My friend Youssef had malaria – le palu, the Africans called it – when he arrived at my house in Lastoursville, Gabon, unexpectedly, the day before Thanksgiving, 1997.  So I led him to the spare room I called my office, with the makeshift desk — a wide wooden plank laid over empty, freshly painted oil barrels — at the window, overlooking the river and the forested mountains in the distance.  I’d made a rudimentary daybed for the room too, from a Peace-Corps-hand-me-down, narrow, single mattress resting on boards propped up by NIDO cans and an assortment of colorful pillows against the wall.


“Please lie down here,” I told him, and then I covered his shaking long, slim body with a blanket.  He complained of fever, chills, painful joints, headache, dizziness, weakness.  I took his temperature, which confirmed a high fever, gave him some Fansidar from my personal, Peace Corps-issue medical kit (which was against the rules for me to do, but I thought this costly medicine would cure him quickly), and told him I’d make some chicken soup for him for lunch.


Before Youssef’s arrival, I’d been busy preparing for the Thanksgiving dinner I was having at my house the next day.  I’d invited a handful of people – my Peace Corps postmate, Morgan; my American missionary friend, Bev; my Chadian neighbors Dr. Djimet and his wife; Denise Nimba, the Camaroonian restaurateur, and her husband, a retired Gabonese fonctionnaire; plus Youssef, a photographer, who planned to take keepsake photos.  For most of the guests, including Youssef, it would be their first traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, and I wanted to make it a memorable event.


Already the poultry stock — made from a combination of chicken carcasses and turkey wings, plus mirepoix (chopped onions, carrots, celery and parsley stems) — was gently simmering in a huge stockpot on the front burner of my new, small stovetop and filling my house with its homey fragrance.   Chicken stock, I had often told my cooking school students in New York, is “liquid gold” in the kitchen because it adds a rich flavor to everything made from it, especially soups and sauces.


I had plenty of stock bubbling on the stove, so I knew I could spare some of it for Youssef’s healing soup.  It was lunchtime, midday on the equator, unbearably hot and humid, as usual.  I was wearing only a tank top and tennis shorts, which I could get away with in the privacy of my own home but not in public in Gabon (where it is culturally inappropriate for a woman to show her legs); and, as always in my house, I was barefoot.


And so begins the true story – recounted fully in my recently published Peace Corps memoir How to Cook a Crocodile — of the burn accident I experienced while serving as a health and nutrition volunteer in Gabon.  In brief:  While scurrying barefoot into the kitchen to fix soup for Youssef, I slipped on some wet kitchen tiles, grabbed for something to catch my fall, and caught the handle of the pot filled with bubbling chicken stock — pulling its boiling contents down on my left leg, severely burning my entire left thigh.


This accident became a turning point in my Peace Corps service.  During the weeks of hospitalization in Libreville that followed, I was faced with a choice:  return to the States for skin grafting, thereby terminating my Peace Corps service, or forego the grafting and return to my post in the interior.  The Peace Corps doctor argued for the former; I vehemently lobbied for the latter.  And, as Crocodile tells, my second year of service, following this accident, was an incalculably enriching experience, worth its weight in gold.


To this day I have a burn scar in the shape of Idaho covering the front of my left thigh, but it doesn’t bother me one bit.  Nobody sees it but me.  It reminds me of one of life’s little secrets:  Sometimes what seems like the worst occurrence at the time turns out to be the best thing that could have happened (when you later take stock of your life).  And to this day, about once a month I make homemade chicken stock in a large pot on my kitchen stove and then freeze it in quart-size containers for the month’s soups and sauces.  Now more than ever I consider it liquid gold.


Chicken Stock  – “Liquid Gold”

2 pounds chicken bones — raw, and/or left over from a roasted chicken

4 medium carrots, scrubbed and chopped into 1-inch pieces

4 medium onions, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces

4 stalks celery, chopped into 1-inch pieces

3 medium cloves of garlic, unpeeled and left whole

10 (or more) whole, black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

1 small bunch of parsley stems

Cold water


Place all ingredients in a tall stockpot large enough to hold everything comfortably.  Cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to a simmer, and skim off any foam or fat that rises to the surface.  Cook at a simmer for at least 2 hours, uncovered.  Strain and cool quickly.  Refrigerate or pour into plastic containers and freeze.