Steve's Yarns-- All those years growing up and living
in Oklahoma, California, Arizona, Texas, and Africa.....
Ain't done growing up 'til I get over on the other side :-)




EDITOR:
Steve Van Nattan

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PREHISTORIC FOOD
AT RIFT VALLEY ACADEMY 

Strange things-- Wonderful things

 

RVA--  That stands for Rift Valley Academy.

I went to school at Rift Valley Academy from 5th grade through high school.  It is a boarding school in the Kenya highlands in Africa for missionaries' kids (and a few Kenya kids today).  In my day it was just for missionary kids, and we were an ornery bunch mind you.  But, we will speak of that later-- maybe :-)

This article will discuss the food we ate.  

I intend to tell the horror stories and the sweet memories as well.  I have no intention of hurting any feelings, but I think you want to hear what life was like in a missionary boarding school in the 1950s.  After all, only a very few of us in this world were privileged to be inmates of one of these rare institutions.

At RVA, the food originated mostly from the kitchen behind the main building, which we called Kiambogo. The main building was a two story affair, very long, and built with a kind of local sandstone which could be hand carved.  The corner stone of Kiambogo was laid by Teddy Roosevelt in 1909. The kitchen was a corrugated building and rather substantial, and it was not famous for being well ventilated. This design followed the insane building notions of the colonial era established around 1900. The British have no problem with making themselves miserable if they can establish a sound tradition of some sort in the process. The iron corrugated building was one such convention which would proliferate by the thousands all over East Africa and the British empire. This hot box was more like a sauna than a building.

In this sweat shop worked Nahashon, Mwarangu, and several other brave souls.  They were paid well, and they seemed very happy in their jobs.  Nahashon had been the chief chef at the Bell Inn on Lake Nakuru, and I heard once that he was a very good chef at that.  He quit at the Inn to take the job of cooking for missionary kids since it was nearer home and it would be work among Christians.

Many of the kids at RVA had no interest in the cooks except to complain about their cooking.  I liked these men a lot, and I would stop and greet them frequently.  How patient they were, and I only realized that many years later.  I would buy them razor blades at our school store, and they paid me with the choice end cuts on roasts.  Other kids thought I was silly, but I told no one how our little arrangement worked.

Now, the food these men cooked up was sometimes terrible.  I assure you, it was seldom their fault.  It was a problem of what they were provided to work with, both in  food and in implements.  I marvel that they did as well as they did, considering.

 

 

Shall we talk about food?

At breakfast we had a specie of toast which was alien to all concepts of culinary standards.  

It was made in the kitchen by laying bread slices on several charcoal braziers with a flunky worker turning the toast by hand when it started smoking.  The result was a patchwork of burnt middle and unmolested edges.  The toast was then put into a huge "sufaria" or deep pan.  This "sufaria" would than be covered with a cloth, and the result was that the toast would then steam itself and become soggy and almost wet.  By the time we got it, spreading butter on the toast was more an art for a professional plasterer.  We ate it since there was no other choice.

The oatmeal, which came on schedule, I think on Tuesday and Friday morning, was not so bad in taste, but it was soupy and watery. It also had chaff pieces in it. They were the exact size and shape of toenail clippings, and the kids imagined that the cooks trimmed their toenails into the oatmeal. Some heartless old timers delighted in telling this to a new kid just out from the States or the UK.  There was also a local grain called wimbi (a variety of red millet). It was nearly black brown in color and it was rich in flavor.  I liked it, but many kids hated it.  Those mornings I got all I could eat :-)  The posho (corn meal mush) was possibly the best liked cereal served. It really stuck to our ribs.  The semolina was the best in my opinion. I put butter and sugar in mine, and it was my favorite breakfast.  

The staff managing the kitchen for us were missionaries. Their budget was sparse, so they bought the bargains. Plum and strawberry jam were the cheapest jams produced in Kenya, so that is what we got.  Yes, one can get tired of strawberry jam.  For a break, they would buy fig jam.  Now, about 80% of the kids hated fig jam.  I loved it.  As a little brat in California, I used to get out back of the house and eat figs until I would totally liberate myself.  My Mom would have to then park me on the privy all the next day. I still love figs, and a fig tree is now maturing just outside of our front door here here in Texas. Well, on fig jam mornings I usually got the whole bowl of jam, and I ate it all, mind you.  It set me free too.  I am indeed a fig and prune Libertarian.

