Cooking in Congo

So I threw a little Thanksgiving party last night. Yes, it’s March, but hey, we live in a mining camp in the middle of Africa. One never knows when they’ll get their hands on a turkey. And this turkey that I stumbled across was way too big for our freezer, so I invited the first two people we ran into after buying it, saying, “Hey, how’s dinner four days from now for ya?” A day or two for defrosting, a day or two for brining, another day for roasting, and there you go.

We found this turkey at the bottom of a freezer at our camp grocery store during their closeout sale, before changing management. Where had they been hiding it, and for how long?? Not that we’re picky. I remember having lived here for six months when I found a rack of pork ribs at the bottom of the same freezer, not even wrapped in plastic. It was completely exposed, slightly freezer burned, but I said hey, that’s different, I think I’ll take that. I had never made pork ribs in my life before, but no matter. I was desperate for something new. My neighbor thought I was crazy, then later told me her husband was jealous she hadn’t bought them. I found a killer recipe online that is now one of our favorites.

Then there was the time I got so bored of the usual food around here that I took a risk and bought frozen mussels from a shop whose freezers looked so bad I wouldn’t even buy ice cream from them. Their electricity was off more often than it was on, everything in their freezer was iced over and stuck together. But something about this box of green-lipped New Zealand mussels spoke to me. They were on the half-shell, no less, so while cooking them you can’t even pick out the good ones from the bad! But I had faith. Not only did I cook them, but I cooked them for guests. In a Thai-style broth, absolutely incredible. We all gobbled them up and I bought two more boxes after that.

Last night’s dinner of roasted turkey was a traditional one, including mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, pickled red onions (a new favorite), and apple pie. But since we were a former Arizona-New Mexico crowd, not just any apple pie. This was a green chile and cheddar apple pie with piñon strudel.

Except for the brining of the turkey, all parts of this dinner were prepared starting around 3pm for a 6pm arrival. But not on purpose. Of all days to lose electricity, this had to be the day. And not just for an hour like usual, but for three hours, between 11am and 2pm. When it came back on and I realized how much work there was still to do, I had a few moments of severe panic (as I inevitably do before every dinner party), secretly wishing the electricity stayed out a little longer so I had no choice but to delay another day.

You see, the company had designated this week as “interior spraying for mosquitos” week, which they do maybe every six months or so. This is a big deal. They come inside, ask you to take down all your artwork, move all your furniture away from the interior walls and cover everything with spare bedsheets, and then they spray all the interior walls with a white potion that settles over everything. Which is toxic to cats. (But not people, they assure me, even though the guy behind the sprayer is dressed like he’s walking into an infectious disease laboratory.) All the baseboards, the door frames, the tile floors, and anything else that got in the way needs to be wiped clean. This happened two days before my little Thanksgiving party, and I was still cleaning up the mess and putting things back in place. (Viviane is out on maternity leave. Man do I miss her.)

So when the power came back on, I finished the last bit of cleaning I was in the middle of (leaving certain doors strategically closed), debated about my options to get out of this dinner party, then decided to hang in there and start cooking. It helped that I had managed to prep one other little thing ahead of time. The pickled red onions needed only a kettle full of boiling water to get going, so at lunchtime I took my kettle over to the neighbor’s patio and plugged it in. (He’s the only one on our block with a generator.) In fact, I made lunch for Seb and myself the same way. I had planned to make gazpacho, which thankfully requires only a blender. So I loaded it up with ingredients and Seb helped me carry the machinery over to the neighbor’s patio. Whizz, whizz, voila. Lunch. If only an oven could be carried as easily.

It’s days like this when I wish there was a McDonald’s around the corner. Here, I don’t have the luxury to say “You mean on top of all this I have to make lunch too? I give up!” or “I’m tired! Let’s go out.” We must eat, and every meal must be made from scratch, unless there are leftovers in the fridge. Not to say we don’t have a stash of instant soup mixes, popcorn, papadoms or other quick cheats that require only a kettle or a microwave. And we have on occasion made a meal out of cheese, crackers and wine. But for the most part cooking is an obligatory twice-daily ritual, with the occasional interruptions or invites elsewhere.

Cholera has made a reappearance this rainy season, for the first time in several years. In fact, one of my former English students came down with it just this week. Since the outbreak started, we have been boiling our water even though our well is supposed to be safe. And all of our produce that doesn’t get peeled, like the spinach I made last night, gets a bleach rinse. It may be overkill since I’m cooking it anyway, but better safe than sorry. And these things take time and space, you know? The spinach has to be rinsed of debris, then soaked for a good 10 minutes in a bleach solution, then soaked in clear water twice more. Labor intensive.

Somehow I got everything done. When the guests arrived the turkey had just come out of the oven to start resting. The potatoes were done, sitting over a pot of simmering water to keep them warm. The red onions were done. The spinach was in the final stage. The homemade pie crust was baked, the filling was done; I had only to assemble it and finish the strudel before baking it while we ate. I had managed to make the house look presentable (if you didn’t look too closely) and myself as well (ditto on the looking too closely). The only thing I skipped was making a gravy from the turkey drippings. About 10 minutes before the turkey was done, knowing I wouldn’t have any energy left for gravy, I cheated with an instant packet. Which turned out awful. So one of our guests jumped up and made homemade gravy for me while I poured my first, long-awaited, well-deserved glass of wine.

And you know what? Everything tasted delicious, maybe even better than I could do back home. Here, cooking is harder. It takes more time, more effort, more substitutions and creative solutions. Maybe it tastes better only in our imagination, because we’re so surprised it came out at all. We do what we can with what we’ve got. We cut mold off bread, and rotten parts out of tomatoes. We sift bugs out of flour. We try lots of things that sound gross or crazy. (Like those mussels.) This is Congo. This is how we roll.

8 comments

  1. Jen, I am thoroughly impresses! Everything you made sounds delish. You are going to have to share the pie recepie with me. Glad it all turned out wonderful despite all the obstacles. Much love ..,

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    1. It wasn’t quite as elaborate as the Thanksgiving we shared at your place… but still, wish you could jump on a plane and come join me for a weekend here! Would be fun. Hope you saw the recipes posted below…

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    1. Totally. I hope I’ll get a chance soon to post more about some of the strange and wonderful foodie things we have around here. BTW, I love your avatar!

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  2. Recipes!
    the pie: http://www.documentingourdinner.com/2011/10/23/the-best-one-yet/
    the ribs: http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/maple-roasted-pork-spareribs
    the mussels: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Steamed-Mussels-in-Thai-Curry-Sauce-106614#ixzz1WQygZRhv
    the turkey: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/good-eats-roast-turkey-recipe.html
    the onions: http://www.food.com/recipe/pickled-red-onions-38910

    I give the pie 4 stars, but it’s worth a try for its uniqueness alone. Don’t be afraid of HOT green chiles, they’ll be totally mellowed out by the end, but DO be afraid of too much liquid which can make the crust go mushy. If you’re lucky and it comes out dry, then serve it with some cream or ice cream. Delicious. The turkey is the best as far as roast turkeys go… nice and moist, even turkey dissenters like it. The ribs and the mussels are two favorite 5-star recipes in my book. The onions came from a friend’s Moosewood cookbook but I found a copy online. They rock.

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  3. Thanksgiving in March – there’s nothing wrong with that! Sounds delicious. And I really like the new look of your page.

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