Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Necessarily Long Excerpt from I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal

"The very same day, news came that the Emperor of Ethiopia had brought his own cooks with him, and that they were going to prepare an Ethiopian specialty right here in our hotel, because we had the gold cutlery just like the Emperor of Ethiopia. The day before the banquet the cooks and their interpreter arrived, shiny and black, complaining of the cold. Our cooks were to be their assistants, but our chief cook felt insulted and took off his apron and left in a huff. The Ethiopian cooks began by making several hundred hard-boiled eggs. Laughing and grinning, they then brought in twenty turkeys and put them in our ovens to roast, then mixed dressing in enormous bowls, using thirty baskets of rolls and fistfuls of spices, and they brought a cartload of parsley, which our cooks chopped up for them. We were all dying to see that these black fellows would concoct...We were shocked when they had two antelopes brought in from the zoo, already gutted, and they quickly skinned them and roasted them in the biggest roasting pans we had, with huge chunks of butter and a bagful of their spices, and we had to open all the windows because of their fumes. Then they put the stuffing in the half-roasted turkeys, and the turkeys into the antelopes, and hundreds of hard-boiled eggs to fill the empty spaces, and they roasted everything together. But no one, not even the boss, was prepared for what happened next. The Ethiopian cooks had a live camel brought to the hotel and they wanted to slaughter it on the spot...They tied up the camel, who was bleating, Noooo,noooo, as if to say, Don't cut my throat, but one of the cooks cut his throat anyway, with a kosher knife, and there was blood all over the courtyard, and then they hauled the camel up by his hind legs with a block and tackle and took out his heart and lungs and liver and things. Then they had three wagonloads of wood delivered, and while the fire depatment stood by with their hoses ready the cooks quickly made a huge fire, let it burn down until only the glowing coals remained, then barbequed the camel on a spit supported by tripods. When the camel was almost done, they put into it the two antelopes with the stuffed turkeys inside them, and fish as well, and lined the cavity with hard-boiled eggs, and kept pouring on spices, and...our own cooks were...slowly turning the stuffed camel over the glowing coals and basting it with bundles of mint leaves dipped in beer...Two assistants brought two huge cutting boards into the middle of the dining room, fastened them together with clamps, set the camel down on this enormous table, and brought in the knives and sliced the camel in half with broad strokes, then cut each half in half again. A stupendous aroma spread through the room. In every slice there was a piece of camel and antelope, and inside the antelope a slice of turkey, and inside the turkey some fish and stuffing and little circles of hard-boiled eggs...we served the roast camel. It must have been wonderful because all the guests fell silent and the only sound came from the clinking of all those golden knives and forks. Then something happened that neither I nor anyone else...had ever seen before. First, a government counselor, a well-known epicure, was so enraptured with the barbecued camel that he stood up and yelled with an expression of bliss on his face. But it tasted so delicious that not even that yell was enough, so he did what looked like a gymnastics routine, then started pounding his chest, then ate another piece of meat dipped in the sauce. The black cooks stood there...their eyes on the Emperor, but the Emperor must have seen this kind of thing before because he just smiled...Finally, the counselor couldn't contain himself any longer and ran out of the hotel shouting and dancing and cheering and beating his chest, and then he ran back in again and there was a song in his voice and a dance of thanksgiving in his legs."


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