A banana was added at breakfast. These were high altitude bananas, and they were green, runted, and hard even when totally ripe. Some kids refused to eat them, but I cut them up into my porridge. Sometimes we would carry them to our rooms for a late night snack.

On Saturday, we had bacon or sausage and eggs.  This was a treat.  Now we called the sausage "porkies," and those "porkies" were the British type.  England had their sausages banned from the Brussels World Fair long ago because they added so much cereal to them.  Those "porkies" were truly a cereal story--  a lot of grease and a lot of semolina.  But, it was a treat.  Now, you never had an egg fried like our school cook Nahashon had to fry them.  He had pans which were provided, and they were deep and not very broad. He had been the chef at the Bell Inn out of Nakuru, and he knew how to fly eggs well enough. But, the deep metal pans provided, and the number that must be "fried" prohibited Nahashon from using his best skills.

So, Nahashon filled the pans with eggs about two inches deep and "fried" them.  The eggs were then cut up individually later.  This resulted in a fried egg which was easily as tall as it was wide- a sort of egg cube.  The bacon was more like boiled than fried.  Again, Nahashon had only those deep pans to work with, and he filled them deep with the bacon.  We never had fried bacon like Mom made.  Actually, I kind of liked it when I thought of it as ham.  Even now, I think I would like some of that boiled bacon maybe.

Sunday was a special day.  Each missionary dining room supervisor during my era would budget through the week by serving limited choices and some pretty limited fair.  Then, on the weekend they could splurge and give us treats.  So, Sunday morning we had pan cakes-- never refused by anyone.  Sunday noon meal was the grand meal of the week.  We had roast beef, mashed potatoes, and some vegie which was on the level of luxury, like cauliflower.  There was often a treat like avocado.  Most kids hated avocados, so I only had to share them with Trum Simmons.  I grew up liking almost any food, so I often got a whole plate of some odd delicacy all to myself.

The Sunday evening meal was special, even though it was the same every time.  Cold cut beef and ham with cheese, and potato salad. Some other treats like dill pickles were added. The desert was ice cream after Mrs. Senoff took over the job. Ice cream in the 1950s in Kenya was a rare treat anyway.  Hot chocolate was added to this meal. It was a bit muddy, but few kids will turn down chocolate in any form, even if you have to chew it. On Sunday we boys were allowed to eat at the girls' tables. The rest of the week we were segregated, boys at one end of the dining room, and girls at the other end.

We ate at huge heavy tables that must have been antiques from the earliest colonial days in Kenya. We were thirteen at each table. Oil cloth was on each table which hung over about ten inches. If you were a new kid, while you were eating away or waxing eloquent about some adventure, a kid at the foot of the table would pick up the pitcher of water and wink at the guy next to him. The old timers caught on quickly and reached down with their left hand and lifted the plastic table cloth up forming a nice gutter. This was done so that the gutter ended right over your lap.

Well, they tried this on me, and I was lucky-- I saw it coming as the guy at the end of the table was setting down the pitcher. I had no idea what to do, nor did I consider it my social duty to willingly be a victim, so in desperation I grabbed the table cloth edge and lifted it up a bit. This caused the water to cascade off the end of the table onto the floor. Every table had a missionary staff member sitting at the head to keep order. A water fall in the dining room was not ordinarily considered normal by your garden variety missionary overlord. On this occasion I believe it was Pa Ken. He figured out at once that I was not guilty, and he caught the guy down yonder as he set the pitcher down. Pa Ken then cordially invited the kid to skip the meal and go back to the dorm.

Now, diplomacy is needed. I was accused of causing the kid to miss lunch, but then, he knew very well that I was a bit more alert than the average green horn. This is worth points. So, he tried to make me feel guilty, but all his buddies laughed at him heartily and thought I had done a good job of evasion.

 

 

We had a few breaks from the fixed menu which were notable.  One day, Doc Probst had to go up on the hill above the school and shoot a rogue elephant which was tearing up African gardens.  The missionaries in charge arranged for our whole school to go up and see the elephant.  It was huge with monstrous tusks.  Someone got the idea to take a hind quarter back to the school.  That evening we had hamburgers made of elephant.  They were good too, though a bit tough even as hamburger. I think old tembo was a pretty aged fellow.

