***Update, August 1: In response to the thousands of people who, after reading this entire post, decided to harp on one single phrase (“I’m no feminist”), I wrote this. If you want to know how I can say all the things I say here, yet still reject “feminism,” click the link and I’ll explain. Otherwise, carry on. Thanks for stopping by.
Our country dangles on the precipice of starting a third World War. We are on the verge of a completely unnecessary conflict where the United States will fight along side Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This, in another day and age, might earn the crown as the Most Controversial Story of the Week. But we’re in the year 2013, and this is America, so a young pop star’s dance moves on an MTV awards show have predictably overshadowed the prospect of global chaos and bloodshed. I wrote…
In order not to drive myself demented with my own company all day long, I’ve decided to go down the road to Café Neo once or twice a week. At any given time of day, it’s full of folk with their laptops, probably also saving themselves from the insanity that comes with too much solitude. And it’s cosy and quiet and a good spot for getting things done. It’s also the regular hangout of a girlfriend of mine who works from home, and on Wednesday I agreed to met her there so she could tell me the sad story of her Saturday night.
Now, my friend (I’ll call her Emma) has a smoking hot career and earns a bundle of money. She doesn’t need any man to pay her bills, rescue her or look after her in any way. But, she’d like to share her life with somebody, so she dates fairly often and is on the lookout for a life partner. This particular Saturday she invited a guy a friend had set her up with along to a ball and, as one does when it’s a ball, went to a lot of trouble getting ready. She had on a beautiful dress, her hair looked gorgeous and she was wearing sexy heels. But, when she opened the door, he didn’t say a word. Not a ‘wow, you look pretty,’ or even an ‘I like your dress’ – nothing.
And it’s not like he’s obliged to or that she’s desperate for affirmation, but when it’s obvious that a woman who’s usually quite no-nonsense and in boardroom attire goes to a lot of effort to look good, isn’t it just manners or something to tell her she looks nice? Then, on the way to the car, she had to negotiate some steep steps wearing these high heels. When he didn’t notice and offer her his arm, she asked if he wouldn’t mind giving her a hand. And instead of realizing he was amiss, jumping to her side and doing the gentlemanly thing, he pointed out that her heels weren’t that high and that surely she could manage by herself.
And this pretty much carried on the entire evening – he’d pour himself a glass of wine and forget to fill hers; his attention would wander while she was talking, and when his phone rang he took the call even though they were half-way through dinner. Wrong, wrong, wrong. While one would assume he just wasn’t that into her, he actually was, but by the time the end of the evening came and he wanted to know when he could see her again and leaned in for a kiss, she was so over him that it was all beyond redemption. ‘He’s not a bad guy,’ she assured me. ‘He’s actually really nice and smart, he just didn’t get the memo.’
He just didn’t get the memo. And that memo is a big deal. It’s not about men being dominant and women submissive, and neither does it undermine feminism or contradict the truism that women and men are equal in all the ways that count. But, when a man and woman (and a man and a man or a woman and a woman) are together in a certain context there is a particular exchange of energy that happens; a sort of dance of the yin and the yang. And when men do stuff like not fill our wine glass or hold the door so we can walk through first or they walk ten steps ahead of us, that beautiful push-and-pull gets broken, somehow. There’s a type of old world graciousness, if you will, which simply ceases to be.
Of course we women are perfectly capable of pouring our own wine and opening our own doors, and we don’t need or want men to do these things for us always; just sometimes. Because what this really amounts to is a sort of ‘seeing,’ isn’t it? A recognition of our otherness; and a metaphorical kind of hat-tipping to our femininity. While all week long Emma is the boss and makes the decisions and wears the tailored pants, now and again she feels like relinquishing that role and relaxing into a different sort of space where she’s allowed to just be a girl being taken out by a boy. And that’s completely okay. So, men, next time you’re taking somebody somewhere nice and she’s put on a dress and perfume and is looking every part of beautiful, please don’t hold back from telling her. It doesn’t matter if she’s the CEO of the world – tonight she is on a date and in her heart she’s Cinderella. It’s just your job to be the prince.
So, on an excursion to find slippers for Sophie last week, I wandered into the Pick n Pay clothing store here in Sea Point, and what do I find? THE cutest jeggings ever created in the universe. In Pick n Pay! For the people of Brakpan and all straight men, a jegging is a combination of a legging and a pair of jeans – they’re tight and fitted, but in thickish, forgiving fabric, and usually (especially when black) quite flattering.
