Monday, January 31, 2011

Birthday goats and tain cakes

They said a prayer and then plunged the knife into the goat’s throat.  And thus started Caleb’s birthday party preparations. 
Kind of gruesome, but if you eat meat, this happens in much more brutal fashion to the cow or chicken you enjoy, and after a pretty horrible existence.  So, I’ve made my peace with the goat and said my own silent prayer of thanks for his sacrifice.  
Birthday goat
Mbugwa, our good friend, had the dubious honor of slaughtering, skinning and disemboweling the goat, which he did with ease and efficiency (I’m told).  I got there as the disemboweling began it was fascinating in a high school science kind of way, in that all the internal organs were so clearly identifiable.  But enough of that…

Our friends spent the better part of the day preparing what turned out to be an ambitious feast, with pilau, kachumbari, chickens (also slaughted much less ceremoniously for the occasion), beef, fresh fruit, and chapattis.  It took a community of cooks, working around immense pots on outdoor fires and with knives that looked better suited for battle than food preparation, several hours to prepare the food, but it was well worth the effort.  
They cooked slowly all day making sausage by hand and cutting mountains of vegetables.  They cooked with patience and humor and a sense of togetherness.  I almost wanted to join them, but I had my own food preparations to attend to...
I met the Kenyan cooks own patience with a child-like irritation at not being able to bake my cake with any of the conveniences I’m accustomed to at home.  The modern mom tradition that has become part ritual and part pissing contest – is making a cake for your little one that will evoke some comment from friends and family and (secondarily) a bit of excitement from your youngster. 
Impressed with my own ingenuity, I settled on a train cake.  It’s composed of 4 loaf cakes which I could easily cook in my miniscule “oven” (toaster oven), and Caleb, like a typical boy, loves trains.  Perfect!  However, power outages and sticky old loaf pans thwarted my clever plans and the loaves came out craggily and misshapen.   But nothing, I told myself, a little frosting won’t fix…
Ah… the frosting.  Of course it would have to be homemade, but I have no beaters to whip up the butter and sugar.  So, I softened the butter in the sun and went to work with a spoon and immersion blender (which was so useless as to be nearly counterproductive). 
I wanted 3-4 colors for the trains so that demanded a lot of frosting, prepared over 2 days.  I stuck the blue and green in the fridge over night and they promptly turned back into solid bowls of brightly colored butter.   To which I responded the next morning with another infantile fit.  
After some words of perspective and encouragement from my very patient husband and father-in-law, I returned to my project.  I softened the blue and green frosting in the sun and made a final batch of red frosting.  Things started to look up. 
We didn’t have a pan large enough  to display it on so I turned a drawer upside down and covered it with tinfoil.  I decorated it with cookies and M and Ms (compliments of babu from South Africa) and even shoved some frosting into ketchup dispenser bottles I found at the grocery store (the kind you see at diners), and that worked to do some piping with the frosting. 
The whole project was really so that I could feel like an adequate mom by modern American standards.  But we’re in Kenya, and the best part was that we could hack into this thing and share it with a compound full of kids who have likely never tasted a cake made with butter.  Trust me, Kenyan cakes are heavy, not that sweet and made with Blue Band (a kind of oily margarine), and this cake tasted like actual good old American birthday cake.  That was probably the biggest triumph of all. 
Getting ready for cake!

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