Mrs. Senoff was a very creative supervisor.  One day Philly Skoda and I went to investigate a cai apple tree.  Usually cai apples were used only for hedges since they had long thorns and would keep thieves out.  The hedge type plant produced an insipid apple which was worthless.  But when let grow as a tree, the cai apples produced were very sour and had a good flavor.  Philly and I decided they had potential for jelly.  We were about fed up with plum jam too.  Mrs. Senoff was impressed and thought they reminded her of some sour fruit from the Canadian woods.  We went and picked a great pile of them, and Mrs. Senoff made jelly of them.  It was so rich that it was more like sorghum molasses.  Most of the kids were too picky to even try it.  So, Philly and I, and I think Trum Simmons, would eat a whole bowl of cai apple jelly at a breakfast.  

Mrs. Senoff also made farmer's cheese.  This was a first also.  Again, the picky kids left it to just a handful of us.  We would each eat maybe a whole bowl of it.  We few connoisseurs loved it, and we would compliment Mrs. Senoff and tell her how much the kids loved it. She never knew how few of us were pigging out on her farmer's cheese.

Chocolate pudding.  Now, how could you ruin that?  Well, it can be done.  First start with a mix made by Englishmen who like their food to grind their teeth.  Next, serve the pudding on saucers about three hours before dinner.  This way a skin a quarter inch thick develops on top of the pudding.  The first spoonful comes up like an octopus rising out of the brown sea.  How do you eat a six inch mop of scum?  

One day Helen Barnett, who helped in the kitchen, was organizing on a new innovation.  This was to set all the deserts out on a table ahead of time on individual plates.  This made serving much easier.  The table was all ready and covered with plates of chocolate pudding.

Now, right above the chocolate pudding table, on the second floor of the building, was the hallway of the dorm area for the little boys. They were not required to go outside to the toilet building at night to avoid them being scared and choosing to wet their beds instead. A big five gallon "poo-how" (pee bucket) was set in place in a sort of private corner for the little boys to use at night. Well, the bucket had not been emptied according to custom all day. It was full and rank from sitting too long. No sooner had Helen laid out all those deserts than two little boys decided to chase each other down the hall. Bang, one of them knocked over the "poo-how," and down in the dining room yellow rain dripped into all the chocolate deserts. I think we had bananas for desert that night.

One good use for the chocolate pudding was for new kids.  The chocolate pudding was sometimes set on the table on a saucer next to each place setting before the meal.  An experienced boy would lean over and smell the pudding long and hard.  He would then stand up with a puzzled look, and say, "That pudding really smells funny this time."  The new kid at the table would almost always lean right over and try to smell the pudding.  At that point whoever was next to him would reach over and firmly press his face right into the pudding. The next trick was to convince the new kid that it was fun to nearly be drowned by pudding.  Otherwise, he might go squeal on us, and we would be thrown out of the dining room and miss the meal.

What was my favorite menu item?  I think it was Mrs. Senoff's corn pudding.  She was the first one to add this to the menu, and it was fantastic.  It was an invention from the farm country of Canada.  Again, most kids thought it was strange, so I would eat half a pan.  I would sleep through most of school classes that afternoon from overeating.  A good hike in the late afternoon would help work it off.  Really, we didn't suffer much.  None of us were malnourished, but few of us were overweight either.

There was a very sweet English lady, a real rough on rats strong willed and tough lady, with many years behind her of survival experience in the Kiambu hills where her husband farmed a plantation with cattle and wattle trees.  She was asked to take over the kitchen while the missionary lady was on furlough.  She did so, and she really did some strange things.  

The down side was her cheese on toast.  This was served during the week one night in order to tighten the budget and allow for a better Sunday evening meal. This cheese on toast was made from pre-toasted bread. It was hard as stone, and a smear of cheese was added. This was then baked to a crisp in the oven until the cheese melted into the stony toast and became as hard as the toast. Even if we were hungry, it was hard work to get it down. But, we would console ourselves. This lady would use the hoarded up cash from the week to lay out a Sunday evening meal that was fantastic. She scrounged up things from her husband's farm, and from British friends around the country. Gnawing through her cheese on toast was a small price to pay for the feast of Sunday. Indeed, many of us slept through the Sunday evening service I fear.