So excited was I to have found a disco pant for the following Saturday’s party, I sommer bought two. At R149,99 you won’t be bankrupt. Jeggings are huge this spring, and as we’re still in the middle of Baroque fever they have that funky print going on. Plus, you can never have too many pairs of black pants. Wear them with a longish top, and a heel never hurt a sister.
As South African as Bafana Bafana, Lion matches and Leon Schuster.
Now that I know I’m actually Khoi San I’ve become more interested in traditional dishes, and nothing on this planet can be more traditionally South African than putu, wors and chakalaka. Bizarrely, the first time I ever ate putu, or krummelpap as it’s called in Afrikaans, was in Copenhagen at a meeting of the South African Social Club. Talk about losing your roots. But it’s delicious, and for some reason (probably my blackness) I’ve been craving it lately. For non-South Africans, putu is a type of dry porridge made from maize or corn meal which is kept crumbly by cooking it in very little water. I guess my ancestors couldn’t be arsed to keep trudging back to the river so they adapted their dishes accordingly.
In Gauteng, it’s usually eaten as a savoury side at a braai with a spicy tomato and onion sauce known as chakalaka and boerewors, a local sausage. Here in the Western Cape it’s more commonly eaten at breakfast time with milk and sugar. Though (as my facebook friends will testify) I’m breaking with tradition and this morning I had the leftovers with scrambled egg and sausage. Man, it was good. Never having cooked it before, I had no idea there were so many varieties, and I had to ask a shelf-packer at Pick n Pay which kind was best. Once he’d stopped giggling enough to speak (I guess blonde chicks in biker jackets don’t usually go around cooking putu), he told me they were all the same.
See how nice and crumbly? My grandpa Botha would have been proud.
Luckily, two sensible elderly women came to my rescue, and after a long debate between them about which brand was less inclined to burn, White Star got the thumbs up. I was mightily excited to cook this new thing, and a little apprehensive as I had invited a friend around for supper. Luckily, she is a good enough friend that if it all turned out to be a disaster we’d just laugh and drink more wine. But, it came out pretty nicely, and we all had second helpings. Well, except for my six-year-old who murdered hers with tomato sauce and then still refused to touch it. She’ll learn sense eventually. Strangely, there are no cooking instructions on the packet, but I found them on Google, followed them exactly and it turned out fine. I think the hardest part is not letting it burn, so just keep an eye and it’s kind of imperative that you use a heavy-bottomed pot. Otherwise it’s going to stick a lot and washing up will be a pain. Thank god we don’t still walk to the river for that stuff, right?
Here’s how you do it. And don’t even think about not eating it with chakalaka. That stuff is the best thing I’ve discovered, and I plan to eat it with everything, always. A heads-up: the mild version is pretty damn spicy. Only buy the hot one if you’re a sirryus chilli junky.
• 2½ cups (600 ml) boiling water
• 1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
• 2½ cups (400 gram) Maize Meal
• A knob of butter
1. Pour boiling water and salt into saucepan with a thick base and a lid. Bring to boil.
2. Add the maize meal to the boiling water and half a teaspoon of salt.
3. Close the lid, without stirring.
4. Reduce heat. Simmer gently for 5 minutes.
5. Remove lid and stir well with a wooden spoon. At this point it takes on its crumbly texture.
6. Replace lid, reduce heat and steam for about half an hour, until done, but be careful not to burn it.
7. Fluff with a fork a few times during cooking. Or don’t. I forgot this part and it didn’t matter.
8. Add a knob of butter to the pap shortly before fluffing it for the last time. Because butter makes everything better.
All cities have that one restaurant which is just THE restaurant, and if you haven’t been there you kind of suck. Just kidding, you don’t, but you do need to go there at least one time. It’s got nothing to do with how expensive it is or pretentious the waiters are, it’s just been given the ‘cool’ badge by locals because it’s awesome and vibey and consistently fabulous no matter what time of the day or night you show up in need of carbs.
