How to Eat a Porcupine

Nigerian Road

I was sitting in the backseat of a sleek black Lincoln Town Car, squished alongside three other expats as we barreled down the barren two-lane road between Ibadan and Lagos. Staring out the window at the hot, dusty, hostile Nigerian landscape, I was thinking about how just weeks earlier, I’d been lunching on oysters and chilled white wine in a bustling Parisian brasserie, being wooed by soft words and luxury. Now, this. I scrutinized the parched scrub, which was deathly still in the intense African heat. This was anything but romantic.

A year before, after living on my own in New York City for years, my life and career going exactly nowhere, I’d done what I always do: dropped everything and run away. To the cobbled streets of Paris I’d gone—actually, to a friend’s studio apartment in the 5th I’d gone, armed with a few semesters of high school French, two battered suitcases, and my life savings in traveler’s checks. I was confident that in France, rather, in the fantasy France of my imagination, I’d find love and the life I was intended to lead.

I’ve never been one to think things through. I tend to be impulsive, constantly in motion, abandoning one unfulfilling situation after another, latching onto any opportunity that places itself in front of me and thinking—hoping—that the next prospect, the next choice, will be the one that solves all my problems. Months after moving to Paris, I’d still been feeling unsettled, yet I had finally found romance, if not quite love. Swept off my feet by a tall, dark, handsome foreign correspondent based in Nigeria, I’d one day found myself boarding a plane at Orly to be with him. Without thinking, my 26-year-old self had traded broad Parisian sidewalks, warm croissants, and steak frites for armed guards, quinine tablets, and nights at a chic Japanese joint whose sushi, it turned out, was from fish caught in the bay south of the city—the same bay in which we’d seen a dead body floating.

The love that had brought me to Nigeria had quickly fizzled, though my sense of adventure was still going strong. Road trips were an integral part of daily life, a way to get out from behind the enclosed walls and gates of the expats’ overprotected fortress. These outings often found us whizzing by small groups of two or three locals along the edge of the highway who would be holding unidentifiable animals by the tail with one hand and clutching a machete or club in the other, selling their wares in the scorching sun. “Bushmeat,” my friends had explained. A local curiosity, yes, although these roadside markets charmed me not.

This day, however, my friend and former romantic interest, Chris, suddenly signaled the driver to pull over. I watched nervously as the car came to a stop in front of a man and a woman, empty-handed except for their crude weapons, standing before a bare, bloodstained, ramshackle table, waiting for clients and a new order. One wave of Chris’s hand signifying his interest in the purchase of fresh meat and the two dove deep into the bush, where they were quickly swallowed up by the dry brush.

The rest of us squinted out the window into the sharp glare of the sun from the sweltering backseat, attempting to follow the couple’s movements through the branches. Once they disappeared from view, I silently glanced at my friends to gauge their reactions. One of the group, a university professor who’d seen pretty much everything in his two years here in Nigeria except for this, questioned the wisdom of eating bushmeat with a nervous chuckle and an attempt at a joke. The two others—a fearless British NGO worker and a quiet young American missionary—said nothing, caught somewhere between intrigue and dread. Even Chris was having a hard time hiding his doubts behind his usual bravado.

My eyes turned back to the bush, my mind to the activity hidden deep within the brush. We waited. The air conditioning faded and then clicked off, and the heat in the car intensified. I felt rivulets of sweat trickling slowly down my back as I shifted uncomfortably against the vinyl seat.

After what seemed like hours, the couple reemerged, the man proudly holding a small, fat animal by one of its hind legs. After a quick back-and-forth negotiation in the local language between the couple and our driver, the sale was complete. On that rickety table, fast work was made of the animal with knives of questionable sterility. And then we left with our newspaper-wrapped parcel of skinned meat.

The drive back to our house in Lagos was wrought with silence, broken only by an occasional rumble of nervous laughter. This had been the autumn of my first martini, my first joint, my first scandalous love affair; now, apparently, it would be my first roadkill. My eyes traveled from one face to the next, searching for telltale signs of how my companions were taking in the fact that we were planning to cook and eat unidentified game that had been tossed in the trunk like an old rag. There was some quiet speculation as to what it might be: too small for a monkey and too large for a rat, it was quite possibly a porcupine.

By the time we arrived back at the house, it was less a question of what it was and more of what we would do with it. Chris unceremoniously dumped the parcel on the kitchen counter and peeled away the paper. We stood there, pondering the unappetizing chunk of meat before us. The lusty haunch—plumper and deeper red than a leg of lamb, its ends hacked off unceremoniously—rested against the stained newsprint. Although my fellow dinner mates were all longtime residents of Nigeria, not one had ever seen bushmeat up close. As for me, I’d grown up expecting meat to come from a supermarket or butcher, carefully wrapped in crisp white paper or sealed beneath protective plastic film. I wasn’t feeling at all assured about ingesting such a messy piece of beast.

