In the US, a good sandwich is one of those simple pleasures you take for granted; it’s almost a birthright. Good deli meat is really hard to come by in Jinja. In an area where refrigeration is expensive, cold cuts are not a common local meal. But here in Uganda, if you are willing to put in the effort you can usually get something pretty close to what you want.
One of my workers, Cossi, also raises turkeys. I know, it’s weird to think they have turkeys here but they do. Turkeys are not native to Uganda they were imported by someone long ago and now it’s not surprising to find them in the markets. But they can be pretty expensive; about $40 for a good one. However, they are much cheaper if you go directly to the farmer. When I visited Cossi’s village I bought a 25-pound turkey for 50,000 shillings (about $20). I named him Drumstick.
The problem with buying from the farmer becomes transportation of the live bird. I had to bring it with me on the trip home- a 30 minute motorcycle ride followed by 2 and a half hours in a taxi-bus into Jinja and another 5 minute motorcycle ride home. Cossi tied up Drumstick’s wings and feet and I carried the turkey on my lap while riding on the back of the motorcycles. All the Ugandans I passed laughed at the sight of a Muzungu on a boda with a turkey stretched across his lap. When I got to the taxi park the driver threw Drumstick into the trunk. My blue-jeans were full of turkey poop- apparently turkeys get the crap scared out of them when riding motorcycles. This was going to be a long taxi ride.
The trip home was pretty miserable, but I dropped Drumstick off at my friend Bobby’s house for safe keeping until we could cook him. My roommate has two guard dogs that would make quick work of Drumstick if I kept him in our yard.
The following weekend Bobby and I did the deed. If you’re not too keen on the details of slaughtering a turkey skip to the next paragraph. The most humane way to slaughter a turkey is to start by tying its feet together and hanging it upside down by the string. Then, to minimize the blood splatter that occurs during the bird’s death throws, pierce the floppy part of the neck with a wire and attach some weight to the wire to keep the head down. Apparently the floppy skin on a turkey’s neck doesn’t have any nerves. They also don’t feel it when you make two slits on the neck and it slowly bleeds to death. Out of reflex it will go into wild death throws and then it will settle down. De-feathering is more difficult than with a chicken but it’s the same process of dunking the bird into nearly boiling water to loosen up the feathers then plucking away and re-dunking as necessary. After the feathers were removed we brought Drumstick into the kitchen and removed the organs. Taking out the digestive system is pretty easy because everything stays together for the most part. It’s kind of like the clown pulling a line of hanker-chiefs out of his mouth- only this time it is intestines and stomach being pulled out of the rectum cavity (that would be the last birthday party that clown every worked). Removing the lungs was the hardest part for me- basically it’s like scooping out the seeds from a pumpkin with your bare hands, but you have to go elbows deep to reach them.
Bobby put the skinned and cleaned bird in a brine and we left him to sit over night. Bobby has been in Uganda for around 5 years. He is a renaissance man so-to-speak. He runs a ministry that has pretty diverse programs- a restaurant, coffee manufacturing, community development projects, well pump repair, and he’s working on writing a curriculum for teaching the Busoga Language to English speakers. A few weeks before our turkey project Bobby made a meat smoker using an old oil drum.
The next day Bobby quartered the bird and we smoked it for about 6 hours. We burned some local hard woods, no hickory over here, but we threw in some sugar cane stalks out of curiosity. Meanwhile Bobby’s wife made some mashed potatoes (by the way, Ugandans call them Irish- it’s one of my favorite names of things here). We invited some friends over and had a turkey dinner. The dinner was great- probably the best turkey dinner I’ve ever had outside of the US (coincidentally it was also the only turkey dinner I’ve had outside the US).
But the dinner wasn’t the goal. The sandwich was the goal. So keeping our eye on the prize we didn’t eat any of the breast meat at the dinner. We put the breasts through Bobby’s deli slicer (Bobby has all sorts of gadgets). We yielded about 4 pounds of glorious deli sliced smoked turkey breast.
In my opinion you can have the best ingredients possible but if the bread isn’t right then the sandwich will be a failure. Luckily Jinja has an excellent baker in the form of an 80-year-old Australian lady named Jude. She owns a little restaurant, Ozzy’s, that has arguably the best burger in Uganda. She sells loafs of all kinds of bread and other bakery delights like cinnamon rolls; and she just started making doughnuts. I picked up a loaf of dark wheat bread to lay the foundation of my sandwich.
Once and a while the local grocery shops will surprise you. This happened when I found a jar of Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce. It was expensive, but I had already spent a lot of money for this sandwich and when you have good cards with a lot of chips in play you don’t fold the hand because someone has upped the bet. I also bought some bacon and a cup of cream cheese of dubious merit. Later in the kitchen I was constructing this masterpiece of East African Sandwich Making and thankfully, my roommate interrupted my work and offered some of his coveted Philadelphia Cream Cheese he had brought from the US (it’s possible to make the 35 hour trip and maintain cheese by freezing it and keeping it insulated).
I made a spread by warming the cream cheese and stirring in some of the cranberry sauce. The bread was toasted and the bacon fried. Layer upon layer of goodness. The only things on my plate were two of these sandwiches. No garnish. No side dish. No distractions. Without stopping for a photograph I took a big bite.
A few days later I made this same sandwich with some other sandwich deprived friends of mine. We finished the meal by lying on the floor with our feet elevated on the dining chairs. This was the sandwich that dreams are made of. Was it the best tasting sandwich I’ve ever had? No, but it was the most satisfying!
Here’s the moral of the story: Daily life takes more effort here- both the physical effort of limited convenience and also the emotional effort of missing the way things are at home- but sometimes that makes the enjoyment higher when everything comes together.