Foods of the World

A Memory by Emile Joubert

Kevin said only girls read cookery books, he was going to the football section. I pointed to the shelf and said there was something I must show him.

The library was unusually busy, even for a Saturday morning. A lot of other children were mulling about the book-shelves and in the open area on the other side of the entrance where readings were held on Saturday mornings. Miss Dot, the librarian, was checking library cards with a smile on her face – she loved her library to be full – and her silver-framed spectacles glistened under the fluorescent lights. Outside, it was raining. Again. But I had only been in England for a few months, and quite liked the rain. Back home in South Africa my father’s family, who farmed in the Swartland, always told me that rain was a blessing from God, and that every drop must be appreciated.

Here, in Mill Hill in northern London, my father’s family would be blessed for a lot of the time.

I pulled a book from the shelf and called to Kevin. Africa. South Africa. Come look, I said, pointing to the cover. The title was The Cooking of Africa, one of the books in a series my Mom collected called “Foods of the World”. At home we had The Cooking of Italy, The Cooking of Provincial France and The Cooking of Spain and Portugal. Here was one of Africa, and in it a section about South Africa, my country. Kevin was always asking me to tell him about or show him pictures of home. Before I came to England, kids like him had never heard of South Africa, never-mind knowing an actual living human from there.

I placed the book on the wooden surface of one of the lower shelves and paged through it until I found the words “South Africa”. There were pictures of wide-open spaces baking under the sun, of sheep and cattle, of pots filled with stews and chunks of meat roasting over coals. You could smell the veld and the animals through the page, and the food looked mouth-watering. Kevin walked over to the same shelf my book had come from and returned with another one from the series: The Cooking of the British Isles. He placed it next to mine and opened it. We were engrossed in the pictures: roast beef, Irish stew, smoked salmon.

“You boys like to eat?” said a voice, a man’s voice. I looked up and saw a very tall, thin man, about the age of my grand-father. He pointed to the two books open in-front of us. “Not many boys your age come in here pottering about cookery-books, now are there?”

The man stooped to get a closer look at the open pages. He smelt of cigarettes and moth-balls. “Ah, roast-beef, now that does look good.”

Kevin, who was never shy, told the man that his Gran makes better roast-beef than this one in the cookery-book, but her steak-and-kidney pudding was better.

The man put his hand through his thin hair, which was slicked-back on his head. “Tell you boys what,” he said, “it is not beef or pork or chicken that is the best meat. Do you know what is?”

He looked at me with pale blue eyes and then at Kevin. “Springbok,” I said. “At home in South Africa we shoot springbok and cook them.”

The man seemed interested in my story, but slowly shook his head. “Not them either,” he said, looking around to ensure none of the other children were close-by to our little corner of the library. “The best meat,” he whispered, “is human meat.” Kevin and I looked at each other. I could see Kevin was trying to hold in a smile, like he always did when he farted in class.

“But this you should know,” said the man as we turned to him. He was now leaning casually against the book-shelf. “Animals, well, they have to run outside in the rain, fight off the elements, worry about foxes and badgers, and walk long distances looking for food….humans, we just sit around and eat pork-pies and beans. Therefore, humans have soft meat, the most tender meat.”

He spoke like I wished more teachers would. Saying something interesting, if a little weird, and in a very enthusiastic voice which was almost friendly. Almost like he knew me. Or us. Saying something he wanted to share and was keen for us to hear.

“You see, everyone talks about steak, don’t they now?” he continued. “You lads had steak? Liked it?”

I nodded and said my Dad would sometimes cook fillet steak on the fire. When it wasn’t raining.

“Wow!” the man said softly. “Well, I’m sure the steak your Dad cooks is very, very good. But wait until, one day, he cooks you a fillet of a young boy or girl.” He stood up straight, turned slightly, and ran his thumb along his back. “That is where the fillet is,” he said and turned back to leaning against the book-shelf. “With a sharp knife, you slice from top to bottom and cut the fillet away from the spine of the boy or girl. It is a beautiful piece of steak.” He whispered, looking around. “Medum-rare is best.”

I thought about this, about the fillet steak. How to cut it, how to cook it. But most of all, how to get said boy or girl in a condition from which they could present themselves for the careful slicing and cutting he had described. Was this about killing? Because that’s what all meat is, I thought, killing.

The open book before Kevin showed cows grazing in a green pasture beneath a gloomy grey sky. Probably somewhere in England. Kevin pointed to the cows. “What about ox-tail?” he said, looking at the man. “I like ox-tail stew. Boys and girls don’t have tails.”

It was as if the man was waiting for Kevin’s question. He seemed delighted to hear it, a slight crooked smile appearing on his face and his eyes glistening.

“Oh, yes,” he said to Kevin. Then looking at me. “That ox-tail is delicious. But….” he raised one hand, wriggling all five fingers, “we have these.” We stared at him with equal degrees of curiosity, despite the fact that I had never had ox-tail before.

“You see,” said the man, now stroking one hand with the other, “if you get a sturdy boy or girl, they will have nicely developed strong hands. Thus, just cut-off the fingers one-by-one. And then, chop the severed fingers in half – the thumbs have hard bones, so be careful, but their meat is best.” He looked at Kevin. “The fingers have the same sort of bones as the tail of an ox, just that the meat is tastier and more tender. So, like I am sure your mother does, you fry the finger-pieces with onions, add carrots, celery and some wine. And let it cook in the oven for a few hours.”

The man looked at the roof, shaking his head slowly from side-to-side. “Oh Lord, you boys have made me so hungry,” he said. “I haven’t had finger-stew for such very, very long time.”

I looked down at the open page of my book. The picture of the lamb-chop suddenly looked very boring.

“Best be going,” the man said, standing-up straight. “It was awfully nice chatting.” And then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone. Although I could still smell mothballs and cigarettes.

Kevin and I put the books back in the shelf, not saying anything to one another. It now seemed very stuffy in the library, and I was wanting to get outside, even if it was still raining. I picked-up the two Willard Price novels I was going to take home. Kevin had a bunch of Biggles books to check-out, and also wanted to go. His interest in the football section had, apparently, waned.

I led the way to the counter where Miss Dot did the library-card rigmarole. It was quieter now, most of the other children were heading over to the reading area. Miss Dot looked up from her desk and smiled as I handed my books and library card to her. She looked at me and then reached across my way to take Kevin’s card.

“You lads not staying for the reading?” she asked in an accusing sort of way. She pointed across to where the children were now seated, waiting for the reader. The reader was seated, the thin and balding man, the same man from the cookery book section. A little girl was climbing onto his lap, and just then he looked across the eager heads before him and caught my eye, and smiled.

“Mister Dahl, that is,” whispered Miss Dot, nudging in his direction. “Mister Roald Dahl. He tells awfully good stories.”

  • First published in The Jack Journal

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7 thoughts on “Foods of the World

  1. Roald Dahl WOW!! Now that’s an experience to be remembered throughout your life. Dankie vir die deel Emile. Hierdie was een van my gunsteling stories uit jou pen!

  2. Brilliant memory Emile. My distant cousin was his kids’ au pair … apparently a difficult old bugger in the end.

    1. Thank you! In Dahl’s autobiography ‘Storyteller’ the author tells of a South African au pair who brought him a bottle of SA wine. It was poured down the sink and deemed as ‘piss’!

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