Our doubts, however, were soon overridden by curiosity. We’d gone to the trouble of procuring the bushmeat, so we really had to try it, we rationalized. Just this once. For the adventure.

Still, there was the problem of how exactly to proceed.

At that moment, June swept into the cramped kitchen. The mother of our young missionary, June was on just her second visit to Nigeria, yet she was the only one who seemed completely at ease—happy, even—about our predicament. She patted the meat firmly and confidently, like a mother slapping the chubby thigh of her toddler. With the patience and indulgence of a schoolmarm speaking to a roomful of children, she explained that bushmeat was no different than game meat, which she’d had her fair share of experience cooking. And with that, the rest of us heaved a collective sigh of relief. Never would I have imagined that this graceful woman, who brought to mind kitten heels and cashmere twin sets, possessed the aplomb to tend a dead rodent of unusual size in an outpost kitchen. But June was clearly at home in any kitchen, rifling through cabinets and examining every last jar in the refrigerator before submerging the haunch in a heady bath of red wine and olive oil made fragrant with herbs and whatever else she’d scavenged from Chris’s cupboards. She placed it in the fridge and made a date with us for the following afternoon.

The next day June returned, bringing red-currant jelly; a jar of salty, beefy British Bovril, another bottle of red wine; and several oranges. Cooing with satisfaction, she removed the meat from its marinade. The rest of us wandered off to take our usual spots in the living room, martinis in hand, while she put the roast in the oven and tended to the sauce on the stove. Then I sat and listened as the others came to terms with our grand adventure. Somewhere between the angst of that car ride home and June’s confidence, everyone’s disgust had faded first to resignation, then to anticipation. There was no turning back now.

After tossing back another martini and taking my place at the table, I hesitated only for a second when the serving platter was passed to me. The meat was fanned out in thin, rosy slices—the outer edges perfectly charred, the interior enticingly moist—and bathed in juices that were fragrant with orange and herbs. There was no indication that this had once been an unpalatable little animal scurrying through the African scrub. I gathered my courage, plunked two slices of meat, along with a dollop of red currant sauce, on my plate, and passed the platter to my left. The others served themselves with equal gusto.

June’s touch had produced an exquisitely tender roast that tasted more like lamb than what I’d imagined porcupine would taste like. There was a hint of the marinade, and the fruity tartness of the sauce was the perfect partner for the strong, wild flavor of what was now, simply and gracefully, game. We cleaned not only our plates, but the entire platter.

The next morning, our small group gathered in the kitchen to indulge in our ritual of gossiping over coffee before heading to work. We were pleased with our little culinary adventure of the previous night as only expats can be. But while the others let loose with smug comments and swagger, I silently sipped my coffee and smiled. I was reliving a terrifyingly bumpy ride on an Aeroflot plane, burgers and fries eaten tête-à-tête with the American ambassador with whom I’d had a dalliance, my initial attempt at bargaining with the women at Lagos’s outdoor food market for everything from bananas to baskets while children scampered about and offered to carry my bags for a price, everything that I’d experienced to get to this place, this moment. The self-conscious girl who’d boarded a plane just two months earlier had given way to an oddly self-confident woman, one who now had a gritty determination to head back to Paris and conquer what she had never before given herself the chance to do: take charge of her life. In that moment, I realized I was made of sterner stuff than I’d ever imagined.

After we finished our coffee, the professor pulled us over to the deep-freeze situated against the far wall, yanked it open, and pointed into the icy mist toward two fat objects bundled in aluminum foil. “Did you see what I brought yesterday?” he asked, as he bent down, hoisted one of the packages from the frozen depths, and peeled back the silver foil to reveal a large, thick slab of something glistening-white. “Rattlesnake!” he laughed. “Someone I know caught and killed it. Should we try and cook it?”

Hungry for more? Chow down on these:


Jamie Schler

About Jamie Schler

Jamie Schler is a writer specializing in food and culture. An American who's lived in France and Italy for more than 25 years, she has a multicultural home and kitchen that are the inspiration for her cooking and her writing. She's spoken at conferences and events around the globe and has been published and featured in publications both in print and online. She's also part of the team behind the From Plate to Page Food Writing & Photography workshops where she is a writing instructor.

Comments
Comments
  1. Larry Noak says:

    So personal and delightful…a journey to the other side of the world with my morning coffee.

  2. diana haines says:

    I loved this story…very well written, makes me almost want to try porcupine…I did say almost.

    • jamie says:

      Ha! Thank you, Diana. I wonder what my reaction would be if I again found myself in a similar situation and was offered it again. And I do think our own adventurous eating experiences always seem tamer than hearing what other people have had to eat and why. My husband was once offered a bowl full of warm walnut oil as the special guest of a family – must have been in Morocco – and could not refuse to drink it at the risk of insulting his hosts.

