Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Let Him Eat Bread
   by Jayant Kairam (Cape Verde 2004–06)
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I LOVE THE BREAD HERE. Its dense, slightly under-baked and when served warm, the butterPrinter friendly version melts into its nooks and crannies just like the way it did in those old Thomas’ English Muffins commercials. Outfitted with a cup of dark, saccharine coffee its like the body and blood (This, after all, being a Catholic country I have to find my biblical allusions somewhere). It’s the only way I can conceive starting my day and when those times come when the plate is bare, I am inconsolable. The emptiness becomes an unforgiving omen — a black cloud that forebodes that the day just can’t be that good.
It has always been a little treasure for me. And in the year and change that I’ve been here it has yet to lose its charm. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the act itself — the knowledge I have of where it comes from, who is making it, how it is bought, how it is served that makes it so special. These are things that food, when bought at the neighborhood Stop N Shop, never possessed. I have risen at five in the morning, before the light of day, to see the first batch go in, to try my hand at scooping them out of the cavernous stone oven. Every morning, I sit at the wobbly plastic table, and wait as Maria, my host mother, steadfastly prepares my breakfast. Bringing in one item at a time, and quietly ordering them before me, while handing one of the many youngsters a kitchen towel to fetch the freshest of the lot.
Discussing food with Cape Verdeans is like reliving past glories with an old high school buddy. It’s nice, but after awhile hashing out the same stories gets old. How many times can one really hear that midju di terra e mas sabi (Cape Verdean corn is the best) or cachupa ta da_u forca (Cathcupa — a local dish — will give you strength)? But this is how it is with many things here: music, people, religion. Repetition is one of those traits that develop when variety is a privilege, an affectation in a way. I found myself in a conversation with one of the local high-schoolers, Va, a typical teenager who likes to talk to me about sex and action flicks. We were seated at the ponta, the spot in town where men gather in the morning to watch the fishing boats go out. At some point the banter stalled, and as we sat silently, I grew more and more restless.
“Titina makes the best bread in Cape Verde,” I said.
“Better than Assomada (the nearest town)?” he asked.
“You’re joking right? That stuff from Assomada is trash. I could eat Titina’s bread all day.” I’ve never fancied myself as much of a gambler, risk-taker, etc. Playing it safe is more of a credo of life for me — but on this particular occasion, endowed with a strange confidence, I felt I had no choice. “I bet I could eat ten in an hour.”
     At first, Va laughed it off. I couldn’t blame him for taking it as a lark, one of those glib statements I’m prone to make in both Krioulu and English. But I pressed the issue and continued to bring it up as we left the ponta and headed to the Poli in search of some morning soccer. Eventually, at a point somewhere between gasps for air and painful barefoot sprints across the concrete floor, we reached an agreement. The posta would go down that Sunday. If I won, then he would pay the 100 escudos, if I didn’t, then I would. A swell rose up in my stomach.

grogue = local alcoholic drink made from distilled sugar cane juice THE INITIAL MINUTES were a bit confusing. Titina’s was already crowded with the early afternoon grogue-pounders. People moving in and out, looking for that missing lunch ingredient. When we first entered, no one was behind the counter. Va provided a final escape, which I stoutly refused, and then disappeared into the back of the house-store in search of someone to start slicing and buttering. He returned with a young girl, pointed out a seat for me, and brought over the first round. I checked my watch, gave a quick glance to the others in the room, one of whom was already doubled-over in a fit of laughter, and took my first bite.
Cape Verdeans enjoy a good show as much as anyone. This is at heart a very relaxed, let’s throw one back type of culture. It’s a strange foil to their fatalism. But such a paradox is quite normal here. Or maybe it’s hardly a paradox at all. When all else seems hopeless, why not just have a good time while you can? The first two went down easily enough. Two is my normal take. A quarter into the third I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that I was getting more than I had bargained for. Perhaps I had overestimated myself. Or maybe I was just being neurotic. Hadn’t found my groove, my stride. I tried to relax my nerves with this last thought, while hiding my doubts under a veneer of nonchalance. Thankfully, most of my audience seemed more interested in my curious eating style. They appeared perplexed by my unorthodox bites, tears and rotations. I chalked it up to clever strategizing.

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