It was Christmas and the meeting room had been transformed. The table where we sat for appraisals and stern one to ones about our internet usage was covered with a red crepe tablecloth and dotted with plates and foil trays. Of warm quiches and air-dried sandwiches. Processed meat in all its forms. Coleslaw, crisps and brightly-coloured curry dishes. It smelt like a freshly opened can of dog food. Still we piled our plates high and settled around the table, chatting.
“So, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?” someone asked.
I stacked potato salad and chicken biryani onto a segment of Scotch egg. Ready for a question like this.
I’d long defined myself by my capacity to eat. Anything and the most of it. Always the one with the fullest and subsequently cleanest plate. The 10 second rule meant nothing to me. Unless something had fallen onto a patch of vomit, I would pick it up and eat it. But as I opened my mouth to reel off a list, Derek got there first.
“A family of armadillos.”
Derek had spent most of his career in the army. Much of it in Jungle Ops. Eating whatever he could catch.
“You just gather them up in sacks,” he said, making it sound as simple and everyday as picking flowers. “Then separate them and pin the sacks to the ground with stakes. They just sit there quietly until you’re ready to cook them.”
I considered this poor armadillo family. Heading off on a summer outing and suddenly finding themselves swept into a dark web of burlap.
“Dad? What’s happening?”
“It’s okay, son. Just keep still and they’ll forget we’re here. Trust me.”
“Then you just roast them in their armour.” Derek said. “Like a big shrimp.”
I considered judging him for this but remembered how many Sundays I’d happily eaten a baby sheep then asked for seconds.
“We’d eat monkeys,” he said, enjoying the attention that should have been mine. “Black Mamba. Anything.”
“What’s monkey like?” I asked, unable to deny my curiosity.
“Stringy,” he said. “All sinew.”
You could see the memory of it on his face as he spoke. Of biting into a roasted arm, the meat coming away from the bone in threads as if he were eating a violin bow.
I couldn’t compete. I considered mentioning that I’d eaten alligator but I’d ordered that in a restaurant from a set menu. I hadn’t torn its throat out then carved a steak from its flank. I guessed there was that coconut mushroom I’d struggled to chew and, upon removing it from my mouth, discovered a large, blooded toenail embedded in it. But I’d spat that out.
“One time,” I said, rushed and desperate. “A moth flew into my mouth and I swallowed it. Then I coughed, it flew back out again and the cat ate it.”
Derek listened thoughtfully, picking his teeth with a plastic fork. As he’d surely done with an armadillo claw.
“Jungle rat was my favourite,” he said.
I jammed a bhaji and a pickled onion into a tuna sandwich then bit down. Determined not to be outdone.