  3. Dianne Jacob says:

    Loved it, Jamie. Brava.

  4. Africa, she says wistfully.

  5. Maureen says:

    Living in Nigeria many years ago, we were introduced to a concept which goes something like this…. If a lizard falls from the ceiling into someone’s soup, a new person to the country would exclaim loudly and refuse the soup. If the person had been there a while, they would scoop out the lizard and eat the soup. An expat who had been there a long time would take up a spoon and eat both the soup and the lizard without batting an eye. Love your story and the memories it brought.

    • jamie says:

      Oh, Maureen, I love this! It does sound so much like Nigeria. I think only people that have been there can understand what goes on. A friend told me that in order to not have his pet garden turtle stolen for food he had to paint his name on its back in red. Life is an adventure, right? Thanks for reading my story!

  6. Another peek into the life of the real Jamie. Raw and personal but I couldn’t stop reading.

  7. Jamie, I’m not surprised at all – I’ve always sensed there’s more to you than meets the eye and you haven’t disappointed. One day we must sit down for a cup of something and a chat!

    • jamie says:

      Amanda, I have always thought that everyone has hidden stories to tell, we just don’t always think of sharing them but we should! Everyone has fascinating things to tell! And how I would love to sit down for a chat! I do need an Australian adventure!

  8. Martha Hopkins says:

    Jamie–my parents lived in Nigeria for 10 years and I just got back from Botswana last week. We’ll have to trade stories at IACP.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    And I thought I was being adventurous when I tried calve’s toenails… wonderfully written, Jamie!

    • jamie says:

      Elizabeth! Calve’s toenails? Now that may be one story I would not want to hear (shudder). I think we all have one of those “what’s the worst/scariest thing you have ever eaten” stories to tell. Thanks so much!

  10. Bravo, Jamie!! You bring the reader along with you the entire way. Loved it!

  11. Love this story! Beautifully written :)

  12. Sita Krishnaswamy says:

    Jamie, well said, and it is so amazing how life teaches you the most valuable of lessons in the most unexpected alleyways of life. xo

    • jamie says:

      Thank you, Sita. I do think you are right. It is something we don’t often think about when we close our eyes and jump, but then maybe it is that blind courage that plays the most important part. xo

  13. Lisa says:

    You know how much I love this story. I readily admit, your wonderfully descriptive part about the chunk of meat with the ends hacked off, and June slapping it like a chubby thigh, made my stomach lurch a little. The rest? No lurching. I don’t think I could do it, so I admire your adventurous, spiky endeavor…more than you know! Beautifully written and such an enjoyable read…one I could read over and over!

    • jamie says:

      Thank you so much, Lisa! I always hope readers are pulled into my stories and somehow experience what I have experienced – at least emotionally. xo I am so glad you love the story!

  14. I love this story! Jamie, thank you so much for sharing. Hope to hear more.

  15. ilva beretta says:

    great writing as usual!

  16. Meeta says:

    You know I am a huge fan of your stories and I loved reading this … lapping every word. I love the way you have the ability to make me feel as I am right there with you. Proud of you Jamie!

  17. roger cole says:

    Lovely story–I think Im prepared to eat anything that can be eaten.When I mention strange animals that Ive eaten,for instance Badgers, people are alarmed or think Im making it up.Nicely written RX

    • jamie says:

      Thank you, Roger! And that reminds me of when I was in college and my neighbor invited us over to see what he had brought back from a weekend back home hunting with his family – and he showed us packets of squirrels sous-vide in his freezer. But badger? Adventure, I always say.

  18. Jamie, I had the pleasure of meeting you at IACP today. So glad our introduction led me to this article and your lovely writing. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

  19. Ian Marshall says:

    Beautifully written and such an engaging story. It makes roadkill sound palatable as well which i guess is a good thing…!

    • jamielifesafeast says:

      Ha! Thank you, Ian. If I can make June’s version of roadkill (just how I look at it) sound good – or at least palatable – then I have done my job! Glad you enjoyed it!

  20. themadhausfrau says:

    Wonderful story. Loved it!

  21. fieldjm says:

    I just love this story! And how funny that a date with a porcupine sent you back to Paris. Sometimes, a trip to Nigeria, literally or figuratively, is what we need to show us who we really are. =)

    • Jamie says:

      Once we are put in a situation that is totally unexpected and extraordinary and we are faced with things that we never ever imagined we could possibly be faced with… well, it does change us and it also convinces us that we are stronger than we always thought we were. Thanks for reading, Jenni, and so happy you enjoyed it.

  22. Brooks says:

    In a single read I’ve been transported from one continent to another. Jamie, your writing is riveting—and I didn’t need a passport.

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