Sketches of an African Childhood, 1: Biltong Days

When I was a child in Africa, I embarked on a lifelong love of Biltong. At that time, we lived in a little Zimbabwean town called Masvingo (pronounced "Mah-sheengo," the sh whistling slightly). Every Saturday morning, we drove to town--a single street lined with shops of various kinds. They are all rather vague to me now, all except one: the butcher's.

The place itself contained the standard glass counters displaying meats in various states of mastication. The butcher, however... Ah, the butcher! Now this was what all butchers should look like! A massive man, towering seven feet above a small boy, his immense girth wrapped in an apron that looked like a herd of cows had exploded there. Atop his giant, carnivorous body rested an equally impressive head, the essence of butcherliness: red, round and jowelled, with an abundant moustacheless beard.

Shocking blue eyes and a grin greeted us as we entered. "Ah, Errol!" he cried in his almost impenetrable Rhodesian accent (like the South African accent, but sharper).

My father returned the greeting in his usual quiet way. The giant butcher, whose name I have forgotten, turned his sky-blue eyes on me. "So young man," he said. "What can I do for you, eh?"

The moment had come. All the way to town I had been holding the green plastic ice cream container. Last Saturday, the container had been full, growing steadily lighter through the week, until now, empty, washed, dried, it stood ready to be refilled. I raised this hallowed receptacle to the giant butcher and murmured, "Some biltong please."

He grinned. "All right then!" Reaching over the counter and down to where I stood, he plucked the container from my hands with fingers that I imagined had wrung the necks of innumerable beasts. He lumbered away towards the back, where in the dimness hung great ropes of sausage and slabs of beef, air curing under a fan.

The giant butcher took down one of these slabs and bore it to the slicer, working it back and forth as the blessed slivers fell, until at last the ice cream container was full and overflowing. The butcher pressed the lid on tight and handed it down with a broad smile. "Enjoy your biltong, young man!" I nodded and thanked him, cradling the container in both arms.

So my week was reborn. Every afternoon that week I lay propped up on my bed with a copy of Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators in the Mystery of the Moaning Cave. As I followed Jupiter and his gang through the Hictchcockian twists of their adventures, I dipped regularly into the container of biltong tucked by my side, and began again the cycle that drew me inexorably to the next Saturday and the shop of the giant butcher.

Many years later, I learned how to make Biltong myself. Cut strips of good lean beef with the grain. Dip in apple cider vinegar, then in a mix of coriander, pepper and salt, cloves, and brown sugar. Allow to rest for six hours, then wash in vinegar again and hang to dry in the air for a week. Slice up, or eat straight off the strip, as the original Dutch Boer settlers did.

Knowing all this now, however, I do not believe the knowledge could possibly have enriched me then. During those afternoons, life achieved a kind of perfection, with Hitchcock's plots leading my imagination, with the warm, dust-dry air off the Zimbabwean veld washing over me from the open window, and the slivers of Biltong--peppery sweet and salty on my tongue--tasting like belonging itself.

Comments

Leanne Parrott said…
I've never had biltong, but this entry really made me crave some beef jerky. Are they similar?

(Of course, this could just be my Lenten cravings for meat talking too...)

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