I was an American living and working in Baghdad for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). And because no one would remove the massive pile of wooden shipping pallets and crates from our compound, evening campfires became a tradition, a central location where people could gather and relax in the evening after a long day of work.
The fire would start small and then get hotter and hotter. Scooting my government-issued camping chair the optimal distance from the fire became an art – far enough away to not singe my eyebrows, but not so far that the cool desert air gave me the shivers.
One evening in December, 15 people from different walks of life were sitting below an open sky, quietly chatting.
Tim had found some old marshmallows, and I had chocolate bars and graham crackers from a recent care package from my sister. Just what we needed to make that old campfire favorite, s'mores. Sean and I untwisted some hangers, and we were in business.
The fire burned hot, and the hanger wasn't long enough to let me get close to the embers, but I discovered that a golden-brown marshmallow was possible at a far corner of the fire.
Being an international bunch, most of my companions had never had a s'more before. So my treat delighted only the handful of Americans around the fire.
Mona from Egypt thought the prospect of "charred sugar on a cracker" looked disgusting. Silvey from Madagascar and Julliet from El Salvador politely declined a taste, but Ben from Nigeria was eager to try one.
I made Ben the most creamy and crisp marshmallow you've ever seen. Everyone watched in anticipation as he crunched into the graham cracker, marshmallow oozing over the sides. His eyebrows furrowed. "It's interesting," he said politely.
Realizing that s'mores were never going to be a large international export, I offered my roasting services to the US expats.
As I stood near the flame, quietly roasting a marshmallow, random gunfire shot across the river and then became automatic. This was a fairly normal background noise in our compound, but tended to make me squirm.
Suddenly Sean cried out, "Incoming! Get inside! Mortar!"
Instantly, people scattered, and the fire pit burned alone. I didn't even stop to look up at the sky to ascertain the threat. I ran fast and hard for the open door to the house. I took the steps in one leap, threw my marshmallow stick to the ground, and ducked inside.
Ten of us piled into a little bathroom and didn't emerge until we were sure that the mortar had passed and hadn't exploded.
When we looked back outside, the sky was full of little red lights – tracers – darting straight up into the air like a swarm of bees.
Then a phone call came through to reassure us. No, the compound wasn't being attacked. The Iraqis had beaten the Syrians in a major soccer match, and the resulting celebration included firing automatic weapons into the air.
A few minutes later, our security radio confirmed the details in the phone call.
As the bullet show continued, we remained safe inside the double-thick cement house. Before long, we all started to relax, brought out the snacks again, and the party continued.
The conversation was easy and calm, as people munched on potato chips while stray bullets flew outside the windows.
The gunfire died down after about 30 minutes. After the all-clear signal finally sounded, I was still craving a s'more. So I walked back outside, roasted a marshmallow, and savored every bite.
Then I heard a single shot in the far distance and ran home.
It turns out that was my last s'more in Iraq. After that night, no one, including me, seemed interested in campfires.
In all my years of growing up and roasting s'mores around campfires, I've had the experience ruined by rain, cold, and mosquitoes, but this was the first one I ever had canceled by a shower of bullets!
More and more s'mores
Who would imagine there's enough variety to fill a cookbook with recipes for s'mores, those childhood treats enjoyed around campfires?
Well, Californian Lisa Adams has managed to come up with more than 60 creative and palate-pleasing variations in "S'mores" ($16.95, Gibbs-Smith,
Don't let the subtitle – "Gourmet treats for every occasion" – mislead you. The recipes are simple enough for an 8-year-old Girl Scout to prepare. All feature marshmallows (mostly the squishy kind you may already have in your cupboard), but many include tasty substitutes for plain graham crackers: brownies, chocolate chip cookies, apples, and even pound cake.
It's the combinations that are gourmet – and meltingly delicious. Try the two below and see for yourself.
Tracey's Caramel Apple S'more
2 chewy caramels
2 green apple slices (about 1/2 inch thick)
Skewer the marshmallow onto a roasting stick and then thread the caramels on.
Roast the marshmallows and caramels over an open fire. When the caramels have melted over the top of the marshmallow and the marshmallow is cooked to your liking, slide the concoction onto 1 of the apple slices. Top with the remaining apple slice.
Makes 1 serving.
Kettle Corn S'more
3 Hershey's Caramel Kisses
1 long graham cracker, broken in half
Fresh salted popcorn
Arrange the kisses on half of the graham cracker and melt by placing in a pan and holding it over the fire (or by placing the chocolate-topped cracker on a grate over the fire).
When the kisses have melted a bit, push several pieces of popcorn into the chocolate and caramel. Top with roasted marshmallow and other half of graham cracker.
Makes 1 serving.