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My floury legacy in Afghanistan

As NATO combat troops prepare to leave, I ponder my attempt to establish ... scones.

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    A baker in Kabul, Afghanistan, sells traditional flatbread.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
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Like many Americans in Afghanistan, I wanted to leave a legacy there. As a reporter I’d watched people – and nations – focus their ambitions on seemingly impossible tasks with predictably deflating results. A prime example: The United States spent $7.6 billion in an attempt to end opium poppy cultivation there. A decade later, poppy production is at an all-time high.

At the height of the war, the nation was being flooded with more money than it could possibly absorb. The US and international agencies were giving out grants to fund TV shows, music festivals, film festivals – just about anything you can imagine. If you didn’t stop to think about the consequences or wonder whether the money and effort could produce the intended results, it was an exciting time.

It was almost impossible not to get caught up in the spirit of chasing audacious dreams. It seemed to me that many of these dreams centered around giving advice one probably wasn’t qualified to give. 

By nature, though, I’m the kind of guy who likes to give this sort of advice. Once, in the span of a couple weeks I strongly urged a friend to buy a used car and start dating a particular guy. She had reservations about both, but followed my guidance. Both car and boyfriend turned out to be lemons.

But not all my advice is awful. At a cafe in Amman, Jordan, the owner once asked me, a regular there, how he could improve the place. I looked around. He had an aquarium with turtles, electrical outlets at every table for patrons’ laptops and phones, an excellent beverage selection, and fresh baked pastries. 

I said, “Look, you don’t need to do anything. You’ve got a great thing going here. But you do have both excellent iced tea and lemonade. Why not mix the two and offer an Arnold Palmer?” He acted on my tip, and a few months later he told me the Arnold Palmer was his best seller.

After a success like that, why not stick to restaurant consulting? I didn’t even want money for my services, just scones. I love sweet pastries and, for whatever reason, Afghan bakers aren’t in the business of making the type of treats that can hold my interest. Across town, a French bakery had opened up, but with the traffic I would have been better off driving through the mountains into neighboring Pakistan for my morning baked good.

Out of desperation, I started doing my own baking. I’d seen my friend whip up some scones once, so I knew they were an entry-level affair. I looked up a recipe online, followed the instructions, and just like that – I had scones. 

Now a moment of honest self-reflection: Most of us have grown beyond the self-sufficiency-in-all-things model of living. No one is baking up a whole batch of scones from scratch every time he gets a hankering for just one. This isn’t “Little House on the Prairie.” We outsource. If scones weren’t on the market, I needed to put them on the market – preferably within walking distance from my house.

At my favorite Western-style restaurant in Kabul, it was clear from the menu that they had everything required to make scones. They just needed a recipe. I approached the manager and asked him if he could send the chefs over to my house for a baking lesson. A couple of days later, an Afghan chef was in my kitchen watching me bake while a waiter took notes. A few days after that, the restaurant was selling scones.

It was a heady time in those early days. I’d go to the cafe and, like a corrupt police chief, I’d call over the waiter and ask him to deliver a scone to a friend across the restaurant. Put it on my tab, I’d say. (In fact, the managers always insisted that it go on my tab.) Within the small world of Kabul expatriates, people who’d never heard of me knew that I was “the guy who introduced scones.” My friends began to say it would be my legacy in Kabul.

But like those who dreamed of bringing an end to poppy cultivation or establishing social justice through art festivals, reality caught up with me. I left Kabul for a year. When I returned, I went back to the restaurant and ordered a scone. It was so stale that it could have been confused with a British Royal Navy ration from 1823. 

A year after that, I heard that my scones had finally joined so many other ill-fated Western ideas in that famous graveyard of empires: Scones had officially been removed from the menu. 

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