On National Braai Day

The guy on the right is a photo bomber. It was Oupa Bekker, on the left, whom I was surreptitiously trying to capture.
The guy on the right is a photo bomber. It was Oupa Bekker, on the left, whom I was surreptitiously trying to capture.

There are a number of things a city slicker can learn at a potjiekos competition smack in the middle of the small Karoo – that ‘Suurings’ (those little yellow flowers with the sour stems we used to eat as kids) go very nicely in a waterblommetjie bredie; that creamy, cheesy, bacon pasta is outrageously good done over the coals, and Oupa Bekker, whom Herman Charles Bosman immortalized in his famous short stories, is alive and well and living somewhere near Montagu. Not only Oupa Bekker, but Gysbert van Tonder, At Naude and a whole host of beloved Groot Marico farmers showed up at the Makiti Montagu Heritage Potjiekos competition and put away scary amounts of Klippies and coke while they sat in the sun, stoked their fires and made pots of succulent springbok (shot by themselves, naturally) cooked with locally dried peaches; chicken and smoked pork, and seafood stew packed with perlemoen to be eaten with bread baked on the coals. There’s not a lot you can tell these men about cooking meat over a fire.

This was the first year the town of Montagu hosted the event, and I don’t remember when last I had so much fun. For R50 you got a very nice (read: large) wine glass, a packet of olives and entry into the tasting tent where wine makers and their reps were only too happy to fill your glass three times with your tipple of choice (mine was the caramel-liest Chenin Blanc I’ve ever tasted) while you swanned around the food tables helping yourself to hunks of ciabatta dunked in olive oil and dukkah, chilli and mint haloumi fresh off the grill, and olives flavoured, chopped and prepared every way you can imagine. While a lady from Brackenfell with very red hair sang eighties covers, we wandered around the marquees, wine bottles in hand, offering cooking tips to the beefy, good-natured farmer-chefs who have no doubt been preparing kudu and making potjie since before we were born.

What’s more, once the judges had announced the winner (the waterblommetjie bredie with Suurings), we took the liberty of traipsing around with our plates, tasting some of the amazing dishes that were rustled up that afternoon, and in the warmth and friendliness that was evinced between competitors and their families in the heat and dust of a Sunday afternoon somewhere in the semi-dessert I felt some sort of pang of something; a nostalgia and a sadness around what was and what will never be. You take one look at these oversized men with their enormous limbs and sunburnt faces from years of outdoor toil and you know that they are what they are. Alone on their vast tracts of land under a huge blue sky, our not-so-new South Africa has little bearing on their lives. Whether I agree with their views or not, I understand how they think. Like the real Oupa Bekker, they are relics of another time and place.

And for better or for worse, this afternoon of potjiekos and boeremusiek is what Heritage Day means for a lot of people living in South Africa. For others, it means a well-deserved day off work, and a bus ride to a stadium where there will be beer and braaied meat and speeches and songs and vuvuzelas. Muslim families will take their soft drinks and home-made samoosas and pies and daaltjies to the Green Point park where they will rest and chat and absorb the sun while their children climb on the jungle-gyms and run across the grassy expanses. We, white liberal(ish) intellectuals will gather on a deck in a trendy part of town and enjoy good wine and fancy salads and expensive cuts of meat. And that’s how this country is. In my hugely sentimental and highly unlikely fantasy version of South Africa, where there was no segregation – legislated or otherwise – we South Africans would be a bunch of brown people who spoke a combined Xhosa-Afrikaans-English dialect and shared a unique, hybridized culture which consisted of elements of all of us, and race would be irrelevant and assets shared.

Instead, we have our ‘pockets’ and our clans and our ways, and there is about as much chance of the vuvuzela folk showing up to make a skaapboud potjie as there is of the Karoo farmers heading to a stadium to dance and toyi toyi and sing. And I don’t imagine this will be changing anytime soon. Which is why most of us distance ourselves from the word ‘Heritage’ and any notion of oneness that this might connote and re-name it National Braai Day, as some folks suggested we do a few years back. Because in spite of centuries of living separately and having no national culture to speak of, what we can agree on in no uncertain terms is that we South Africans are partial to meat cooked outdoors over the coals. And maybe, for now, that will have to do.

Belia's brother-in-law, Ben, pushed the boundaries with this chicken, smoked pork and chorizo extravaganza. It didn't win, but it should have.
Our friend, Ben, pushed the boundaries with his chicken, smoked pork and chorizo extravaganza. It didn’t win, but it should have. Here, Belia and I pretending to have made it ourselves.
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On Tie-dyed Pants and Patchouli

I’ve been doing yoga for a long time, and over the years my teachers have been a diverse bunch, ranging from a deeply introspective yogi who spent a year naked on a hill in Kashmir (really) and insisted his students wouldn’t benefit from the practice unless we did four grueling 2-hour classes per week, to my current one who is a cuddly, beer-quaffing guy in baggies who says things like, ‘chakra schmakra, whatevs,’ and is just happy when people show up.

