As Martha Stewart fiddles with the fall foliage 'round her Butterball, dazzle your own guests with a little something different. Invite Zira and Cornelius to share the warmth of your holiday table -- then eat them. Spider monkey with cornbread stuffing... candied yams and basted baboon butt... Ah, Thanksgiving!
While lawmakers and the gastropolitically correct frown on devouring our kinfolk, epicures in African nations like Guinea-Bissau dish up the next best thing. Our nonhuman cousin hangs gutted and smoked, his face frozen in a final scream of death, and where some cry barbarism, others behold a culinary horn of plenty. "Many Guineans do not eat cats, dogs, snakes and monkey but generally do not look down upon those who do," informs the Peace Corps language manual Kriolu no bai! In this former Portuguese colony, carne di sanju is something of a national dish, and my visit there quickly becomes a pilgrimage for perfectly prepared primate.
Down a dirt road in Bissau, the capital, lies my monkey mecca. Bissauans lit by candles in sawed-off plastic water bottles give way to bats swarming around a rare source of electricity: the signpost at Bar Lisboa 3. The backlit plastic sign portrays a beer bottle, a mug, and roasted bird, but we all know what's on the menu. Sitting below the red, green and blue lights on the veranda, locals drink from something akin to 16-ounce Ovaltine jars, washing down monkey chunks with domestic Cicer brew. I study the white plastic tablecloth, with its colorful "bountiful harvest" motif: a repeated pattern of fruit-filled cornucopias, roasted turkeys, Coke and 7-Up bottles.
Possessed by tunes from a barside boombox, a waitress shuffles by (two steps forward, one step back, repeat) collecting dirty dishes along the way. "We have no more monkey," she says, stone-faced, to my Kriolu-speaking brother. She resumes her two-minus-one step, dancing back to sit with friends at another table. Another waitress arrives to tell us there is monkey. "Strange" meats always taste like chicken, and ape, it appears, is no exception. It looks like one big chunk of chicken skin. The waitress returns and I, as vegetarian voyeur, confirm by fondling and smelling. The boiled monkey morsels are a culinary injustice -- cold and coarse, smelling like the coagulated topping on stale beef stew. Nowhere do I see the "baboon butt that cuts like butter." Faced with cold, bottom-of-the-bucket Bonzo, Brian and I stick to beer.
The smart holiday shopper no doubt procures her free-range monkey early, often contacting a hunter directly. One primate's Plymouth Rock is another's Forbidden Zone, so Curious George is best advised to avoid beaches like the Praia da Bruce, on the remote Bijagós Archipelago island of Bubaque.
"The best time to hunt monkeys is in the morning or afternoon -- at low tide, when they come down to look for crabs," confirms hunter Lassana Djassi, shotgun in hand. "Personally, I don't eat monkey because I'm Muslim... but he does." He gestures toward Fernando, a Bissau native who is busy scratching Djassi's name in the sand. Grinning widely, Fernando boasts that he makes three to four monkey kills a day -- usually reserving one for himself. Skinning the primate and scooping out its insides, he stews it in water, lime, salt, tomatoes and a touch of chile. As with any meat, choosing a companion wine is no monkey business. Fernando recommends red wine, palm wine or cashew wine.
And the Continental trade in contraband Cornelius is growing. Ripe monkey heads and appendages arriving in bloody baggage from Equatorial Guinea (a former Spanish colony) failed to seduce Spanish airport luggage handlers, though restaurant diners in Madrid and Brussels might be grateful for these simian godsends from the Monkey Mayflower. For serious Thanksgiving inspiration, though, one must backtrack to Africa, with its simian smorgasbord of guenons and duikers, baboons and drills. Red and green, black and white, all are precious in His sight -- Jesus (and the discerning sub-Saharan) loves the little monkeys of the world.
The simian supper is not without its faux pas. While endangered species can make for lovely holiday place-settings, they risk alienating guests. According to the International Primate Protection League, "the bushmeat trade is the number one killer of primates in West Africa." Extinction fears increase continent-wide as Bonzo goes to bounty hunters who see in this rural sustenance meat a prized urban commodity. Ape shall not kill ape, though humans continue unsustainable hunting and trapping of what is held as a cheap, delicious (and often illegal) alternative to beef and mutton.
Before proclaiming monkey "the other white meat," consumers should also be aware of health concerns. When diners in Gabon devoured a chimpanzee found dead in the forest, all thirteen died from hemorrhagic fever, thus rekindling fears of Ebola. Those who link green monkeys to HIV would wisely heed virologists' advice to avoid raw primates and other roadkill.
When I request a recipe from Mario Pereira, a Bissau security guard and weekend gourmet, his eyes light up. "A fine meat! It helps remove sickness from your body. It's not like a pig. The monkey eats only fruit -- mangos, bananas, manioc, green rice. It's a fine meat. The brain -- it's all good, though the head is expensive." He sometimes goes to a local monkey bar and asks them to cut off a piece. "It's also called oficial de marinha (Navy officer) because it's a respectable meat -- you go to a respectable restaurant and that's what it says on the menu."
His partner looks on, shaking his head. While some consumers demand a hand as proof of purchase, he'll only eat primate when he can't see the humanoid features. "I look at those hands and I look at that head, and I just can't," he says. For this same reason, monkeys are preferred over anthropoid chimps and gorillas. With luck, disemboweled holiday monkeys at your own table will banish the televised presence of Martha Stewart, who will cry out "Damn you all to hell!"-- just like Charlton Heston did in Planet of the Apes. And that's always cause for thanksgiving.
Brett Allan King is an American-born writer based in Madrid. He once owned all of the Planet of the Apes action figures -- until his dog Zira ate them.
See also: Bonus Recipe (Mario Pereira's "Monkey Surprise")