I LOVE THE BREAD HERE. Its dense, slightly under-baked and when served warm, the butter 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.
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.
Lene is a twenty-year old waif. A good kid, but, like many Cape Verdeans, will take up any excuse to point out Cape Verdean’s strength and ability over American’s. I’m not the best person to contradict these unremitting challenges, especially when they concentrate on such manly pursuits as fishing, farming and drinking, but there’s only so many “Bo ka sabi”s (you don’t knows) and “Nos e mas ki bo”s (we’re better than yous) one can withstand. A little ways into my third piece Lene counseled me to stop. He had a half-sincerity in his eyes, the other half was occupied by an I told you so, you weak American-kind of look.
“Jay. Stop after four. You’re little stomach won’t give.”
I didn’t respond, like Homer Simpson, all I could think was “can’t talk, eating.”
After I had finished the third, Lene spoke up once more, “Jay. You can eat five. But afterwards you’re going to feel terrible.”
I seized the opportunity, “Wait. Before you said four, and now you’re turning around and saying five. What’s that about?” There was a split-second of silence and then an eruption of laughter, Lene sheepishly acknowledging his folly. A part of me felt as though I had won the bet already.
After six, reality began to catch up. I was faltering. I was asking for water. I was no longer sitting but pacing back and forth. Each bite felt like I was chewing through hardening cement. Moreover, time was not on my side. I had less then twenty-five minutes to put down four. All this and the crowd was growing. The pressure not to disappoint grew with each face that popped in. Those people that earlier had been coming and going were now stopping to see where I was at. They looked at me and chuckled, “Djey, no senti” (Jay, no sense). Some of the older women advised me to stop, their motherly instinct projected onto the increasing misery of my face. But in Va and the others, in between their harassment, I saw solidarity, a desire for me to pull it out. Like Cool Hand Luke I was doing it for the greater cause. It was that that got me through numbers six and seven.
By eight the party moved outside. A chair was brought and placed under the big acacia tree out front. Now, it was a crowd. The current record-holder, Pico, who had put down nine and a half, had even made it out. Though he didn’t look all that pleased by this pathetic American challenge, it was nice to see he cared. Between bites and chews, I did my best to listen. They called me stupid, crazy, too small. They told me to give it to the kids. They said I should stop. I would get sick. I would die. It was like John Madden, mind numbing, yet essential.
In the end, I failed. The hour struck, my hands holding parts of the ninth. When Va let me know, I spit out the mealy remains from my mouth and gave the rest to a few kids standing around. Holding myself up on the nearest wall, I dangled my head as if the next act was already scripted. Everyone around was expecting me to rabinda (vomit) they were practically cheering me on. Honestly, I was expecting it. But the reality dictated otherwise. The solid mass of dough anchored in my bowels wasn’t about to brave gravity. But if it did, I knew I’d swallow it down. This whole, gluttonous spectacle was about stymieing expectations, and I’d suffer in private rather then fulfilling them.
Realizing that the show was over, most folk went on their way. I hung around a little while longer, entertaining Va and a few stragglers with my twists and groans, before heading back to the house. My host family had already gotten word and was quick with the asides. One brother asked if it felt like I was pregnant. I told him that it was like being pregnant with bread (the bun in the oven reference apparently isn’t cross-cultural). One of my sisters kept making comments about how surprising it is that my little stomach, which normally fails to meet their demands, took down so many. Despite it though, I still had to connive my way out of lunch. At least now they knew for sure what I liked.
In the lull that is village life, the incident would soon trickle through ears and mouths, creating an amusing anecdote about the American. For a time, it would open conversations and even manifest a nickname, “NuPao.” The fact that I failed in my attempt would often be forgotten, replaced by shock and appreciation; appreciation that rose from my willingness to do such a thing. I suppose the solidarity rung true. Yet, eventually it passed on, only occasionally remembered by Va and his buddies when they would spot me in the middle of eating something. It’s conscious value faded into more the subconscious implications. It seemed as though an identity took shape, and I, who was once simply known, suddenly started to become it.
Jayant Kairam is still spending his mornings eating bread in the small fishing village of Rincon, Cape Verde. As for the rest of the day, he normally spends that carrying out the various responsibilities of the community development Volunteer, which range from organizing garbage clean-ups to running a women’s association and credit union. He graduated from Vassar College in 2003 and will be finishing up his service in September 2006. If you have any suggestions for what he might pursue in 2007 and beyond you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.