Years ago I lived in West Africa, in the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt, infamous for its role in the Biafra civil war of the late 1960’s. A decade later the infrastructure of the city had recovered somewhat, but not completely.
Electric power was erratic, to say the least. Our only reliable source of water was from the holding tanks in the garden, filled by tank truck once a month. The food supply was also undependable, as the country was trying to be self-sufficient. The government often banned the importation of necessary staples, trying to force the agricultural sector to produce more food. Gastronomically, it was an interesting although trying time.
Christmas was coming and I began to wonder what I could find to serve as a main course for the holiday feast. Certainly not a ham; this was Muslim territory and pork was mainly unavailable. The government had stopped the importation of beef. Goose was unheard of, we were sick of the scrawny chickens sold in the market, and the only turkey offered for sale were huge drumsticks that had to be slowly roasted for hours before they were tender enough to slice. What to do, what to do?
And then, Mamadou gave me a real, live turkey.
Mamadou was a very nice man who did business with my husband, Jean-Alfred. He had a carpenter shop and Jean-Alfred often had Mamadou build special packing cases whenever personal effects or other items had to be shipped out of the country. Like any businessman, Mamadou gave his good customers gifts from time to time.
He once brought me a bushel of grapefruit with the explanation: “Madam, it be time for to clean my tree.”
Being a good Muslim, Mamadou had two families. His “number one wife” and her children farmed some land in a little village upriver, while his “town wife” and her “picken” lived with him over the carpenter shop. Both families ate well, thanks to the farm. In addition to producing palm oil, ground nuts, grapefruit, mangoes, bananas and cassava, the farm supported a flock of turkeys.
He brought the bird to me a week or so before Christmas. It was a monster of a turkey. If it had stood on tiptoe, it could have tapped me on the shoulder with its beak. And it shrieked like a banshee.
I didn’t know what to do with it. One doesn’t slaughter a gift turkey immediately; it is good manners to keep it alive for a week or so. That way everyone will become aware of the generosity of the donor. But where was I going to keep it?
We lived in a large apartment in a building that housed five other expatriate families associated with the company Jean-Alfred worked for. All of the household servants for these apartments, together with their “town families”, lived in quarters built over the garages at the back of the property. With the food supply being what it was, I didn’t give the turkey a chance of living another 24 hours if it was confined somewhere in the garden surrounding our building.
I told the house boys to put the turkey on the balcony. It was Saturday morning. The men worked half-days on Saturday and we expatriates got together every Saturday afternoon for gin and lunch and then more gin. It was the traditional way of starting the weekend in a former British colony. This particular Saturday the lunch was being held at our apartment.
The floor plan of the apartment resembled a dumb-bell, with the bedrooms and baths on one large end, the kitchen and dining room on the other large end, and the living room in the long, narrow middle section. The north side of the living room had a large balcony, reached by doors from the kitchen and from the hall leading to the bedrooms. Another wide balcony was off the master bedroom, facing south. We put the turkey on this south-facing balcony and continued our preparations for the communal luncheon.
We could hear the turkey shrieking now and then. West African streets are always home to assorted livestock: goats, chickens, a few pathetic dogs. The turkey was probably responding to a rooster’s crow.
Noon came, the guests arrived, eventually we had lunch. After the meal everyone returned to the living room for some serious drinking. The house boys were still on duty in their white uniforms and bare feet, bringing more ice, emptying ashtrays, proud that their “white mans” were hosting a big party. Now and then I saw them passing from the kitchen to the bedroom wing via the balcony off the living room.
Suddenly the cook, Joseph, burst into the room.
”Madam, Madam,” he cried. “The turkey, he faint!”
He rushed out again, in the direction of the bedrooms. Then he and the head boy, Friday, appeared, carrying the turkey between them. Friday was in front, holding the turkey by its feet. Joseph brought up the rear, grasping the bird by its wing pits. The turkey’s long neck dangled, the head and beak bouncing against Joseph’s ankles as the two men ran forward.
”He go faint, he go faint!” one of them yelled. “Oh! Oh! The sun, he be too much for Mr. Turkey.”
The room erupted. One or two women screamed. My downstairs neighbors' kids danced around, trying to pet the turkey. Both dogs started barking. The cat streaked up the window drapes and crouched, hissing, on the curtain pole.
”Get him out of here!” Jean-Alfred commanded. “Take him to the kitchen. Put cold water on his head. After that, bring more ice!” Dear Jean-Alfred, always the perfect host.
The turkey was revived and lived another week. We kept him on the south balcony in the morning, on the north balcony in the afternoon. Then Joseph took him down to the yard and cut his head off with a machete.
When dressed out, it was apparent that the turkey was one tough bird. I marinated it in two gallons of cheap plonk for four days and produced a reasonably-tender turkey au vin for our Christmas meal.