Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tabaski and Thanksgiving 2010


Our Tabaski Ram
Back home in Virginia, November, brings with it, a chill in the air, an earlier and prolonged evening, and the last of the leaves to fall from the trees.  Here in Senegal, however, it’s still hot, there’s been no time change, and the leaves on the few trees that are scattered about are as green as ever despite the fact that everything around them is dry and brown.  One thing that does feel the same about this time of year, though, is the holiday spirit.  Two months and 10 days after Korité, which this year happened to fall on November 17th, Muslims around the world celebrate, Eid el-Kebir, the Feast of Sacrifice, known in Senegal as Tabaski.  This holiday recognizes Ibrihima’s (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of submission to God.  At the last minute, however, the Archangel Gabriel made a little switcheroo and replaced his son with a ram.  Lucky for baby Ishmael, apparently it was just the thought that counted.  In celebration of this miraculous event, Senegalese save up their money and purchase one (or many) rams, goats, or cows (depending on their wealth) and slaughter them in the name of Allah.  Families travel great distances and spend more money than they actually have to be together for this celebration.  Even my host mother, Khady, opens her doors to welcome her family of 30 who live next door even though the rest of the year she prefers they stay behind the wall that divides the two households.

Freshly ground pepper over onions
Peeling potatoes

Our ram waiting its fate.

The kiddos watching the sacrifice
Carrying the marinade

Transferring the meat to the cauldron
A feast to behold

Holiday preparations started the night before when Khady and I sat at an outdoor table in the courtyard and peeled and chopped 10 kilos of onions and 15 heads of garlic.  The next day, we continued with the food preparations: cooking, peeling, and mashing a sack of potatoes, pounding pepper, and making marinade with her nieces.  [NOTE:  THIS IS WHERE YOU SHOULD TURN YOUR HEAD AND SKIP DOWN TO THE NEXT SECTION IF YOU HAVE A WEAK STOMACH.]  Mid-morning, we were summoned next door, where our ram had joined three others, and watched as my uncles said a prayer and, in turn, laid each ram on it’s left side with it’s head facing Mecca, and slit it’s throat over a hole in the sand.  Sorry, sounds gruesome I know and it pretty much was.  Like sleeping dogs dreaming about chasing rabbits, the rams kicked their legs well after they should have stopped moving.  Ghastly noises came from their severed tracheae as their carotid arteries drained into a pool of blood, while, young children gathered round the perimeter to watch.  I hid behind my camera to document the event, hoping that peering through the 2” x 3” screen would make it a little less awful.  The men then very skillfully skinned and gutted the animals and brought the meat back over to our compound for cooking.  Khady and the girls hacked away at the large carcass sections with machetes to make manageable pieces for cooking.

[OKAY, IT’S SAFE TO COME BACK NOW.]  We marinated the mouton (French for sheep) in a blend of Dijon mustard, onion juice, vinegar, and pepper (both black and red); the onions were pulled out of the marinade and cooked to make a sauce.  After tossing the meat in the marinade, we put it in large cauldron to stew over a wood fire before grilling each piece over charcoal.  The meal was served on platters artfully arranged with a big heaping pile of meat in the center, surrounded by onion sauce and dollops of mashed potatoes, then peppered with green olives.  We ate in segregated groups of men, women, and children and used our hands and pieces of bread to feed ourselves.  At my platter, it was not uncommon to see two women tugging at either side of a big piece of meat to free it from it’s bone.  I have to say, tearing into freshly-killed meat like that felt a little barbaric.