In Cape Town, that place is definitely Societi Bistro (www.societibistro.co.za). And I don’t just say that because I’ve known the owner, Peter Weetman, since school. It’s the place Coldplay came for dinner two nights in a row (and God knows, Chris Martin isn’t easy to please); where Annie Lennox is a regular and anyone with vague celebrity status comes by to hang out when they’re visiting the Mother City. The reason is simply because it’s chilled, the food is excellent and inexpensive, it has a drop dead view of Table Mountain (and yes, we Capetonians are pathologically obsessed with our mountain) and the service is always impeccable.
Oh, and there’s one more reason – there’s a very tasty sandwich on the menu with my name on it. For real. And not because I’m famous, but because nepotism rules. When you go there straight after you’ve read this have the mushroom risotto or the pork belly or the fillet au poivre. Or if you want something sandwich-y, the Susan Hayden (a-hem) and the Sylvie Hurford are divine. And when you spot Annie, it’s okay to go and say hello, she’s really nice and friendly. Do book, though (021 4242100) because it’s packed every night. And there’s free wifi which means you can pretend to work while you people-watch. Punt over. Off you go.
So, I’ve been racking my brain to come up with a blog idea for today, but nothing wants to ‘stick’ because all I can think of is how utterly lost and miserable I feel for no particular reason. Then late last night I got a message from my friend in Sweden saying how much she loves the ‘real’ pieces, and how they resonate for her, so maybe this blog needs to be about that. I’ll run with it see where it takes me. If nowhere, at least I’ll get a good cry out of trying.
The thing is, in this linear, scientific, cause-and-effect world we’ve created for ourselves, things need to have reasons, and that’s why times like these – when you want to crawl in a ball and have everything go away but you can’t say why, exactly – are so bewildering. You can’t ‘just’ feel stuff. You must be able to explain it. And I guess there are reasons – there are usually lots of them, but they’re not always as obvious as we’d like them to be. For me, one is definitely about not having a place to go to in the morning for the first time in quite a few years. And while I have no doubt in my mind that I needed to leave where I was and spread my wings and do something new, the reality of an empty day alone at home scares the living daylights out of me.
It’s fun to stay home when you’re supposed to be at work, but we under-emphasize how reassuring the structure of a day in the office is. I like people, and the nonsense (and sometimes serious) talk you have with colleagues – those individuals you find yourself spending many hours a day with and get to know and love. I liked making them laugh and being used as an agony aunt, and the little office rituals related to birthdays, new babies and resignations. It’s not really me to spend this amount of time alone. And, while I am working harder probably than I ever have, I’m not getting paid for much of it, which totally confuses my brain. Does it still qualify as work? By what rights do I get to sit here and talk about libraries when I should only be doing stuff that pays?
So, it’s that plus coming down from the high of starting the blog and having people read it and like it and the unmitigated affirmation that gave me, but then realizing that the gazillions of work opportunities I’d hoped would magically open up, didn’t, and then even more of a sense of what the hell am I doing? What is my next career move? Surely I need to have some sort of plan for myself; some ‘direction’ if I’m to be allowed to exist on this planet. We human beings have a really hard time just being. So, I need to try and change the focus from what the blog will do for me to the real reason I started it – for the simple, unabashed love of stringing words together.
Yesterday one of my closest girlfriends sat next to me on my couch and held my hand while I blubbered and said to me, ‘you are doing this for you. And yes, you are reaching people and making them think, but you are doing this for YOU.’ And she is right, of course. It’s a solitary pursuit and it can be lonely as hell but there is nothing else I really want to do. So, I’m going to try to remove (or at least acknowledge) the pressure I’m placing on myself, and let this process take its course.
And, maybe hardest of all, is giving myself permission to feel lost and lonely and scared without a ‘good’ reason. No, nobody in my life has died; yes, I have people who love me; no, I am not homeless; yes, I have everything I need. But I still feel fucking horrible and I can’t explain why. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow, and maybe I won’t. Maybe this funk will take a while to lift, and maybe that’s okay, too. Perhaps we don’t have to feel happy and together all the time and put up a façade that everything in our lives is fabulous when actually we feel seven years old and want our moms. My name is Susan and I feel sad, and there’s no ‘because.’ That’s all.
On my very first day at university as I found my way to the library on UCT’s labyrinthine upper campus, I spotted a poster stuck just outside the door. It read, simply, ‘The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened.’ Today, those words would spark the faculties of critical thinking I was to develop during my years at that institution and I would immediately think, ‘whose culture? What does ‘culture’ mean? Who are these doors opening to?’ but back then, they stopped me dead in my tracks and I distinctly remember tears of awe and gratitude filling my eyes.