One noon meal, we boys came roaring into the dining room making an awful noise. Mr. Simmons told us to go back out and try coming in again quietly.  We went back out, took our shoes off and held them in our hands, and we came tiptoeing back into the dining room. Mr. Simmons fell out and roared with laughter. That is why we loved certain staff members more than others. An adult who can laugh at himself, and with you, is a great friend to a kid. That does not mean the adult needs to play the fool. Not at all. I hope you had an adult friend like that when you were growing up.

In the afternoon, after classes were ended, the missionary in charge would put a table on the long verandah along the front of the main building, and on it were sandwiches. These were not very creative, but we were not very picky by that time. Sometimes we found mangoes, bananas, or oranges on the table, and on rare occasions apples which were imported and expensive.

What did we do to make up for various meals that we ate of sparingly? There was a company in the 1950s called Knorr Swiss. They are still in business, but their soup mixes today are nothing like the original product. They made packaged soups which had to be mixed with water and cooked, and they made some varieties which were exceptional. My favorite (and that of Winston Churchill) was turtle soup. We would get a number ten can from the kitchen, and we would cook up some of this soup in the fireplace in the "boy's sitting room." This was done by propping up the can on burning logs in the fire. The flavor of smoke and the sensation of getting something the hard way made the soup taste even better. This ritual went well for some months until some character failed to see that the log the can was sitting on was burning up. A gallon of tomato soup went spilling all over the "boy's sitting room" floor, and we were cast out of the kingdom for many moons for that.

In the older boy's dorm, we would make fudge.  Don Hoover was the master of that art. This was done in our closets, and sometimes after we were supposed to be in bed.  We used a Primus kerosene pressure stove made in Sweden. Alan Hovingh would look the other way if the boys doing it were in 11th grade or were seniors. Privilege.  Also, we were careful to take brother Hovingh a plate of fudge of course. Bribery? Not at all. They call it Baksheesh in Africa.

Nothing would make the social bells ring in the boy's dorm like a big pot of African tea.  This tea was made by boiling a big tin of water, then putting the loose tea in, preferably Brooke Bond.  If that was too expensive, Simba Chai would have to do.  The tea was boiled hard for about five minutes, then the sugar and milk were added.  Again, the mixture was boiled hard for up to fifteen minutes.  This was powerful stuff folks.  We would then hunker around the tea and dip out cupful after cupful and talk of other times and places and our speculations of future adventures.  This ritual is one many former RVA-ites talk about.  They try to duplicate it in the USA many years later, but it just isn't the same, friend.

On Friday afternoon, those who had some cash would go around to the school canteen (store).  This was a small store which missionaries on the mission station would also use to add a few groceries to their cupboards.  For us kids, the Swiss chocolate bars, KitKat bars, and Queen Elizabeth candy sticks were the main attraction.  During my junior and senior years the selection grew to include many things, but none so exciting as full two liter bottles of Pepsi and Coke.  We also got ice cream bars.  In Kenya in those days these were very special treats. One favorite was to buy a can of sweetened condensed milk, poke a small hole in it, then wander around all afternoon slowly sucking the sweet nectar out of the can and thinking mellow thoughts. Strange eh?  Hey, we didn't care much if we looked strange. In Africa you do strange things or you go nuts.

Now, we had connoisseurs of fine dining in our midst who loved "wog food." A "wog" was a slang name for Africans. It could be cutting and mean, or it could be affectionate. We also called each other "wog" if we thought the other guy was worthy and an African at heart. Well, where do you find fine dining in the hills of Kiambu when the nearest city is far away? Easy, you go around to a nearby bunch of dukas (African shops), and find a tea shop. They will have tea and mandazi, a donut made of corn meal and deep fried. They were lead sinkers for sure, but the clandestine thrill of being "out of bounds" in the "wog" world made the mandazi taste great, and the tea was very authentic. My choice was a bottle of orange soda and digestive biscuits in a small village a couple miles up the hill.

There were a lot more peculiar and wonderful things we ate, but this is long enough.  I hope you eat well tonight.

 

 

LINKS:

The evangelistic use of tea time in Kenya

 

 

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