Eating In Africa

Any time the African Caravan comes up during an Airstream Q&A session, I hear familiar questions. Where did you find food? What foods did you eat? Did you go hungry?

It’s true, there was no McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken when we were in Africa.

But realize this: wherever people live, there is food. As we traveled across the continent, we experienced diverse cuisines. We found wonderful restaurants and tribal markets, and tried a little of everything.

Families planned before leaving home, meaning each brought food stores containing non-perishable items like canned meats, chili, spaghetti, butter, powdered milk, herbs, and spices. As we traveled through towns and cities, we could find markets stocked with cans and packages to replace your food stock.

I joined the Caravan as an advance scout, as did Nick Charles, son of Andy Charles. Nick was 17 at the time; I was 20. I did the cooking, and Nick did the dishes: a simple arrangement.

There's a good chance you're wondering: Pee Wee, you can cook? The answer is yes – in 1956, my mother, Helen Byam Schwamborn, left in March for the European Caravan. My dad cooked two meals, broiled steak with baked potatoes, and Yankee pot roast. They were both excellent meals, but after a while they got a little boring, so I began to supplement his cooking with my own. It worked out well, and thus Chef Pee Wee was born.

Here’s how I explained our meal planning in a letter to my parents.

“We took the spare time and allotted it to servicing the truck, filling up the propane, washing the van, doing our laundry, etc…our meals in the African Scout Car are varied. For breakfast some pancakes, or hot oats, maybe bacon, sausage and eggs, possibly with potatoes. Milk or tea is the morning beverage. For lunch we generally eat light, soup.  Dinner is varied – steak, spaghetti, potatoes, peas, string beans, carrots, and plenty of fresh fruit. Also on our menu is macaroni, pot roast, lamb chops, smothered steak, etc. Dessert is generally fruit, but we do have cake, Jello and ice cream. I do the shopping and all of food I bought in the market, so far we haven’t had to live out of cans, all food is fresh.” 

At several stops, the Caravanners enjoyed meals provided by locals. The Afrikaans had barbecues or braaiveleis (pronounced bri-fles) with grilled meat and their traditional sausages. Unbelievable tastes.

Nick and I filled up with gasoline driving from Durban to Bloemfontein. At the restaurant, I ate my first curry meal, something I have enjoyed for a lifetime.

After Nairobi, we became bogged down in Southern Ethiopia. In this area, there were tribes not under the control of the Emperor Haile Selassie. To ensure our safety, a small detachment of Selassie’s Palace Guards were sent to ride with us.

The first evening, we were parked along the road next to an embankment. We heard a knock on the door. When I opened it, I was face to face with an Ethiopian soldier. His hands were extended, holding a large clod of meat, still pulsating with the throes of death, the muscles contracting before me.

Wide-eyed, I gratefully and graciously took it. Wow! The meat was pink, bloody, and very warm. Out came a large pot, which we filled with wine, added salt, pepper, and bay leaves. Then, slow cooked until it was done, adding a few vegetables along the way.

Later, I found out the guards had appropriated a cow from the village, and that they were reprimanded for stealing, killing, and butchering the cow.

For a treat in Addis Ababa, I purchased an entire beef tenderloin. When dinnertime came, I took the meat out of the fridge and unwrapped it. The meat was crawling with larva. I tossed it into the garbage pit.

We later spent Christmas at an American oasis, Kagnew Station in Asmara, Eritrea. We gorged ourselves on foods we hadn’t seen since leaving the United States, like hamburgers, milkshakes, and french fries. We stocked up on food at the Post Exchange, in preparation for crossing the Sudanese deserts and the Nubian, including a large bag of high-quality rice.

The hazards of the desert made passing quite the ordeal. I wrote to my parents:

“Just briefly about our trip through the desert. Seven trailers and the three solo trucks crossed the Nubian Desert to Wadi Halfa. It took eight days, a lot of deep sand, two broken axles, several flats, burned out bearing in Pete’s truck, fractured spider gears in one truck, and Nick, Art and me towing Pete’s truck were stuck in one hoe for ten hours!”

During the ten-hour period, I opened the bag of rice and discovered it had added protein. It was crawling with rice weevils. Food is food, I thought, so I boiled water and cooked it anyway, adding a generous amount of ground pepper to the boiling water. Adventure comes in many forms.

Days later, Nick Charles and I went to a colonial hotel for coffee. Seated at the table next to us was an American couple, discussing how poorly trained the help was in the hotel, how dirty the city was, how tasteless the food was, and how their entire trip to Egypt was a disaster.

Classify them as “Ugly Americans.”

Their words impacted me, as I considered much of the food I’d purchased as we navigated from Cape Town to Cairo would have been thought of as unsanitary at home. Of course, our entire seven-and-a-half month journey had challenges when it came to shopping for food.

As we reached journey’s end, we celebrated with a feast at the Nile Hilton, in a reserved banquet hall with a menu unlike we’d ever seen. Shrimp cocktail, broiled sirloin, stuffed squash – the menu goes on and on.

We’d experienced tastes your average person would describe as far from exquisite, but the memories I have from Africa, I find the richest flavors imaginable.

Dale “Pee Wee” Schwamborn has silver in his blood. Each week, Pee Wee shares one of his many stories, including his experiences on the iconic Airstream Caravans, his time spent working in the Airstream factory, and the many Airstreamers he’s befriended, far and wide.