Last month I had the amazing privilege of being a part of a huge family celebration from the food preparations on Saturday to the party clean-up on Monday. It was an unbelievable amount of work that brought with it great joy, satisfaction, honor, experiences of all kinds and some hard lessons as well. Celebrations here in South Africa have their own traditions and rituals. On Saturday morning I rode in the back of a little pick-up truck with the meat of an entire cow, the head nearly resting in my lap. After unloading all the meat the first major task was to clean and prepare the intestine and stomach to be cooked. It took five of us almost two hours to clean, trim and portion it all. If there was ever a time I had to shut off my nose and breathe through my mouth this was it. These huge flies, hundreds of them, could smell the intestine from miles away and came to feast on the goods. But as we were handling it the flies were landing all over us too. The cow intestine is a highly desirable part of the cow and is what is eaten the night before a party. Family and friends arrived that evening for a meal of pap (staple porridge) and intestine. The next morning it was back to the cutting board preparing beetroot, squash, potato salad, bean salad, fried chicken, more pap, soup and cooking more beef.
The party was to celebrate my sister’s graduation from college. We fed about two hundred people that day. After everyone was fed the drinking began. And boy can these people drink and party. There is something about South Africans that lean them towards music played at ear-piercingly loud volumes. Every event I have attended it is the same. The sound system is turned up so loud there isn’t even room in my head for my own thoughts. This party was no exception. It’s mostly men who drink but the women tend to do it on-the-sly. When it comes to drinking they are serious about it. When you live in poverty where you can’t even put food on your table and you attend a celebration where alcohol is served it’s like a get-out-of-your-life free card for one night.
The day after was clean-up day. Women appeared from all over to come scrub the big cast-iron kettles, do dishes and pick up the trash left from the night before. Let me make a note that trashcans rarely exist here. Even when they are made available at a party they are seldom used. It is disturbingly acceptable to drop your bottle/trash where you are when you are done with it. On this day my Aunt woke up at 4:00am to make fresh biscuits for all the help. Another party must-do. When people come to clean you need to have tea and biscuits to offer them when they take a break and when they are done. The men’s job is to grill the rest of the beef and cook the cow’s head. All the help is also fed a meal before they leave. When the cow’s head is done all the men, and only the men, gather around it with a huge bowl of porridge and eat standing up. They were like vultures tearing at this cow’s head. My sepedi wowed them and I was able to get in on some of this action. Some were not so gracious but others realized I just wanted to join them for the experience not to threaten their manhood. So I can now say that I have eaten cow brain, eye, heart, spleen and marrow. One gentleman told me to put my palm out. He knocked a huge bone on my hand and out came a huge glop of marrow. I slurped it right up like a pro. I must admit that everything has a same similar flavor but varying textures.
In the course of three days we consumed and entire cow. No part was wasted and it all had it’s own place in the celebration. The amount of work hours it took to pull an event off like this was amazing. There is no such thing as cutting corners or purchasing anything packaged or frozen-prepared or disposable. It is part of the custom here that when someone you know is having a party you show up to help. Everyone lends their fire kettles, dishes, bowls, plastic ware and their own two hands. It felt really good to be a part of such an event. Did I mention that I slaughtered twenty-eight chickens myself for this party? That’s a whole other story that will have to wait.