Let Him Eat Bread
Lene is a twenty-year old waif. A good kid, but, like many Cape Verdeans, will take up any excuse to point out Cape Verdean’s strength and ability over American’s. I’m not the best person to contradict these unremitting challenges, especially when they concentrate on such manly pursuits as fishing, farming and drinking, but there’s only so many “Bo ka sabi”s (you don’t knows) and “Nos e mas ki bo”s (we’re better than yous) one can withstand. A little ways into my third piece Lene counseled me to stop. He had a half-sincerity in his eyes, the other half was occupied by an I told you so, you weak American-kind of look.
“Jay. Stop after four. You’re little stomach won’t give.”
I didn’t respond, like Homer Simpson, all I could think was “can’t talk, eating.”
After I had finished the third, Lene spoke up once more, “Jay. You can eat five. But afterwards you’re going to feel terrible.”
I seized the opportunity, “Wait. Before you said four, and now you’re turning around and saying five. What’s that about?” There was a split-second of silence and then an eruption of laughter, Lene sheepishly acknowledging his folly. A part of me felt as though I had won the bet already.
After six, reality began to catch up. I was faltering. I was asking for water. I was no longer sitting but pacing back and forth. Each bite felt like I was chewing through hardening cement. Moreover, time was not on my side. I had less then twenty-five minutes to put down four. All this and the crowd was growing. The pressure not to disappoint grew with each face that popped in. Those people that earlier had been coming and going were now stopping to see where I was at. They looked at me and chuckled, “Djey, no senti” (Jay, no sense). Some of the older women advised me to stop, their motherly instinct projected onto the increasing misery of my face. But in Va and the others, in between their harassment, I saw solidarity, a desire for me to pull it out. Like Cool Hand Luke I was doing it for the greater cause. It was that that got me through numbers six and seven.
By eight the party moved outside. A chair was brought and placed under the big acacia tree out front. Now, it was a crowd. The current record-holder, Pico, who had put down nine and a half, had even made it out. Though he didn’t look all that pleased by this pathetic American challenge, it was nice to see he cared. Between bites and chews, I did my best to listen. They called me stupid, crazy, too small. They told me to give it to the kids. They said I should stop. I would get sick. I would die. It was like John Madden, mind numbing, yet essential.
In the end, I failed. The hour struck, my hands holding parts of the ninth. When Va let me know, I spit out the mealy remains from my mouth and gave the rest to a few kids standing around. Holding myself up on the nearest wall, I dangled my head as if the next act was already scripted. Everyone around was expecting me to rabinda (vomit) they were practically cheering me on. Honestly, I was expecting it. But the reality dictated otherwise. The solid mass of dough anchored in my bowels wasn’t about to brave gravity. But if it did, I knew I’d swallow it down. This whole, gluttonous spectacle was about stymieing expectations, and I’d suffer in private rather then fulfilling them.
Realizing that the show was over, most folk went on their way. I hung around a little while longer, entertaining Va and a few stragglers with my twists and groans, before heading back to the house. My host family had already gotten word and was quick with the asides. One brother asked if it felt like I was pregnant. I told him that it was like being pregnant with bread (the bun in the oven reference apparently isn’t cross-cultural). One of my sisters kept making comments about how surprising it is that my little stomach, which normally fails to meet their demands, took down so many. Despite it though, I still had to connive my way out of lunch. At least now they knew for sure what I liked.
In the lull that is village life, the incident would soon trickle through ears and mouths, creating an amusing anecdote about the American. For a time, it would open conversations and even manifest a nickname, “NuPao” ("you bread"). The fact that I failed in my attempt would often be forgotten, replaced by shock and appreciation; appreciation that rose from my willingness to do such a thing. I suppose the solidarity rung true. Yet, eventually it passed on, only occasionally remembered by Va and his buddies when they would spot me in the middle of eating something. It’s conscious value faded into more the subconscious implications. It seemed as though an identity took shape, and I, who was once simply known, suddenly started to become it.