And what strikes me is that, while I enjoyed the seriousness of the yogi’s class and being all righteous and ohm shantied of an evening, the guy who arrives in shorts and a t-shirt and smacks his hairy stomach before telling us to put our ‘tits to the floor’ is every bit as good an instructor as the other guy who walked around during Shavasana throwing water from the Ganges on our heads.

And it’s a funny thing about us humans – give us half the chance to be vain and pose-y, and we’ll grab it with both hands. I know myself – when I go to yoga in my turquoise Lord Ganesh vest with matching beaded necklace, I am instantly more enlightened. If I happen not to be wearing makeup that day – hell, I’m practically Baba. And it’s particularly ironic in light of what yoga practice is supposed to be about – humility, self-awareness, acceptance and detachment. But, who doesn’t stare at the next ou and think, shoo – now that is a kak downward dog, my friend. Or, no, lady, you really need to think about getting a pedi. Like, yesterday.

We love judging, comparing and bolstering our own egos, and there can be few people more lacking in self-irony than the kind of instructor who shows up in tie-dyed trousers, reeking of patchouli and doesn’t even bother to hide her disdain for we pitiful mortals who can’t do the head stand and probably ate bacon for breakfast. And if the instructors can’t leave their egos at the door, what hope do the rest of us have? I guess it’s a good example of the adage, ‘we teach what we need to learn.’

Unless you do have nothing better to do than be naked on Kashmiri hills, it’s pretty tough managing eight hours of yoga a week, never mind following the recommended diet of lentils, water and air. And that’s okay. That life is not for everyone, and who wants to give up Chardonnay? While we are all suckers for marketing, and beer-loving guy opts not to wear purple harem pants and a rose quartz headband, what he gets right is his enthusiasm for this beautiful art, his sense of humour and his refusal to put himself on any kind of pedestal. He’s a just a dude who believes in yoga and wants to share the love. And, isn’t the most important thing that, instead of watching the Kardashians over a bucket of KFC, we’ve shown up with our little rubber mats and are willing to stretch and sweat and learn?

So, to my mind, the best teachers are not the ones who fasted in Bengal and flagellated themselves with banana leaves (though they’re certainly an interesting bunch), but those who remind us to leave our judgements and prejudices at the door; that we are all flawed and ridiculous and, at the end of the day, more alike than different. And if we could all remember this and live our lives accordingly, the world – and it’s yoga classes – would really be miles more fun.

Hello hunger, my new friend

A few weeks ago a girlfriend of mine went to see her GP because she had gained a crazy six kilograms in a few short months and she thought something must surely be wrong with her. Happily, after a series of tests her health was given the all clear; less happy was the verdict: it was the chips and pepperdew dip wot done it. Like a lot of us, she’d simply been eating too much. For someone who’s enjoyed a lifelong love affair with food, these words aren’t fun to hear – after all, life without wonderful food would be an intolerable business. But we eat too much wonderful food and we get fat and that’s not fun, either.

What her GP pointed out is that every four hours or so our bodies send a message to our brains that we are low on energy and need to refuel. And, as evolutionary beings, we don’t like the feeling of hunger so we go looking for a toasted cheese sandwich post haste. Except, for most people who lead relatively sedentary lives, this signal is a bit of a porky. Yes, your tummy might be empty, but unless you recently ran the Comrades, you actually have loads of glucose stored in your liver and fat cells, and circulating in your bloodstream. In fact, if someone locked you up with no food (unless you had an illness like diabetes) you could survive on water for quite a long time.

As Mr GP insists, while hunger doesn’t feel pleasant and eating a toasted sarmie does, there is no physiological reason why we need to respond to that signal right away. So, when we feel a bit hungry, we should try having an apple and a glass of water, and then wait a bit, and those pangs will more than likely go away or, at least, diminish. This is not to say we should stop eating or replace all meals with apples and water, but rather be mindful of the fact that the sensation of hunger is not always an accurate indication that our bodies require food. You know how when you have a huge dinner you wake up starving? Case in point. Your brain is a big, fat liar, but your skinny jeans know the truth.

So, as someone with the appetite of a hard labourer who has been known to out-eat large men even though I do nothing more strenuous than carry my iPad from room to room, I decided to try not to respond to the hunger signal instantly. And I cultivated this inner dialogue that went something like this: (stomach rumbles) ‘oh, really? You’re peckish? So, the two million calories in last night’s Bloody Marvellous Mushroom Risotto weren’t quite enough to fuel all this hard typing you’re doing this morning? Well, tough titties for you, greedy guts! You can have one cherry tomato, exactly. So, put that in your fat little pipe and smoke it!’

And, to my astonishment, I didn’t faint or expire during the course of the morning. When my tummy did the rumble lie, I gave it a cup of green tea. It wasn’t happy, but really, what was it going to do about it? For lunch I had salad with avo and seeds, and for supper, I reduced my normal portion by a third. It’s a challenge, not shoving stuff in your mouth the second you feel snacky. Or bored, or meh. But I got kind of used to it – the sensation of being slightly hungry and not doing anything about it.