Because I had been a terrible High School student, skipping classes as often as I could get away with, doing the bare minimum of work and not taking one damn thing my teachers said seriously. While in my final year I half-heartedly tried to make up for lost time and get a university pass, it was too little too late, and I’d pretty much messed up my chances of getting accepted. But, the universe works in mysterious ways, and somehow someone in UCT’s admissions office must have thought there was a glimmer of hope for me and I got the acceptance letter in the mail (I wish I still had it – it changed my life), and then I was there, walking through those hallowed doors of learning and culture which, by some miracle, had been opened to me.
I never took that privilege for granted. While other students partied and drank, I’d had my share of that, and I knew my time had come to show them what I could do. I worked hard and got firsts for everything. I couldn’t get enough of learning. I listened intently to what my lecturers said; I ate the wisdom they dished up to us, their hungry, hopeful students. I had found my place in the world, and it was within the grey corridors of the English department where daily I would pass the offices of J.M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, Stephen Watson; writers and thinkers who, through words alone, changed the landscape of South Africa. Those were happy years for me. I was home.
Yesterday, as I stood in Sea Point library waiting to return some overdue books, I thought of UCT’s library where I spent so many happy hours poring over mind-bendingly beautiful combinations of words; hand-writing essays (we had no laptops in those days); studying for all I was worth. Libraries smell and feel the same wherever you are in the world. There is a church-like quality about them, even when they’re shabby and low on funding and most of the people visiting them look as worn as the newspapers they sit in a corner and read. When I go to my local library I see a segment of the population I wouldn’t normally, and when my favourite librarian is there – a softly-spoken, bespectacled man in his fifties – suddenly there is time in the day to talk about books and authors. In that musty-scented stillness the bustle of life comes to a halt.
On that day, an Irish woman in her sixties was ahead of me in the queue. She was happy because the book she’d been waiting for, Freddie Mercury’s biography, had finally arrived. It was three weeks late, and every day after work she would come by to see if it had been returned. She told me she was his biggest fan, and knew all of his lyrics by heart. I told her my husband used to work close to Freddie’s home in London, and when the news broke of his death he was one of the first people to put a rose outside the singer’s door. She smiled broadly at that story.
Then, the bubbly, young librarian who was working the evening shift reminded her that she had promised to sing a Freddie Mercury song the day her book arrived. ‘Oooh, that’s right,’ she said, in her lovely, lilting accent. ‘Hang on – I was just listening to it in the car – ‘I see a little silhouetto of a man/ Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?’ And then, quite spontaneously, an old guy standing nearby in a trench coat and I joined in with, ‘Thunderbolts and lightning/ very, very frightening – me!’
We chuckled, said goodbye and I headed out into the dusk to my house with lots of rooms and noisy children and cooked a butternut curry, and the Irish woman went home to her house with her book and probably read it while she ate supper and the old guy in the trench coat went off to his life somewhere else. People say print is dead and that soon there won’t be any more books. I hope they are wrong because that will mean no more libraries, and libraries are places of magic.
The playschool Elisabeth attended when we moved back to South Africa was hosted by a woman I strongly suspect is one of those angels who parades as a human. Her house was (and remains, I am certain) a place of astonishing warmth and generosity where, at any given time – and usually way after they were supposed to be collected by us, their errant mothers – a rag-tag collection of children would be tearing around her enormous kitchen on small, plastic motorbikes, helping themselves to home-made rusks or nibbling on phyllo pastry triangles stuffed with feta and spinach from the garden.
The cooking smells in that house were incredible, but one dish in particular made me so hungry that I had to go home and make it right away. Now it’s one of my favourites. Few smells are as delicious as that of lamb cooking, and sometimes when I arrived this stew, in all its rich, tomato-y aromaticness, would be bubbling away on the stove to be mopped up, come evening-time, with a slice of brown bread fresh out of the oven and cooling somewhere on a rack. The permanent inhabitants of Sandy’s house are lucky people indeed.
It’s no coincidence that this kitchen is the site of such joy – before deciding to stay home with her young children, Sandy was a successful restauranteur which meant that our kids were the lucky benefactors of some seriously good (not to mention healthy, home-grown) grub. I cried big tears when Elisabeth’s days at that school ended. I loved going there in the mornings and the afternoons. There was a certain grace to this large, lovely home one doesn’t often encounter anymore.
