Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Very African Thanksgiving

My friend Dave and I weaved ourselves through Marché St. Michel. Heat beat down through the metal roofing making the market mamas even feistier and more difficult than usual. In broken French they asked, “What do you want?” and we said “Todo todo,” the word for turkey in Fon.

We found one quickly. He was beautiful, shiny feathers, large, with an illustrious chin flapping from his beak. We looked at others, but in the end, this one would be our thanksgiving dinner. He would be named America.

Dave had to stay in the city, but fortunately, Carla needed a ride back to Ouidah. America, now stuffed in a cement sack half his size, warmed my back. He was the original turkey sandwich, between myself and Carla, on the back of my motorcycle.  Just his head rested outside of bag, his face catching the hot afternoon wind rolling off of my shoulders.

 Upon arrival in Ouidah, we jumped off the motorcycle and presented Adrien with the turkey. “It’s old,” he said. I cursed myself for not knowing the difference between an old and young turkey while Adrien snipped off the cords that tied America’s wings and feet together. He stepped out of his sack, fluffed his feathers into full glory and approached is new wife, Lucy, who had all too eagerly been awaiting the arrival of a male turkey in my household. This eagerness was all too evident when, seconds out of the shopping bag, America mounted Lucy, and the poult-making began.

The next days passed all too quickly for dear old America. In addition to a lot of intimate time with Lucy, he wandered around the yard, eating, bothering the other animals, and assuming his position as the largest and prettiest bird in the yard. The ducks would not mess with him, nor would the chickens. The dogs would coyly approach him, and back off as his hissing and gobbling became more furious.  Lucy counted the days with eggs, all while fluffing up her feathers to keep his attention. 

And then the fatal day came. I sat in front of my work computer, surfing youtube. I found it – how to slaughter a turkey.  I watched the video over and over. I made Jacob sit down and watch it twice. He explained it to Adrien. The fattened factory farm turkeys were two times the size of America, but we assumed the process was the same. The deed was done that night.  America was no more.
Jacob posing with America on the Eve of Thanksgiving
America spent his post-life day swimming in a bath of rosemary, sage, and salt. A makeshift spit-oven was created. Lydia and I dug a foot deep hole in the ground. We placed cinderblocks around the hole, and placed a metal basin that would rest in between the fire and America.

At 7 o’clock I woke up and realized that I had slept in! I wanted to start the fire much earlier! All day, I spent sitting around the fire watching the bird cook. Tirelessly I turned the bird on the spit, adding water to the basin to conserve some of the drippings. On and on the day went until 5 o’clock when my guests agreed that it was time to eat.

Lydia carved the turkey. Oh no – red. We were sure the juices were dripping cleanly, but it’s a turkey and there’s a lot of meat to be cooked. She carved off for us to start eating and Adrien set up a make shift grill to cook the rest of it quickly.
Lydia and I posing in front of our spit oven. 

Nancy Mashing Potatoes.
We had it all – sweet potatoes, stuffing, buttery mashed potatoes, beans, and a fruit salad.  Thanksgiving has a spirit unparalleled by other American holidays. No one expects anything, but to eat. And everyone helps. This is my fourth thanksgiving in Benin, and I’m amazed by how easy it is to recreate that environment, even when I’m not with family.  Wherever you are, you can recreate it.

You might have to raise and or kill a turkey.
You might have to roast it on a spit.

Although his flavor was great, America was tough. But who could complain? It was Thanksgiving.  

America lives on in Lucy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Turkeys Roasting on an Open Fire. . .

A few weeks ago I wrote an e-mail to Lynne Rossetto Kasper to ask her what to do about my Thanksgiving turkey. A few days later, I received a call from her and this last weekend (November 19th) the show aired.

Check out the show at or specifically the podcast here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Me and Pope Benny

This afternoon, Pope Benedict XIV will arrive in Cotonou, Benin. Tomorrow, Friday, he will visit Ouidah! It's funny being on the outskirts of all this, since there was a time in my life so dedicated to putting on religious events.

Anyway, no I'm not involved. I may be on the streets, so watch coverage of his visit. I shouldn't be too hard to find.

Fortunately, I stick out.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Me and My Poultry. . .

So now that I’m no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, my life has changed in some very drastic ways.  I can ride a motorcycle, I was able to pick my own house, have Adrien his brother Jacob live with me, and best of all, have poultry!

Yes, that’s right, among the many things that Peace Corps regulates, it’s the ownership of poultry. I think this is a direct result of the Bird Flu, but even that isn’t so clear. Sure, I may have dabbled in poultry before –  Adrien kept some Guinea fowl in front of my old house in village.  But, now that I’m on my own, it’s no holds bar poultry raising.  

Mr. and Mrs. Duck. This is actually the second female, the first one
ironically drowned in yet to be finished/covered septic tank. 

It started with ducks.  I don’t know why, but this was my first choice.  I felt like ducks just seemed right for me. They're not noisy. They like water.  Adrien likes to say “When I’m having a hard day, I can just look at the ducks and it all goes away."  It also all goes away with the chickens he bought, and the rabbits, and the two dogs.

But in the end there was really just one bird I wanted.

A turkey.

The original idea was to buy a turkey a few months in advance of Thanksgiving to be eaten at the fete. I don’t know what I was thinking. How could I live side by side with a Turkey and then kill it for dinner?  
Even still, as one of my last PCV friends left me behind, I decided to pass on her name to the turkey. So, Lucy the turkey, is probably going to get the Thanksgiving Day pardon.  Her gobble-gobbling all day long brings peace to my hectic life. For me, she's the bird that makes it all go away. 

Lucy is the queen of the yard. She puts all the other birds in their
places, and no one eats until she's done. 

 Shoot. I need to get another turkey! Thanksgiving is coming.

This is Chef. I have no reason to post a picture of Chef in this blogpost,
except that he's really cute. Chef keeps trying to eat poultry feed which makes
his poop looks grainy. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Still in Benin. . .

Dear Friends and Family,

This last year has been crazy! You may have noted that my formerly prolific blog posting stopped quickly after I arrived in Ouidah at the International Center for Art and Music in Ouidah (CIAMO) . I started as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer, and now I've become the director! I'm no longer a volunteer, but rather living a simple expat life in Ouidah.

Even still, I have so much to share! After my long vacation from my blog I'm back! I'll be sharing my work at CIAMO as well as my reactions to life here, to help to give you a feel of my everyday experience.

For the time being, check out some of my own creative work and affairs:

Leni and the Songwriters - I filmed and edited a short documentary on our collaboration by internet with our artist in residence at the center.

Life in Ouidah - My colleague Sarah and I taught film making to a group of high school kids. The kids produced videos on just that, life in Ouidah, the city where I live.  Here are a few of my favorites:

At the Heart of Vodun - My friend Wilfrid and I have been working on a blog that documents little by little Vodun (voodoo) ceremonies and music. This is really interesting - Vodun is often misunderstand, and we're hoping to promote a better understanding of it abroad.  Check out the blog - .

Anyway, best to you all, more to come!

John Mark