by Michael Cotter
The summer of 1984, my wife Joanne and I headed off for assignments—our first as a tandem couple—to Kinshasa, capital of what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My parents, inveterate world travelers, decided to visit us that Christmas. At that time the quality of life in Kinshasa for foreigners depended largely on whether the government had reached a debt payment schedule with the IMF that allowed merchants to convert the local currency “Zaires” to foreign currency, thus enabling them to resupply stocks. When an IMF program was in effect, imported products were widely available; without one and no access to foreign exchange, the food choices could be considerably more limited.
As Christmas and the visit approached we learned that a Belgian-owned shop in town offered geese from France, brought in fresh several days before the holiday. This was the same shop that generally imported mussels from Belgium every Tuesday. So I went to the shop and duly ordered a goose. We had invited some British and Scandinavian colleagues to join our festivities and decided a 10 pound bird would probably suffice, there being plenty of side dishes.
Two days before Christmas, parents happily ensconced in our apartment, the shop called to say the goose had arrived. I went down with a large quantity of Zaires and returned home with a hefty plastic bag. When we opened the bag in the kitchen, to our surprise what emerged was a dead, but otherwise complete, goose—head, feet and feathers intact. Happily it had been gutted, but that was all. Although as youngsters many years earlier we had both witnessed the process, neither of us had any idea how to clean and de-feather a fowl and our Christmas dinner suddenly seemed to be in danger.
To the rescue came the parents, considerably older and wiser in the ways of dealing with undressed fowl. While we both went off to our jobs, Pat and Lois Cotter spent Christmas Eve plucking feathers, pulling pin feathers, cutting off the feet and head (it turns out that there is some feature in a goose’s neck that one can blow into and imitate a honk—who knew??). Unfortunately, that turned our 10 pound goose into a 6 pound, oven-ready bird, hardly enough to feed ten hearty appetites. A quick trip to a local store produced a couple of frozen chickens to round out the menu.
Of course, the frozen chicken solution was not without its downside. Zaire was one of the few African countries that had relations with South Africa during the apartheid era. At the time Cubans were active on the side of the government in the Angolan Civil War, and South Africa and pro-western Zaire were assisting the UNITAS rebels. So South African products were readily available in Kinshasa, including frozen chickens. The drawback was that South African producers fed their chickens fish meal so the birds had a distinctive fishy flavor, however well one dosed them with herbs and spices.
In any event, the dinner was a great success. We had managed to procure some British Christmas “crackers” with their surprise treats and paper hats. Everyone had a merry time.
Our plan was to leave the day after Christmas for a safari in Kenya and Tanzania with parents in tow. On their way to see us Pat and Lois had visited friends in Buenos Aires and flew via South African Airways. That meant they had to get visas to transit through Johannesburg. Since we were going to Kenya, which would not admit visitors who had been to South Africa, we had warned the parents to insist on having their South African visa stamps entered on separate pieces of paper, something South African authorities were more than happy to do. Unfortunately, tired after a long flight, they failed to do so. Fortunately, we learned about this on Christmas Eve and were able to prevail on our good friend the consul to go to the embassy on Christmas Day to issue them temporary passports. Another crisis averted.
(Coda: That decision came back to bite them. A few years later they were flying to Europe from Chicago and discovered at the airport that they had grabbed the temporary passports, long since expired. Only an emergency phone call to Michael’s brother in Milwaukee, who raced down with the correct passports, saved the day.)