A Seventeenth-Century Survival Bro

This is another story that I came across reading Jean-Baptiste Labat’s account of life in the French Antilles in the late seventeenth century. Honestly, if it wasn’t in the book, I would not believe it. Labat recalls meeting a hunter who carried with him

“…a caffetiere monacale, that is a caffetiere that you heat by spirits of wine. But since this would be entirely contrary to the parsimony that is required by his profession, he did not use anything but oil of palma Christi or fish oil. It served in, if anything, better. A small bag of manioc flour accompanied the caffetiere. Whenever he arrived at a place he wished to travel to, he would hang the caffetiere from a branch after having filled it with water from a balisier (a kind of palm) or a spring, wherever he found it. While travelling, he plucked and tasted herbs that came under his hands and killed as many anoli lizards as he felt he had need of.

Anoli lizard, illustration courtesy of wikimedia commons

Now I believe I have already said that anolis are small lizards, seven to eight inches long, whose length mostly consists of a tail much longer than their body. They are in size about half as thick as a little finger. You can judge what their bodies would look like once they were gutted and skinned, and how much fat and substance it could provide to the herbs with which it is cooked. But it must be said that those who look only for tenderness and ease of digestion in their meats will surely find this here.

About an hours before he was to take his meal, he lit his lamp and placed the chopped herbs into the caffetiere along with as many anolis as he judged necessary to give his water and his herbs the fat and juices required to turn it into a good broth (bouillon). Some crushed grains of bois d’Inde or some chili served him in place of salt and spices. When this venerable dish was cooked, he poured out the broth over manioc flour arranged on the leaf of a balisier. This was his soup (potage) which at the same time served him as his bread to eat his anolis, and since eating to fullness is dangerous in hot climates, his caffetiere served him as both evening meal and breakfast. Which both together never set him back more that two sols and six deniers. It was carnival to him when he caught a frog, and it would serve him for two days at least, such was the frugality of that man.”

I am really not sure what to make of this story. On one hand, Labat (who usually travelled with several servants and a supply of wine and liquor) surely did not actually accompany this man into the forest, so the story should be assumed to contain a degree of exaggeration. On the other hand, the precise observation of trivial details suggests it has some truth to it. Personally, I am above all fascinated by the combination of traditional Native American survival techniques with contemporary high technology. Surely, if YouTube had been invented, that guy would have had a channel.

And yes, you can make manioc porridge that way (I have) and you can eat anolis (I haven’t). And I am pretty sure there was more to the herbs than picking whatever looked appetising, but expecting that kind of knowledge to register with a member of the upper classes may be asking too much. I am grateful enough we have the story at all, for its sheer weirdness.

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