After lunch, and I mean immediately after lunch, the food left on the platters was consolidated to one tray and a subgroup of people started eating once again, leaving nothing to spare.  Soon after that, one of my cousins tasked herself with picking meat from the bones of  some other pieces that had been stewing all day and another group of women started deep-fat frying innards.  It was a veritable meat-fest all day long.  Throughout the day, most people were wearing and showing off the new clothes they’d had made for the occasion and almost all of the women were sporting new hair extensions.  These are really big here in Senegal and come in all shapes and sizes.  To my surprise, in the late afternoon/early evening, people began changing into formal attire--I’m talking sequined ball gowns.  Neighbors came a-calling and little kids went house-to-house requesting small treats and money.  As my mom and her nieces sat around her salon de vivre (living room) all dressed up with no where to go, I recalled a now-infamous statement my grandmother once made on Thanksgiving morning several years ago when hours had been spent prepping for an outdoor brunch on a very cold Oregon morning.  After we ate, we were all huddled around a fire, wrapped up in our coats and scarves to keep warm when she looked up and exclaimed, “well, this is just stupid!”   Acknowledging this at some point in the day has become a holiday tradition in my family.

So, that got me thinking about whether Tabaski really is very different than the holiday that we’re used to celebrating at this time of year?  Granted, Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, but aside from the brief prayer said before the sacrifice (and don‘t most families say some sort of grace before carving into the turkey?), this didn’t feel very religious either.  Families and friends gather together to spend quality time with one another, love is expressed through the sharing of food, and we all put on our fancy clothes to remind ourselves that we can clean up every once in a while.  As Americans, we just tend to sweep the icky part under the carpet and let someone else do our slaughtering for us.  I went to college in Rockingham County, VA, which proclaims itself to be The Turkey Capital and recall watching the horrifying daily migration of semi-trucks loaded with commercially-raised live turkeys headed to the processing plant.  I won’t get on a soap box about eating locally vs. commercially grown foods, but even I, who already has strong feelings in that direction, had my eyes opened a bit as I watched my Senegalese family buy, feed, and care for their meal well in advance of bringing it to their table.  Slow food at its finest.

Click here to view a play-by-play (uncensored) album of my Tabaski experience  (Come on, be brave. There are a lot of great pictures in this album.)

A fancy Thanksgiving

Well, lucky for me, I also got to enjoy celebrating an American Thanksgiving here in Senegal.   About 60 Peace Corps volunteers and staff members joined the Ambassador at her residence for a delightfully civilized Thanksgiving feast.  This was my first trip into Dakar that wasn’t an organized event, so that in itself added to the festiveness of it all.  Everyone who came into town traveled individually or in small groups so the arrivals at the regional house were spread out over a couple of days.

I arrived from Thiès with my friend Jackie after we’d both attended a short French workshop earlier in the week.  She was able to show me the ropes on getting into and around Dakar.  Our journey was short (it took just under 2 hours from Thiès), but that included 1) pulling off the highway 6 times to lift the hood of the car to wiggle a few wires so the engine would start again,  2) waiting while the driver got a ticket for going the wrong way down the street, and 3) being yelled at by a street vendor for running over a shoe, luckily there was no foot in the shoe, but the vendor was irritated nonetheless.  Taking all of that into consideration, we made pretty good time and the driver took us directly to our destination--a hotel bar downtown that was serving 2-for-1 happy hour drinks…halleluiah, a real glass of red wine (well, 2 actually!)  I tried my best to ignore the fact that the wine was served cold, because it was served in a real wine glass, with a stem and everything--plus one does not turn down anything cold in this hellaciously hot country.  We met several other PCVs there and one of them had a friend visiting from home (NOTE TO FRIENDS & FAMILY:  This is a mighty fine idea for next year, so give it some thought.)  We dined in a neighboring hotel’s restaurant and had Thai Beef Salads…a nice change of pace from our current diet of rice and fish.

One artichoke = $7 US, aack!
The following day we all planned our side dishes for Thanksgiving dinner and, after a trip to the Peace Corps Headquarters for meeting, we descended up Casino, the French super-grocery store down the street from the office.  O--M--G!  It was glorious.  I’ve never been so dumbstruck in a grocery store before.  By American standards, I have to admit that this was really just an ordinary nice medium sized grocery store, along the lines of Kroger or Giant, but to our deprived eyes, it was like wandering into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.  Everything was so bright and shiny.  There was a large deli case full of nothing but cheeses and there was a full size produce aisle with things other than carrots, cabbages, and manioc--green things, many many green things.  We spent over an hour in there just wandering up and down the aisles with our mouths gaped open.  A lot of what was offered was ridiculously priced, but it was nice just to know that it’s there, if ever I really want it.  In the end, I maintained restraint and bought only the few things I needed to cook a couple of meals at the Regional house while I was there and make my side dish for Thanksgiving.  I also splurged on a bottle of wine, some hair product, and face lotion.

