soul.” But what better way to start conversation than with food?
Master Sgt. John P. Garcia Jr., Air Forces Central Command vehicle fleet manager, is a native of Los Angeles currently on his eighth trip to this side of the world. And on each trip, he has made it his mission to bring a little bit of home to his fellow airmen.
"Over the years, I have learned to use my talent in the culinary world to teach others about my Mexican culture, while enjoying some authentic and sometimes secret recipes," Garcia said. "The conclusion is always the same; it pulls all of us together, as kind of an ice breaker, which ultimately increases morale."
Garcia's signature dish, guacamole, originated in the 16th century with the Aztecs, and since then it has been passed down through generations, each adding their own touch and flavor. When Garcia and his wife, Jenny, both rich in Mexican heritage, married seven years ago, it was no different with their family.
"The current recipe is a combination of my wife's family secrets and ours," Garcia said. "As for my mastering the art, I owe it all to Mom and Grandma Rosie, teaching me as a young bachelor how to represent."
Although Garcia has been making the dish for years, he acknowledged it is not without its challenges.
Finding the ingredients can be tricky, since grocery stores are not readily available in deployed locations.
"The first time I make guacamole at a new base, it is sometimes a struggle to find everything I need," Garcia said. "But, after the airmen taste it for the first time, the avocados start showing up on my desk. With a little networking, and the excitement of a traditional Mexican dish, there is always enough motivation to find a way to pull it all together."
But that isn't his only trick.
"Worst case scenario, if there is any ingredient that cannot be found in country, I'll grow it," he said. "I have a jalapeno plant growing now, and should have some nice and spicy chili by the end of May."
Garcia said the first time he grew jalapenos was in 1993 at a Mideast location, and he’s been growing them ever since.
"There is nothing like the freshest ingredients," he added.
Once all the materials are assembled, the only obstacle is finding the time.
"Most Mexican recipes are very simple, but take a while," said Air Force Master Sgt. Jordi Sancho, AFCENT transportation manager, who sometimes helps Garcia with his signature dish.
Over the course of the past few months, Garcia has enlisted several airmen in addition to Sancho to help him make the dish. This, in turn, cuts down on the production time.
"At first, most see it as a chance to break up the monotony, but after the second or third time they begin to get involved and some even take over," Garcia said. "This brings peace to me, knowing something so simple makes such a big difference for so many folks. There has been multiple times where the tradition continues even after I'm long gone."
His deployment to the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, was one of them and it seems this assignment will be too.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mishal Crane, Combined Air and Space Operations Center noncommissioned officer in charge of commander support staff, is another helper and said she plans to use the recipe in deployments to come.
"It reminds me a lot of home," said Crane, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Garcia, and is of Hispanic descent. "If the ingredients are available, I will most definitely be carrying on this tradition."
Garcia said his recipe, containing one secret step, is only passed on to those who are willing to work alongside him and learn.
But whether the recipe and tradition are passed down or not, he said, just seeing the smiling faces of airmen enjoying his guacamole is all that matters.