Africa, 1982: The Minister and the Cat

Rand Richards Cooper

“The Minister and the Cat” is adapted from journals I kept while working and traveling in Africa in the early 1980s. I didn’t know at the time that I would go on to become a food writer – but one can see the preoccupation with food already in place.

In Zaire I spent three weeks hitchhiking through the eastern forests; then a month on the Congo River, riding a convoy of barges. On the riverbank, dense bush would yield suddenly to a village of huts, and out would come a flotilla of dugout canoes, paddled by shirtless men standing upright with impeccable balance. The villagers sold every kind of living and recently-living cargo imaginable to the Zairois on board, who smoke-cured it, using smothered fires built in big steel drums, to sell later in the market downriver at Kinshasa – piles of blackened fish and game that stacked up ever higher as our trip dragged on. Monkeys killed by bush hunters were displayed, their tails tied around their necks and hung dangling from tree limbs like gruesome jungle jewelry, to entice us as we floated by. I ate everything: frogs, snails, turtles; monitor lizard and crocodile and antelope; spiny caterpillars called lubili, fried crispy black; mboloko, some kind of jungle wildcat with a pungent, to me repulsive, flavor; and tree grubs, cooked with peanuts, tomatoes and peppers, that I bought in a bar – a bucket full of them, still wriggling and very much alive, that a guy brought in and, seeing the lone Mzungu in the place, made straight for me.


In Gabon, visiting with my college friend and Peace Corps Volunteer, Bill Minter, I confronted two more challenging delicacies: porcupine, and cat. The porcupine was gamy — hairy, too, and I pushed it around on my plate and ate tiny miserable bites. And then there was the problem of le chat. Brave traveler that I was, intrepid traveler who had eaten lizards and caterpillars, I didn’t want to touch the cat. I had grown up in a house full of them; my mother was already in the process of becoming a locally famous Cat Lady, the kind who takes in strays and cares for them.


Yet it was my last night in Gabon, and the feast was in my honor, to see me off. Mourimah was there, and Njembi, and Jean-Marc, and some other friends of Bill’s. The main course was served in a large, blackened pot, roasted and smelling faintly lemony.


There was a special background to the cat feast: How One Traps the Animal. I wanted to know more. Is it, you know, an ordinary cat, I asked, or some sort of wildcat? I mean, could it be someone’s, you know, pet?


Well, if you know it is someone’s pet, I was told, you shouldn’t eat it – at least not, that is, if it’s your neighbor’s pet. As for the trap, it was set in a box, with a tin of sardines inside as bait. The whole system and the ritual of entrapment was known as “Le ministre et l’église.”  Bill and Mourimah discussed it for my benefit. “Le ministre, il est toujours dans l’église. C’est son travail, n’est-ce pas?”

“Oui, si le ministre passe dans la rue et la porte de l’église est ouverte, il doit entrer. Il ne peut pas eviter l’église, notre minister!”


Once the “minister” was in the “church,” a sack would be fixed to the “door” — the opening of the box. The door opens, the minister escapes into the sack. And then? Still trapped inside the sack, he is bludgeoned to death with rocks. An unholy end for the minister.


Fortunately I didn’t have to assist at the “ordainement” of our minister, though Bill did – and he said it was pretty bad. But that was all behind us now, and the minister was a jumble of roasted pieces in the bottom of a pot, and at the command of “Allez!” everyone eagerly dug in. Mourimah handed me a piece and… it was delicious. More meat on a cat, surprisingly, than on a chicken; and all of it white meat. Cooked in oil and an herb my hosts called citronelle – that was the lemon taste – long grasses of it, sticking up out of the pot. The bits of meat were gone in a matter of minutes, leaving only the head.


Now no one hurried. We watched as Jean-Marc took the head and started pulling out the brains. A cat doesn’t have much in the way of brains. But what little there was was apportioned with fastidious care. Jean-Marc counted heads (ours, that is), then divvied up the stuff on the plate, pushing the little grey smudges around, scrutinizing judiciously to make sure it was done evenly. It looked like an artist’s palette. When all was set, we ate – a thimbleful apiece – then leaned back, satisfied.


Eating the cat is important, I was told. You could divide men into two groups, those who mange le chat, and those who don’t. As for women, they didn’t eat it at all – it was men’s food, like the crocodile I ate in Zaire. “C’est très fort,” a man would say, “ce n’est pas pour les femmes.” There is a way of talking about certain foods that emphasizes its danger – a violent taste, violence in the killing of it too – and thus restricts it and makes it a way for men to differentiate themselves from women… and from other, less adventurous men. For the Fang of Gabon, eating the cat may be the equivalent of Ken Kesey’s “Are you on the bus?” Do you manger le chat? Bill Minter and I, we ate the cat. Sorry Mom.


Rand Richards Cooper
Rand Richards Cooper

Rand Richards Cooper is the author of The Last to Go and Big As Life. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, and other magazines, and he has been Writer-in-Residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. A film critic for Commonweal and longtime travel writer for Bon Appétit, Rand lives in Hartford, CT with his wife, Molly, and six-year old daughter, Larkin. He reviews restaurants for the New York Times and is writing a book about midlife fatherhood.