We arrived back at the house just in time for a regional house costume party.  The invitation requested that we “come dressed as would have been appropriate at the first Thanksgiving ”.  We had some interesting interpretations to that theme and if I had to give out prizes they would have been to:

  • 1st  Prize - Small Pox -- a person covered in colorful hole punch reinforcers who spent the evening “spreading the disease”, targeting the Indians first, of course.
  • 2nd Prize - The Niña, The Pinta, and The Santa Maria -- 3 people decked out in African waxcloth duds patterned with tall ships….and yes, it took many people several hours to realize that they had arrived to dinner a couple of centuries too late.
  • 3rd Prize - A Center-Piece with accompanying candelabra  -- this 3-person costume centered around a bridesmaid‘s dress that arrived in a care package too late for the wedding.
  • Runners Up - to all the Pilgrims, Indians, and Turkeys because they were so creative in the construction of their costumes, and to the Macy’s Day Parade Charlie Brown Float, cause that was thinking outside the box!!

Small Pox scoping out the Indians

PCVs being as un-PC as we can be

The Niña, the Pinta, & the Santa Maria

Waddle she think of next?

Note the traced-hand turkey skirt

Centerpiece with Candelabras

A mighty fine pilgrim hat
A Macy's Parade Float
We make due with what we have..

The next day volunteer and staff kitchens around the city were all aflutter in preparation for our big meal with the ambassador.  I made Moroccan Carrots (see below for recipe), and we had a variety of other tasty vittles, including casseroles, roasted vegetables, mashed potatoes, cornbread, salads, pies, etc…  Although we’d all cleaned up well for our arrival to dinner, the pots and pans we transported the food in had been seen better days.  Luckily, the ambassador’s staff transferred everything to china serving platters and it all looked as lovely as it tasted.  Her Excellency, Madam Bernicat, not only opened her home and provided us with her good company for this event, but she also supplied three golden brown turkeys and an endless supply of chilled wine and freshly brewed coffee.  Ahhh, what an enjoyable evening.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of you good tax-paying American citizens.  That was just the dose of home that I needed.

Making Pasta Salad

Finding our names on the Guest List

A beautifully set table.
Enjoying pre-dinner cocktails

The buffet

Plating up!

Her Excellency capturing a shot

Moroccan Carrots

1 lb. carrots, peeled and sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup white wine vinegar
½ tsp. cumin
¼ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp. cayenne
¼ tsp. salt
Chopped parsley and/or cilantro

1.  Cooked carrots until just fork tender (al dente).
2.  Mix remaining ingredients (minus the parsley/cilantro) and marinate the carrots in this mixture at room temperature for several hours.
3.  Stir in chopped parsley/cilantro just before serving.

This dish was passed down from my father’s boss Candace.  It’s easy to prepare and carry to a pot luck and is ALWAYS the hit of the party.


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  2. April - As always, your writing is smart and funny. I loved the contrast between the Muslim holiday and Thanksgiving. As you point out, there are many similarities between the cultures, and you can bet that the original Pilgrims didn't get frozen turkeys delivered from a store, but had to slaughter their own. I will be very curious to see your reaction *next* year, now that you've been through all this and are fully prepared.

    Entertaining and informative as always. Thank you.

  3. Such vibrant photos! Beautiful. Kudos on your commitment to write it all down as this will serve as such a wonderful account as years go on and your now vivid experiences will fade in your memory. Wish so desperately that I could be there...OK, I'd skip the goat sacrifice as I've had my fill of those for this lifetime. Un abrazo fuerte/Bises, Kimber