A Literary Feast -- The African Queen

Growing up, we were a movie-watching family. I have fond memories of many of them: The Princess Bride, Aladdin, Back to the Future, and, of course, many more. One movie that I recall with nostalgia is The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Surprisingly, as most people associate Bogart with his stellar performances in pictures such as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, it was from The African Queen that Bogart won his only Oscar. The film was shot on location in Belgian Congo, where most of the cast and crew suffered from dysentery, save Bogart and the director. In the words of Bogart, “All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whisky. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.” (“source” Wikipedia) Now, that’s getting into character, as we shall see. I was intrigued, then, when I found the novel of the same name in the $1 clearance section of Half Price Books. I’d never read any books by C.S. Forester, who, according to the back cover, is more well known for his Horatio Hornblower adventure novels.

The story brings together the most unlikely love interest you can imagine: Rose Sayer, an uptight, teetotaling, English spinster missionary, and Charles Allnutt, a roving, uncouth trader, who was a bit of a lush. They are thrown together by death, war, and necessity, as World War I has infiltrated even the darkest of African jungles. At first just escaping in Allnutt’s small 30-foot skiff, grandly titled The African Queen, Rose hatches a grand scheme. Why just escape? Why not, in the name of patriotism and avengement of her brother’s death, strike a devastating blow into the German forces of the Congo? The plan was simple: travel down the Ulanga River to the large lake that was completely controlled by the Germans, thanks to the large police steamer, the Königin Luise, or to English tongues, the Louisa. Once there, they would fashion the boxes of explosives already conveniently in the boat into a makeshift torpedo and sink the Louisa, leaving the entry to that area of the Congo open to the British troops chasing the Germans. Only one trifling problem faced them: the Ulanga was chock full of rapids; as far as they knew, only one person had ever traversed its entire length, and he was in a dugout canoe. Allnutt considered Rose to be completely batty to even suggest such as mission; however, being the beta character in the story and unwilling to rock the boat, so to say, he eventually acquiesced to her wishes. What a harrowing journey! I was interested to see how reading it would differ from visualizing it on screen, and was pleasantly surprised by the vividness of Forester’s prose. It would had been riveting, even if I hadn’t known the story ahead of time. Oh, but the ending! I’m not going to give it away, except to say Watch. The. Movie. Are you like me and you often rail against Hollywood for sensationalizing your favorite books and turning them into a string of action scenes? Well, in this case, it was the right choice. I love the ending in the movie! Maybe the book’s ending was closer to what reality would have been, but… after such a sensational journey, the book’s finale was decidedly lackluster. After reading it now, although well-written, I am even more impressed with the film. I think you’d like it! I’m not sure if it’s on Netflix, but I’ve already checked, and you can get the DVD at Amazon for $8.88. 🙂

And what meal plans can you garner from a rickety boat careening through deadly rapids in the hot African jungle? Not many, I can tell you that. In fact, here you see my shopping trip for the meal:

A Literary Feast -- tinned food

Dinner is served!

That was easy! Since, of course, most foods had to be shipped into the jungle and transferred on boats such as Allnutt’s, he had a hefty supply of tinned foods (“canned” to us Americans, of course). Other than mentioning that, not much is said about the contents of the tins, except to reassure us that there was lots of tea. Once the rapids were safely forded (was that a spoiler? so sorry), they celebrated by having a feast of only the best tinned foods, ordered especially for the Belgian manager of the mine for which Allnutt worked: “tinned tomato soup, and tinned lobster, and a tin of asparagus, and a tin of apricots with condensed milk, and a tin of biscuits.” The next sentence reads, “They experimented with a tin of pâté de foie gras, but neither of them liked it, and by mutual consent they put it overside half finished.” As you well know, I have already had my experience with pâté, and do not wish to repeat it. I’m glad to hear that it went overboard, as mine did as well. As for the rest of it, would you believe that I couldn’t find tinned lobster at my supermarket, and yet they could have it delivered in turn of the century Africa? Strange. I substituted with crab meat. I don’t know what tinned biscuits would look like, but of course, we have our own version of those.

Not a bad looking meal, on the whole. Tomato soup with crab meat, asparagus on the side, and a dessert of warm biscuits, topped with apricots and sweetened condensed milk. Two notes: canned asparagus is nasty, as Chompers will tell you. I really should get a video of him watching this Toddler Cam, because he laughs his head off every time. Especially when there isn’t enough milk in the cup to wash the asparagus taste away and he resorts to pulling the straw out with his teeth. Highbrow comedy for a one-year-old. Note #2: this is an easy and yummy dessert! I should just put sweetened condensed milk on everything.

A Literary Feast -- apricot dessert

Creamy Apricot Delight

In the end, I most likely won’t add this to my bag of tricks for meal plans. Tomato soup belongs with grilled cheese, after all. Rose and Charlie thought differently, as “They were of the generation and class which had been educated to think that all good food came out of tins, and their years in Africa had not undeceived them.” I find this a funny statement, as the novel was written less than 20 years after the story’s timeframe. Glad I read the book, though. It was well worth the dollar, and I’ll pass it on to the first person who wants it. Any takers?