Chapter 21 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

“Jerking” an Elephant.

Next day was one of severe, but joyful labour. It was spent in “curing” the elephant, not in a medical sense, but in the language of the provision-store.

Although not equal to either beef or mutton, or even pork, the flesh of the elephant is sufficiently palatable to be eaten. There is no reason why it should not be, for the animal is a clean feeder, and lives altogether on vegetable substances—the leaves and tender shoots of trees, with several species of bulbous roots, which he well knows how to extract from the ground with his tusks and trunk. It does not follow from this that his beef should be well tasted—since we see that the hog, one of the most unclean of feeders, yields most delicious “pork;” while another of the same family (pachydermatii) that subsists only on sweet succulent roots, produces a flesh both insipid and bitter. I allude to the South American tapir. The quality of the food, therefore, is no criterion of the quality of the flesh.

It is true that the beef of the elephant was not what Von Bloom and most of his family would have chosen for their regular diet. Had they been sure of procuring a supply of antelope venison, the great carcass might have gone, not to the “dogs,” but to their kindred the hyenas. But they were not sure of getting even a single antelope, and therefore decided upon “curing” the elephant. It would be a safe stock to have on hand, and need not interfere with their eating venison, or any other dainty that might turn up.

The first thing done was to cut out the tusks. This proved a tough job, and occupied full two hours. Fortunately there was a good axe on hand. But for this and Swartboy’s knowledge, double the time might have been wasted in the operation.

The ivory having been extracted and put away in a safe place, the “cutting up” then commenced in earnest. Von Bloom and Swartboy were the “baas-butchers,” while Hans and Hendrik played the part of “swabs.” As the carcass lay half under water, they would have had some difficulty in dealing with the under part. But this they did not design to touch. The upper half would be amply sufficient to provision them a long while; and so they set about removing the skin from that side that was uppermost.

The rough thick outer coat they removed in broad sheets cut into sections; and then they peeled off several coats of an under-skin, of tough and pliant nature. Had they needed water-vessels, Swartboy would have saved this for making them—as it is used for such purposes by the Bushmen and other natives. But they had vessels enough in the wagon, and this skin was thrown away.

They had now reached the pure flesh, which they separated in large sheets from the ribs; and then the ribs were cut out, one by one, with the axe. This trouble they would not have taken—as they did not want the ribs—but they cut them away for another reason, namely, to enable them to get at the valuable fat, which lies in enormous quantities around the intestines. Of course for all cooking purposes, the fat would be to them invaluable, and indeed almost necessary to render the flesh itself eatable.

It is no easy matter to get at the fat in the inside of an elephant, as the whole of the intestines have first to be removed. But Swartboy was not to be deterred by a little trouble; so climbing into the interior of the huge carcass, he commenced cutting and delving, and every now and then passing a multitude of “inwards” out to the others, who carried them off out of the way.

After a long spell of this work, the fat was secured, and carefully packed in a piece of clean under-skin; and then the “butchering” was finished.

Of course the four feet, which along with the trunk are considered the “tit-bits,” had already been separated at the fetlock joint; and stood out upon the bank, for the future consideration of Swartboy.

The next thing to be done was to “cure” the meat. They had a stock of suit—that precious, though, as lately discovered, not indispensable article. But the quantity—stowed away in a dry corner of the wagon—was small, and would have gone but a short way in curing an elephant.

They had no idea of using it for such a purpose. Flesh can be preserved without salt; and not only Swartboy, but Von Bloom himself, knew how to preserve it. In all countries where salt is scarce, the process of “jerking” meat is well understood, and consists simply in cutting it into thin strips and hanging it out in the sun. A few days of bright warm sunshine will “jerk” it sufficiently; and meat thus dried will keep good for months. A slow fire will answer the purpose nearly as well; and in the absence of sunshine, the fire is often resorted to.

Sun-dried meat in South Africa is called “biltongue.” The Spaniards of Mexico name it “tasajo,” while those of Peru style it “charqui.” In English it is “jerked” meat.

Several hours were spent in cutting the elephant-beef into strips, and then a number of forked poles were set up, others were laid horizontally over the forks, and upon these the meat was suspended, and hung down in numberless festoons.

Before the sun went down, the neighbourhood of the camp presented a rare appearance. It looked somewhat like the enclosure of a yarn-bleacher, except that the hanging strips, instead of being white, were of a beautiful clear ruby colour.

But the work was not yet completed. The feet remained to be “preserved,” and the mode of curing these was entirely different. That was a secret known only to Swartboy, and in the execution of it the Bushman played first fiddle, with the important air of a chef de cuisine. He proceeded as follows:—

He first dug a hole in the ground, about two feet deep, and a little more in diameter—just large enough to admit one of the feet, which was nearly two feet diameter at the base. The earth which came out of this hole Swartboy placed in the form of a loose embankment around the edge.

By his direction the boys had already collected upon the spot a large quantity of dried branches and logs. These Swartboy now built over the hole, into a pyramid of ten feet high, and then set the pile on fire. He next proceeded to make three other pits precisely similar, and built over each a fire like the first, until four large fires were burning upon the ground.

The fires being now fairly under way, he could only wait until each had burned down. This would carry the process into the night, and so it turned out; but Swartboy had a foresight of this. He knew he would get through with the more important portion of his work before bedtime.

When the first fire had burned quite to red cinders, Swartboy’s hardest turn of duty began. With a shovel he lifted the cinders out of the hole, until it was empty; but he was more than an hour in performing this apparently simple labour. The difficulty arose from the intense heat he had to encounter, which drove him back after every few moments’ work; so that he was compelled to retreat at intervals in order to cool himself.

The “baas,” as well as Hendrik and Hans, took turns with him, until all four were perspiring as if they had been shut up for half-an-hour in a baker’s oven.

When the hole was thoroughly scooped clean of coals, Swartboy, assisted by Von Bloom, lifted one of the huge feet; and, carrying it as near as they dare go on account of the scorching heat, they dropped it in upon its base.

The sandy earth which had been originally removed, and which was now as hot as molten lead, was pushed over, and around the foot; and then the cinders were raked on top, and over that another huge fire was kindled.

The same process was gone through with the other three feet, and all four were to be left in the “oven” until the fires should be burned down, when they would be found sufficiently baked.

Swartboy would then rake off the cinders, take out the feet with a sharp wooden spit, beat them well to get rid of the dust, scrape the sand clear, then pare off the outside skin, when they would be ready either to be eaten or would keep for a long time.

Swartboy would do all this as soon as the four huge bonfires should burn down.

But that would not be before the morning; so all of them, fatigued by the extraordinary exertions of the day, finished their suppers of broiled trunk, and went to rest under the protecting shadow of the nwana.