So, the thing about Libreville is this. When you find something at the store that you really, really need…or just really, really want, you should buy it. And not just one. You should buy every one they have on the shelves. Brand loyalty is a luxury. In the states, I was a loyal Las Palmas Enchilda Sauce buyer. I would skip the store brand potato chips for Utz even if they weren’t on sale. But here, you buy what you can. For example, the other day I bought frozen Halal (Arabic for “kosher”) meatballs. I don’t know why they were sanctioned, but they were. And they were good…which was a step up from the last frozen meatballs I bought which turned out to be chicken and potato ground together and cooked to form some strange crusty outside and soft and mushy inside. They did not improve the unknown jar of spaghetti sauce that I had purchased at the same time. I can only hope that “bolagnaise” on the label meant a meat that is, in fact, “halal”…and not, say for example, dog.
With Thanksgiving coming up, I knew I had to be on the lookout for certain things. And when I found them, I knew I had better buy them. For Thansgiving this year, a friend of mine who is half-American volunteered to host dinner for about 40 people – 12 couples and their ensuing offspring. Of the 24 adults, 5 ½ of us are American. The deal is this: we make Thanksgiving dinner to give the Frenchies (et al) a taste of America, and in a couple of weeks, they will make us a traditional French dinner. So, out of the Americans represented in this scenario, 2 are men and oddly, did not volunteer to cook. With an extra British friend thrown in for cooking purposes (and because we love her, of course!), there are 5 cooks. We all know that turkey is the centerpiece of any traditional Thanksgiving dinner. But, a whole turkey in Libreville, when you can find one, runs about $120 USD. I love my friends, but not that much. And it turns out, I’m not a $120 friend either, so we all went with Plan B. Everyone chose a few sides to make and agreed to buy a turkey breast or two and some legs. We would cook those, bring our sides and a proper Thanksgiving dinner would ensue.
Following the standards of Libreville shopping, I came across frozen turkey breasts and legs a couple of weeks ago, so I bought a breast and a couple of legs. I will devote an entire blog to this later, but we have a housekeeper named Elise. I adore her and she does amazing things like cook dinner when I am out getting the girls from school, so I come home to a surprise meal a time or two a week. And while I have adapted many of my habits to Libreville, the one place I still struggle is dinner. I am less of a weekly menu planner and more of a “what do I have in the house? Oh look, it’s cereal” kind of cook. Which means that whatever is available is what’s for dinner…and since I was so ahead of the game in buying my Thanksgiving turkey parts, I came home to a lovely roast turkey breast last week, which followed a deliciously baked turkey leg and potatoes the week before.
No problem I thought. I could just run out and get some more on Wednesday. Again, an entire blog will be written one of these days just to describe the joy that is grocery shopping here, but in the meantime, suffice it to say, that it can be a chore, especially when dragging three sweaty, and oftentimes, grumpy children along. Anyway, I get to the store where turkey should have been and there was none. Well, I shouldn’t say “none.” There were wings and feet. But somehow that didn’t seem quite as festive. But like I mentioned before, I am Plan B kinda girl. When faced with an obstacle, I have no problem going for the next best thing. So I bought a chicken. A big, juicy frozen chicken. My rationale was that I would get nearly as much meat from this particular bird, and it would look pretty all roasted up and brown.
I left the giant chicken out to thaw overnight and bright and early Thursday morning, it was ready to go. This is when I chose to actually looked at the label. “Coq a Mijoter” it read. Now, I know that to order steamed dumplings at the Chinese restaurant, we ask for Ravioli Mijoter…so this was a steaming chicken? Then I saw the little picture of a simmering pot. Didn’t take long to figure out that I did not buy a Roasting Chicken. I bought a Stewing Rooster. The only thing I could figure is that for a rooster to be this big, he must have been old. And probably went down with a fight. Which would explain the giant thighs, which were, as it turns out, well-muscled as opposed to plump. My cooking skills are limited to only those things with which I am familiar. Like pasta. Cooking old, angry rooster was a bit out of my league. So I did what cooks have been doing for generations, I googled it. Come to find out, “coq a vin” is the primary rooster dish of choice…but even then, half the recipes called for a Cornish game hen or some other more accommodating bird. But thanks to Bob in France, I got a 15 page blog entry complete with pictures and lengthy descriptions of his trip to the store, his conversation with the butcher, his various cooking implements, the color, size and types of pots used and the general weather conditions. There’s marinating and boiling and baking and stewing and pounding and chopping and finally eating, at which point one has become nearly too weak to hold the fork. What I really took away, though, is that roosters take days to cook. I only had 8 hours to make this bad boy edible.
OK, so what do you do to make meat more tender? You can boil it. By this time, the girls had finished laughing at me and we agreed to name our rooster “Ricky.” I got out my largest pot and in Ricky went. Only problem was that he was too big to fit.
So I had to boil him head down for the first hour, then flip him. In the midst of all of this rooster handling, it came to my attention that he still had feathers in various places. Now, not only was I boiling his butt, I was plucking feathers from his neck. It just went downhill from there. After a few hours, I gave up, threw him in a pan, tossed him in the oven and called it a day.
Fortunately, a friend had called in the meantime to tell me that she had found turkey breasts somewhere else. After I told her that I had bought a rooster and she could breathe again, I begged a proper turkey breast off of her and within an hour, the girls were downstairs making a streetside turkey purchase through her car window. Thanksgiving was saved!
But now it was time to make the rolls.
Fourteen cups of flour later, I thought everything was pretty well under control until I realized that I didn’t have a rolling pin. After mashing the dough around for a while, I went for the wine bottle…works just as well as a rolling pin.
It works even better if you have Emma in the background doing her best late-night infomercial voice “Introducing the all new 2-in-1 rolling pin! It’s the rolling pin you can drink! Perfect for my mom!” Darling child. Not one to disappoint, I poured a glass or two just to make sure it would still work half-full. It did.
Fast-forward to Thanksgiving dinner. I showed up 2 hours later than I planned, because everything I volunteered to cook required the oven…and I had been drinking wine since noon. My rooster was hard as a rock, my turkey breast was dry, the stuffing was soggy and the rolls had refused to rise and looked like “shoes” to quote a friend. I think that is only because she wanted to use “shoes” in the description but thought “they taste like shoes” would be offensive. Ironically, they all got eaten – mainly because my Italian friend said they tasted like gnocchi. Thanksgiving gnocchi…just like the Pilgrims ate.
But, in the end, I have to say, Ricky saved the day. Not only did he make a nice centerpiece, he could also be picked up by the leg, swung around and not fall apart (I have photographic evidence). PLUS, he supplied the gravy. When someone said, “Wow, this gravy is great!” I just smiled and left out the part about the rooster.
The next day, Elise helped by chopping Ricky up and cooking him down into a nice soup. When I gave it to the girls for lunch, I told them that this was part of Thanksgiving tradition, you always ate soup made from the leftovers. Emma’s response was, “Seriously? Rooster soup. That’s what you always ate after Thanksgiving?” She makes a good point. I just reminded her to be thankful it wasn’t monkey.
So from farmyard to freezer to a Thanksgiving table in Gabon, that, my friends, is the story of Ricky the Thanksgiving Rooster.