A Royal Feast
A royal feast.—On the banks of the Ovenga.—Preparations.—The bill of fare.—A taste of elephant and a mouthful of monkey.
A Royal feast is to be given to me: a real feast, where the King is going to show me what are the splendors of his kitchen department. That feast is to take place in the equatorial regions of Western Africa, on the banks of the Ovenga River.
King Obindji is to give the repast. My friend King Quengueza and myself will be the guests at the feast, and it promises to be a great affair.
For some time past hunters have gone into the forest to kill and trap game, fishermen have been catching fish, and the women have been watching their plantain-trees and their cassada plantations, while the boys have been scouring the forest to look after wild fruits.
A good deal of pottery has been manufactured, so that they may have plenty of cooking-pots. Earthen jars have also been made in great numbers, so that vessels for palm wine may be abundant. The women have also worked steadily in making mats, so that many might be spread on the ground. Several boloko have been made. What a strange kind of arm-chair those bolokos are! King Obindji delights to rest upon one. A large shade has been built, so that Quengueza and myself will have plenty of room. Oralas are abundant, and meat has been smoked in abundance during these last few days.
At last the day of the feast has come. There is a great stir in the village. The hunters have all returned, the men have also come back from their fishing excursion, and for the last few days a great quantity of palm wine has been collected. Bakalai chiefs have come from all the surrounding country, with a great number of their wives and of their people; they are all scattered about over the little olakas round the village. After the feast a grand palaver is to come off, and the affairs of the country will be discussed. Friend Quengueza seems to be the King of the Kings, for they all show him great marks of respect.
Toward noon the tables are set. Do not think for a moment that I mean real tables; I mean the mats are laid on the ground. Under our shade several mats are put, and many are scattered under the trees round. Quengueza and I are to eat under the shade, the other chiefs under the trees.
The drums begin to beat, wild songs are sung, and there is a great stir. The wives of the King have all turned cooks, and are all busy; the village seems to be in a blaze of smoke, for every thing is cooking, and soon the repast is to be ready.
All sorts of pleasant odors are coming out of these pots: what curious dishes some of them will be!
The drums are beating furiously again and again. Twenty of the King's wives have come out, each bringing a dish with her, which they deposit on the mats.
Then Obindji came to Quengueza and to me, and bade us come and sit before what was presented to us, and tasted of every dish to show us that no food was poisoned, for such is the custom of the country.
What a curious bill of fare! I must give it to you, and I will try to remember it all.
First, there was a huge pot containing an enormous piece of an elephant, which had been boiling since the day before, so that the meat might be tender. Another dish was the boiled smoked foot of an elephant, which had been specially cooked for me, this being considered by many the best piece.
Then came a large piece of boiled crocodile, the broth of which was recommended to us, lemon juice and Cayenne pepper having been bountifully mixed with it to give it a flavor. Then came a charming monkey, which had been roasted entire on a blazing fire of charcoal. The little fellow seemed to be nothing but a ball of fat, and looked wonderfully like a roasted baby. It was cooked to perfection, and really had a fine flavor.
Then a huge leg of a wild boar made its appearance, the flavor of which was very high, and it must have been killed days before; but these people like their game high; in fact, it is often decomposed when eaten.
Then came the boiled tongue of the Bos brachicheros, the wild buffalo. Another dish was boiled buffalo ribs. This latter had been cooked with the ndika, a kind of paste made from the seed of the wild mango fruit; this was put close to me, Quengueza never touching the buffalo meat, some of his ancestors having long ago given birth to a buffalo (at least so he said), and his clan, the Abouya, never taste buffalo.
Then came a dish of smoked mongon (otter); another of antelope, called kambi, and a beautiful little gazelle, called ncheri. These meats had all been smoked a long time. In the centre there were two huge baskets of plantains, which were to be used as bread.
Do not think this is the end of the bill of fare. The fishes are still to come, as well as other African dainties.
An enormous dish of manatee was next brought in, which was immediately followed by another dish of boiled mullet. Then came some land and water turtles. I wondered why a boiled snake had not made its appearance, and also some roast gorilla and chimpanzee, these to be surrounded by a few mice and rats. But these are entirely Bakalai dishes, no Commi eating those animals.
It was a sumptuous feast. Obindji was in his glory, and that drummers sang, "Who can give such a feast to the Ntangani except Obindji? Obindji has a fetich"—they continued singing—"that makes the wild beasts come to him, the fish come to him, the white man come to him!"
Quengueza was seated on one side and I on the other, and round us stood the twenty wives and Obindji's slaves, to wait upon us. Quengueza, who is a great gourmand, took a glance at every dish before him and concluded that he would go into the manatee first, then he would follow up with some fish, and then would pitch into the fat monkey, finishing up with antelope; and he said to me, in his bland and kind manner, that if there was room left he would eat some ncheri (gazelle), but he intended specially to go into the wild boar and the manatee to his heart's content. "Then," said he, close to my ear, "you will give me a little glass of brandy."
I thought I would taste a little of every thing, and bring my stomach to its utmost capacity. Though it was against etiquette, for Obindji could not eat with Quengueza, I told him we had better invite friend Obindji. We called the good fellow, and made him sit with us amid the abundant cheer round us, for all were as merry as they could be.
His Bakalai Majesty was quite proud to eat with a fork which I presented him.
Since Obindji was to eat with us, an addition to the bill of fare—a dish of boiled gorilla—came for his especial benefit; also a dish made of part of a large snake cooked in leaves, the smell of which made Obindji's mouth water.
The people all round us were eating. The first mouthful I put into my mouth caused cheer after cheer to go up. "The ntanga is eating! The ntanga is eating of the elephant!" For I thought I would begin with King Elephant.
It was a pretty tough piece of meat, I assure you; the grain was very coarse, and the meat was somewhat tasteless and rather dry. The boiled elephant's foot was better, and I rather liked it. The elephant meat I did not like; it was really too tough.
Obindji recommended to me a bit of crocodile, and the wife who had cooked it said she had been very careful that there was plenty of Cayenne pepper and of lemon juice, and she was sure the broth was excellent. I must say I did not like the idea of eating of the crocodile; but I wanted to know how it tasted. The flesh was very white—somewhat fishy, I thought—and the grain of the meat coarse. I did not like either the broth or meat. The former was so terribly hot with Cayenne pepper that it tasted of nothing else. I was glad to get through with the crocodile.
The monkey was perfectly delicious; I had not enjoyed any thing so much for a long time, despite his looking so much like a roasted baby. I am sure no venison at home could have tasted better.
The wild boar was so terribly high that I backed out, but friend Quengueza thought it was exquisite; and when he had finished eating it, he told Obindji's head-wife to keep what was left for him, as he intended to eat the whole of it. At the same time he got up as if he wanted to stiffen himself for more food, and then sat down, saying that he was ready to go on again.
Just for fun I offered to friend Quengueza a piece of the tongue of the buffalo and part of his boiled rib. The old chief recoiled, for none of his clan (the Abouya), as I have said, can eat of this meat, for they have a legend that once one of their clan gave birth to such an animal; and if they were to eat of it disease would creep upon them, they would die, and their women would give birth again to such a monster. Quengueza told Obindji that the vessels that cooked the buffalo must be broken, for fear that his wives might cook his food in them.
Every clan has some kind of animal they do not eat. Quengueza assured me that when a boy he saw a woman who had given birth to a crocodile. I scarcely touched the buffalo meat; the otter I did not like. When I came to the antelope my appetite had gone, to my great sorrow, for I am very fond of this dish. I finished up my dinner with a slice of pine-apple. I doubt very much if a more curious dinner could be given anywhere.