In Part 1, I discussed eating animal parts that, while technically edible, are difficult for modern Westerners. Yet, when you put it in context, it is much more normal to eat goat head or camel hump than it is to eat, oh, processed cheese spread, for example. Looking at the big picture of human history, taking into account poverty and richness, it makes a lot more sense to use all of an animal for food, and keep the skin to store water or make tents out of, than it does to waste most of it. I’m not preaching—I much prefer boneless/skinless myself and I’ve already confessed to the world that I can’t eat organs without gagging. Like Michelle commented last time, I’m also very brave when it comes to vegetables.
In Part 1, I mentioned my mother was a good cook. But she also made many dishes I hated! I was unlucky enough to be the only person in my family who hated liver—even my brothers liked it. You wouldn’t believe how happy I was the day they announced it was high in cholesterol, and she stopped eating it. (I still remember this day; like people who remember what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, or the space shuttle blew up. Only mine is happy) My mother loves steak and kidney pie; even as a child I hated it. But go back a generation or two, and everybody ate everything. It is only in very recent times that we’ve had the luxury of being picky—because it is a luxury, make no mistake.
Today’s post is about being served non-edible parts of the animal. You should probably not be eating while you read this unless you have an unusually strong stomach.
It was late February, 2003. The kids always get a week off school at this time, and it is the perfect time to go camping in the interior—not too hot yet. We decided to visit the ancient city of Oulatta, 1200 km away on the Malian border. We went with our friends Tim and Debbie, and also with two women named Jamie and Carrie, who were at that time working with street children here. A Mauritanian friend of Tim’s asked if we would drop him off at his village; only an hour or so off the main road. We agreed.
When Americans travel the desert, they tend to bring picnic supplies along—long-life cheese (see above; it’s processed to within an inch of its life!) and bread, cookies, apples, cold Cokes in a cooler filled with ice. Mauritanians, on the other hand, if they are going to eat, tend to stop at the little “restaurants” along the main highway. I put it in quotes because the word “restaurant” will conjure up the wrong image in your mind. These are permanent tents, with thin, hard matlas round the edges and mats laid on the sand, open to the winds. You lie down, choose a bit of meat, and off they go to cook it for you. It usually takes a couple of hours, and your meat will be gritty and grisly. I personally hate these restaurants but Donn rather likes them; he enjoys leaning back in the shade while the hot wind blows on his face, sipping a glass of strong mint tea. He’d happily go live in the desert in a tent for a year if he could talk me into it.
Traveling with a Mauritanian meant we stopped for tea, and for lunch, and all in all, it was dark by the time we got to Kiffa, where we needed to turn north off the paved road to find his village. “It’s a very poor village and they’ll want to feed us,” warned Tim. “We need to bring something.” I was all up for a bag of rice, but instead we bought a goat.
We tied the poor thing to the top of the car and set off in the dark along an unmarked path. The man knew the way, and guided Tim expertly, while we bumped along in his wake. We arrived in the village under dim starlight, stumbled out of our cars, presented the goat. The animal was immediately slaughtered, right next to our car which was a bit disconcerting.
The villagers spread some mats out under the stars and some prickly thorn trees, and we sat down to wait for our meal to cook. This was a village poor even by Mauritanian standards; just some permanent grass-and-mud huts under the thorn trees, the goat droppings in the sand echoing the stars above in number and pattern. They didn’t even have their own well; each day the women had to walk 2 km with plastic bidons atop their heads.
We waited and waited. Jamie and Carrie, who spoke a little Pulaar, went off to practice their language on the women; the rest of us, limited to Hassiniya, French or English, hung out on the mats. The kids went to sleep. I dozed off as well, only to be woken by a flashlight in my eyes at 1 a.m. Supper was ready.
There was a platter for the men and a platter for the women. Debbie, Carrie, Jamie and I gathered round. We took turns holding a flashlight between neck and shoulder, so we could see what we were eating. We tore bits of sandy bread off and sopped up meat and onion sauce. When I was holding the flashlight, I kept noticing a little dark round ball in my section. “Must be a blood clot,” I kept thinking to myself desperately.
Finally I faced facts. I shone the light more closely. I pointed it out to the others. “I don’t think that’s supposed to be in with the food,” said Carrie. She was right. It was a goat turd.
Nobody ate much after that. We discussed it, in English. It couldn’t have been cooked, right?, because it would have turned to mush. It must have just been on the platter. But how?
We soon sat back, and our platter was passed on to the waiting, hungry, village children, who had it wiped clean within seconds. Soon we were settled for the night on low wooden platforms, raised about 6 inches off the ground to protect from scorpions and snakes. The two families slept here; the single women were swept off to the privacy of the huts. In the morning we gathered round for breakfast. The village women had already been to the well and had water for us; for drinking, making tea, etc. I could see the inside of the Jerri can and bits of whatever coating it originally had were flaking off into that water. Between that and the previous night’s experience, I was sure this trip was going to be one long misery—we were certain to all get sick.
But we didn’t. We survived and thrived, and enjoyed seeing interesting rock formations, an ancient city, and a live crocodile about 4 feet away from my son. Whereas I have stayed in much more sanitary places and gotten some really nasty parasites. (My fail proof Lose-Weight-Quick plan)
I would like to clarify that I have stayed in several different villages, and they were all much cleaner than this one. I would also point out the difficulties of keeping clean when you have to walk 2 km for water, and carry it back.
But when we went back to our car, there stuck in the cleft of a nearby thorn tree was the goat’s head from the night before, its tongue hanging out.
We happily left them to it, and went on our way to Oulatta. (pronounce to rhyme with alotta. Walotta.)