The handbell rings and we file into the dining room, some through the kitchen and others through the living room. There are two tables, like Thanksgiving but everyday; one for kids and the other for Father, Ettore, Marrianni, and whatever distinguished guests are about (this includes Alex and me for the moment, wondering how long ‘til “distinguished” status is revoked…). All wait behind their chairs until the father enters—a quick grace—and the meal begins.
The table is set for lunch and dinner with wine-style bottles, plastic stoppered and filled with non-tap water, two pitchers of a passionfruit-mango-papaya juice that is too strong for the Italians to drink straight, a large pot of pasta (mostly red-sauced, occasionally garlic-peppered), and a small pan of soup. We stand while the Father dishes each a precise measure of pasta (Marianni dished once and was later scolded intensely for scoopular overabundance), then once both tables are served we sit and begin to eat. Father always takes the head of our table, with Ettore and Marianni to his left and right, respectively (despite their opposite Padre-cal Power Rankings); Alex and I take the next seats down the table while Samuel, Ronald, Lorenzo, and whoever else is about fill the rest of the grown-up chairs.
At my first meal I assumed that this small bowl of garlic-pepper pasta was all we received. This is not a huge issue in even a not-so-grand scheme of things, and I am sure I could have adjusted to it eventually, but as most of you surely know my metabolism is a wild and unholy thing, much like a gastro-intestinal school of piranhas, and my jet-lagged mind whirled in terror the whole meal worrying that I would devoured from the inside out over five months of just noodles. I was scheming the best way to pocket Alex’s leftovers without drawing too much attention when a serving woman came and took all the plates—including Alex’s remnants—into the kitchen. My worry moved towards desperation: people were beginning to shift at the tables, napkins were cleaning faces, surely the end was nigh and then…then the actual meal began.
The women who board here serve as cleaners, caretakers, cooks, and waitresses; every few meals a new face comes to bring out food and remove dirty dishes. That my first experience with such a waitress bathed her in a heavenly kind of impossibly-pure light is certainly due to the unexpected platter of Lake Victoria fish she placed carefully on the then-barren table I cannot deny; however, they are all wonderfully nice people regardless of what they’re carrying. The Nile Perch we ate that night was carefully marinated in a mixture of stock with spices, and braised in its ever-reducing liquid until just-firm-enough-to-hold-together. It was followed quickly by potato cubes roasted with salt, pepper, and olive oil; sweet, fresh Ugandan tomatoes (a gorgeous dappled red/purple) in olive oil and balsamic with onion rounds on top; peas stewed in a smoky sauce, and large, meaty beans cooked with aromatics, ham hocks, and a thick butter-tomato sauce.
Another round of plates whisked away, and the dessert was served; piles of fresh papaya, mango, and pineapple, all grown in-country. Please see Alex’s article on Little Red Riding Hood for an explanation of the Italian fruit-only-for dessert custom. Whatever the reason, it was the best end to such a meal I could imagine. As coffee and spicy Ginger-water (named, strangely enough, “Ginger”) were served at meal’s end I could barely remember the fear that had engulfed me earlier.
This basic formula is followed every single lunch and dinner with some fairly regular variations. The fish may be any type of meat, from roasted goat to fried chicken. The tomatoes remain, always, as does the finale fruit. Sometimes instead of peas there is zucchini, or a salad; sometimes the potatoes are boiled or mashed or French-fried. Once there was a thick chunk of gorgonzola that the Father was given as a gift, a few times now Prosciutto from Parma. Whatever the food it’s well-prepared and plenty, more than enough to make a man feel just the slightest bit gluttonous and guilty. Walk down the hill in any direction and the plates just aren’t, how you say, quite so grande? No matter, Father John will have the food made whether or not I’m here, because if there’s one thing I know about Father John it’s that he do what he want—it’s just as well that I enjoy while I can. Plus, my poops here have been spectacular, props to the genius of Italian gastronometricians. A man could get used to this.
The men who are, in fact, used to this (going on 30 years now for the Father, somewhat less for Ettore and Marianni) form a trifecta about the head of the table—a head which is distinctly the head, as the other end is distinct to these men a different body part—and as the meal finishes they sit back and begin speaking. Depending on the constitution of the table this talking can be primarily Italian, half-Italian half-English, mostly English, or bits of some other language entirely. As Ettore and Marianni speak no English and I speak no Italian Alex is our primary middle-man; the Father speaks both languages but only uses his heavily accented English to make important points about the state of the world that an American should be aware of—such as the fact that the “rough, simple Anglo-Saxon language had no way to express abstract concepts” or that the Western world’s attempts to influence pending Ugandan legislation constitutes an Imperialismo Moderno that continues to subjugate Africa—then again, he also uses Italian to make those same points concurrently. For a few meals the crowd has been almost entirely Italian, and those are the beautiful moments where I can sat back and get lost in an ocean of unintelligible sound. I am trying to pick up what I can, but I tell you, nothing dissolves social anxieties like trusting that your input would be, well, completely useless.
As the coffee cups are cleared we wait until the heat (hot air?) grows too strong about the table, then step out to play a game of tag with the kids or head upstairs to our quarters for reading, writing, annoying each other, or pooping as the situation dictates (“the situation,” in this instance, is directly correlated to the amount of green mango consumed at the meal previous, divided by the amount of bananas eaten that morning). A hot night sleep, an early morning of intensely hostile and frequent rooster wake-ups, and a fresh day in Kampala begins with a belly still full of phenomenal food.