Lessons From an Ill-Fated Holiday Feast – A Guest Post

As promised earlier in the month in a call for stories, today I bring you one from a reader’s childhood in Mozambique. Writer Heidi Carlson takes us back to a poignant memory of excited kids, a mom desperate to recreate tastes of her home country (the U.S.) and how it didn’t turn out quite like any one thought it would. More on Heidi at the end of the article but for now, enjoy this story of an ill-fated holiday feast.


A naked, fluorescent bulb dangled from the ceiling.  The power source – a dusty car battery – lay on the red cement floor.  Figures in varying stages of acute fatigue cast shadows on the cement block walls that were hosts to various shades of deteriorating white.  Humidity engulfed them as they quickly stripped off every possible layer of clothing, only preserving the most minimal, acceptable amount of modesty.  A mosquito whirred its wings in dizzying flight on the window screen.  In a split-second, a gecko expertly ran down the screen from the top corner and ate his hearty meal just as we were beginning ours.  This was not the setting of a military interrogation, but the setting of our Thanksgiving dinner.

How did it come to this? How did we get here, across the days and miles?

A school bus, two plane rides, a crowded-goats-included public bus, the back of a pick-up truck over the mountain along the lake, across no man’s land by bicycle, a hitchhiked ride in a businessman’s Land Rover, and, finally, a twelve-hour journey in the “first class” car of a very slow train.  What it amounted to was complete exhaustion.   I have since felt similar exhaustion in the days that followed the birth of each of my children.  That delirious exhaustion is notorious.  I also have felt the same weary, travel-induced walking coma in Portugal when, after several flights and time changes, our hosts treated us to a traditional Portuguese feast of bacalhau com natas (creamed cod) at 10 pm.  The feast was impeccable.  I remember every delicious bite – before I rudely crashed back on the sofa and surrendered to my primal need for sleep.

But this post-train ride Thanksgiving was a joyous homecoming with a feast fit for the prodigal son.  Mom had waited for months, then weeks, then days and hours for our return from boarding school and had prepared traditional American fare – almost.

Helmeted Guinea FowlTurkey was not available in Mozambique, so she marinated and roasted a local guinea fowl.  Pumpkins?  Not available.  How about sweet potato pie instead? There was an assortment of other dishes spread across the table in the buzzing glare of the bulb.  With few words and weak smiles, I forced myself to be gracious and eat something before I crawled under the mosquito net and went to bed.  Locally grown guinea fowl sounds like a foodie-gourmet-heritage breed kind of thing to eat.  But this wild guinea fowl? Not so much.  The first few movements of the jaw brought out the rich flavor enhanced by the marinade.  The following 20 or so chews failed to break down the tight sinews.  It was like chewing gum, but guinea fowl gum.  After the flavor was gone, the muscle was still there. Really good flavor, we kept saying sincerely.  It was true.  But it didn’t mask the toughness of the wild fowl.

Then there was the sweet potato pie, the other item on the menu I remember distinctly.  It tasted just as a fine sweet potato pie should taste.  That is to say, it doesn’t taste at all, and should not be substituted for, the expected pumpkin pie.  The two are not remotely related.

I felt so guilty.  We were forcing grins and trying to keep our lids open for a meal Mom had prepared with great love in expectation of our return.  One could say it was a complete flop as far as holiday meals go, but I don’t think so.  We took away several lessons.  First, don’t try to recreate food from the home country with inadequate substitutes.  Early members of the vegetarian movement can relate to this.  No, tofu does not taste like chicken, so don’t tell me it does. Use available ingredients to make something delicious that stands on its own without having to be compared to a dish from yesteryears and yestercountries.

Second, ill-fated meals often become the most memorable.  We can look back and laugh at the comedy of this event and the perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances.   At the time, we were not laughing.  There were probably some unkind words spoken, considering we all just wanted to get some rest and start a new day.  But now when my fish bake is overcooked and mushy (nasty!), I can laugh about it and regret just the foul flavor, not also a foul attitude.

And the third lesson is for parents of children in boarding school who may have traveled many miles and perhaps even days to get home: Hold your horses and let the kids get some rest so they can give the proper attention to a meal they’ve waited months to eat.


Heidi CarlsonMore about the author: Heidi is a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mom. She is also a multiple-marathoner, a scuba diver, a third-culture kid and a follower of Jesus.  Born near the front range of the Rockies, she grew up in Portugal, Mozambique, Kenya and a few other places here and there.  An Africanist by education, a U.S. Air Force veteran by skill set, and a homemaker by choice, she enjoys making home wherever the family goes.  With three children aged 4, 2, and 2 months, mommy hood leaves less time for scuba diving and training for long races, but she manages to find the time to roast coffee at home and share her thoughts at willtravelwithkids.