A strange and silly joke has made its way to my desk at work; a friend thought it suited my sense of humour and I couldn’t disagree. It’s a realistic looking, darkly funny, sun-beaten tin of ‘unicorn meat’. The bewilderingly thorough label includes a less than appetising gamey-looking serving suggestion, but also a complete list of ingredients and table of nutrition facts. Thinking it was empty I added it to my desk clutter, but was encouraged to open it. I take great pleasure in asking slightly horrified observers to do the same. The tin in fact contains a small plush unicorn, clearly dead and dissected into portions, which are coded in case one wishes to stick it back together. I do find this hilarious, probably more than I should as a vegetarian with vegan tendencies.
Other than revulsion and confusion, this tin of poor taste has stimulated conversations with colleagues about the weirdest foods eaten. I tell an awkward story of family encountering horse meat in Kazakhstan and remembering when I was growing up we would eat ostrich at home instead of beef. While eating ostrich is not unusual, the popularity of which seems to be growing in the UK, encountering a live one is.
Continuing to jog through my memories I remembered a fantastic childhood experience of visiting an ostrich farm on a family holiday. In what became a winter break tradition, my parents would drive us up the coast to a town called Grahamstown for the annual arts festival which continues to be held for two weeks in June and July. The town was about a 9 hour drive from Cape Town which, while doable in a day for two license holding adults, with two kids in the back seat it’s probably not the most relaxing start to a holiday. We’d break the journey into two days, stopping at attractions and farm stalls along the way and either staying overnight with friends or at a guest lodge in a town my sister and I had sometimes never heard of. The possibilities of adventure were always exciting.
One such pit stop was at a town we had heard of – Oudtshoorn. Situated in the Eastern Cape the town is famous for one commodity – all things ostrich. Farms were a booming attraction for local and international tourists alike with all manner of curios made from the giant feathers and eggs. The meat wasn’t as commonly ingested at the time, but the biltong was very popular and my absolute favourite. A holiday highlight was being bought a big chunk of the salty dried meat and chewing on it in the back seat of the car. This probably had more child-pacifying benefits for my parents I’m sure, but I loved it.
Visiting the farm was like educational Disneyland for my young brain. We learned all sorts of interesting facts about the giant prehistoric looking birds, most of which I’ve barely remembered – except they will eat pebbles to aid their own poor digestion (never corroborated this), as well as just about anything else actually. The eggs are also strong enough for a child to stand on, and I don’t remember anyone actually demonstrating that fact, but I do recall feeling too scared and shy to try. (Eggy shoes would not bode well in a warm car)
The highlight of this experience was being able to mount one of these dinosaur birds and have a photo taken while sitting on it’s back. Questionable ethics of the practice aside, these birds make for rather awkward and uncomfortable furniture. Not nature’s intention. It was unforgettable though, and thankfully the photos I know exist are buried too deep in family albums to find.
The pièce de résistance of the afternoon was watching the staff race the birds like horses on a track; again, welfare concerns aside, the spectacle of these surprisingly lightning fast birds was equally hilarious and strange. As a whole I am grateful for this unique and wonderful opportunity afforded me by an African childhood, but not it’s still not as odd as laughing at a fake tin of unicorn meat.