When winter strikes this is one of the first dishes I make, and it always reminds me of Sandy’s beautiful, warm kitchen with its little fire burning and its tribe of happy people. The sweet potato lends a little natural sweetness to this dish, and the beans break up and make it thick and hearty and satisfying. (In fairness to Sandy, I must say I never did procure her exact recipe, but this is how I make it and I imagine the tastes would be similar). Here’s how to do it:
Stewing lamb or ornery old lamb chops
A tin of tomatoes
2 tins of beans (I like to mix butter beans and speckled red beans)
A few carrots
A sweet potato
A cube of mutton stock (optional, but it gives it extra oomph)
Dried or fresh rosemary
Sautee your chopped onion in a bit of oil, and brown your lamb. Add a tin of tomatoes, two cups of water, the stock cube, your tinned beans, the rosemary, the garlic, the butternut, the carrots and the sweet potato. Put a lid on the pot and let this all simmer for at least three hours. Add the green beans, chopped, about half an hour before you want to eat it. Taste it and season if necessary. A bit of red wine won’t hurt, either. It should be thick and rich and yummy when it’s done. Serve it steaming hot with the freshest bread you can find. It’ll make winter so much warmer.
This week over coffee one of my best guy friends reminded me about the time his hairdresser persuaded him to have a man perm (and yes, it was the same hairdresser who cut my hair like Lady Di’s – not). While it’s with enormous regret that I don’t remember him showing up at school on Monday morning with curly hair, it must have been pretty funny. Because even very good-looking people – like him – have a pretty hard time pulling off this particular look. The eighties were cruel, but the worst part must have been the fact that we all believed we’d look better with tight ringlets around our faces.
I even remember the picture I took along with me to the salon of the way I wanted to look. It was a page torn from a glossy magazine, and the girl was extremely beautiful but with huge, pretty dodgy hair. So, take someone who’s not extremely beautiful but does have nice hair, destroy her one redeeming feature, and what do you have? A bad Monday morning in assembly. And again, what hairdressers failed to mention was the fact that the way you looked when you left the salon, all blow-dried and fabulous, was not the way you looked when you emerged from the pool after P.T.
But at least I was not alone. I remember a whole bunch of us walking around looking like poodles from hell. I don’t have a single picture of myself permed, and there is probably a reason for that. But I chuckled all day at the image of my friend with his curls. They didn’t last long – he went back to the salon shortly after and had them all hacked off. We girls, on the other hand, had to wait till ours finally ‘relaxed’, a process which could take quite a while. Ayayayayay, the eighties. It’s a miracle we survived.
Samp and beans is something that would happen in my home on weekends in winter while rain lashed at the window-panes, the paraffin heater glowed in its corner of the lounge and my mom and dad would be sitting watching the rugby. The smell of it cooking always takes me back to those days. The way my mom made it was with separate grains, a bit like rice, and she served it like my granny Doris did, with a bit of vinegar and a dollop of butter. But one day my girls’ nanny, Nosipho, made it for us for supper and it was so creamy and rich and delicious with a texture like risotto, I made her show me how she did it, and since then I’ve never made it any other way. Sometimes we eat it as it is, but when I make it for supper I like to serve it with a hearty lamb stew. It’s healthier than rice and so much tastier. Here’s how Nosipho made it:
A packet of samp and beans
A cube of chicken or veggie stock
An onion, a carrot and a clove of garlic
Fresh or dried herbs (I like basil, oreganum and thyme)
Olive and/or cooking oil
Boil the samp and beans according to the cooking instructions on the packet. When they’re about half-way done (they’ll be softer, but still chewy), add your stock cube plus a finely chopped onion, a finely chopped carrot, your herbs, a chopped clove of garlic and two tablespoons of oil. Using the right amount of water can be tricky – you don’t want it to dry out and burn, or to be too runny. Err on the side of too much liquid, you can always cook it away. But it’ll probably stick to the bottom of the pot a bit anyway. This is normal. Let it all boil up together and the flavours infuse. It’s cooked when the samp is no longer chewy and has the creamy texture of a risotto. Season generously with salt and pepper, and serve with a drizzle of olive oil. Nourishing and delicious.