And I actually felt pretty light and energized. Because we do weigh our bodies down and tax them with the sheer volume of food we put away every day. Google how to live longer, and a lot of studies will tell you simply to eat less. There’s a marked correlation between frugal eating and longevity. The process of consistently digesting rich, protein-heavy food takes its toll on the human body, and eating, for us, is at least as much about recreation as it is about nourishment. Doing away with all lovely food and always eating leaves would make (my) life not worth living, but there is an argument for not turning every meal into a feast. Choose your feasting times, eat like a crazed Roman, but the rest of the time (more or less) it just makes sense that we’d all be better off with small portions of simple, easily digestible food.

So, after five days of eating air with a side of nothing we went out for a fancy dinner (hooray! A feast, at last!). Normally I would easily put away three courses, but after my starter thimble of cauliflower soup I was so full I had to take my entire main course home. And while it’s boring as hell being one of ‘those’ girls and my husband’s eyes were rolling to the ceiling, at the same time it did tell me that I’ve been eating hopelessly too much forever, and that it’s not by some tragic fluke that my muffin tops spilleth over. Whether I’ll be able to change a lifetime’s bad habits is another question, of course. Once the novelty of being hungry and smug wears off, there’s a good chance I’ll be right back on the mayo samoosas*. But I’m going to try to try. Really.

*(I discovered a sad thing when I was fifteen and my boyfriend’s mom used to buy a box of frozen samoosas which we would proceed to deep fry and devour: a hot samoosa goes very, very nicely with Helman’s mayo. As if the fat content of the thing is not enough. Don’t try this at home, you’ll never eat them any other way.)

On Moving Back to South Africa

A good place to remind yourself to let go and let it be.
A good place to remind yourself to let go and let it be.

When I moved back to South Africa after spending nearly a decade in northern Europe, it was with no small measure of shock that I realized I had forgotten how to live in this country. It wasn’t just the small things like not knowing where to buy stuff or at what age kids here go to school – it was a culture shock which took me entirely by surprise, having longed and yearned for home during most of my time away. In retrospect, what happened was that I lost my tough outer shell.

During those years of living in a place where egalitarianism is the norm; where nobody goes hungry and almost everybody had a roof over their heads, the thick skin you need to live in South Africa had grown soft. I couldn’t cope with the children begging at the traffic lights and the thin women with babies who knocked on the front door asking for food. Once, in Pick n Pay, I found myself behind a woman with two things in her basket – pilchards and rice. That was obviously all she could afford. Yet, she continued to walk up and down the aisles as if, magically, the contents of her wallet would increase the longer she hung around. I had to leave the shop; I couldn’t bear it.

I gave to everyone who asked me. In those early months I parted with vast sums of money. One morning I gave an old man nearly blind with cataracts R500 so that he wouldn’t be evicted from the room he shared with his son. I would stand behind people in queues and pay for all their groceries. I was in despair, and utterly outraged by the wealth surrounding the poverty and the collective blindness everyone down here seemed to practice. I shook my head at the people waving the children away from their 4X4s – as no doubt my friends shook their heads at me, wondering how I was ever going to survive living back in this country.

Then, slowly, I became immunized like everybody else. I started being more selective about who I helped; stopped taking every sob story at face value. One day a man whose groceries I was paying for asked me to hang on a second and dashed off for five minutes, coming back with wine, salmon pate and imported crackers. I hired somebody to clean and look after the girls. Before I knew it I was attending meetings with her grandson’s school principal; buying stationary for her cousin’s child, bankrolling the entire family and – by the way – being taken for the biggest ride. Slowly I started to realise I was behaving like a total imbecile, and if I couldn’t come to grips with my white guilt and accept South Africa for what it was I would be better off living in Perth.

Eventually, I stopped giving to people on the street. I guess I got tired of it – the constant, relentless need and the tales of woe coming at me each time I walked out my front door. And the gaping black hole no amount of R5 coins will ever fill. At first I was horrified by this callous version of myself. Now I’ve made peace with her. There is no other way. Random acts of kindness just don’t work down here. You need to get over yourself and understand where you’re living. The complexity of our socio-political context is impenetrable to foreigners, and you have to have lived here a long time to get it. It’s everything and nothing to do with race and colour. It’s the wild west where dog eats dog and survival of the fittest is the ethos you have to practice, even while you’re acutely aware of the injustices. It’s brutal, and you have no choice but to be as tough as nails.

You make a decision about how you’re going to give, whether of your time or your money, and then you draw the line. You pay people well, care about their families and behave like a decent human being, but you institute boundaries and you stick to them. And, paradoxically, South Africa remains the warmest, friendliest (dare I say ‘happiest’?) country I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to many. I live in a road with a couple of B&Bs. I’m regularly accosted by tourists who want to tell me how much they love my country and its people – how they’ve never encountered such warmth and generosity of spirit and that they can’t wait to come back. And I have to agree – it’s a crazy place, but it’s beautiful and vibrant and alive. It buzzes with a kind of energy that makes me feel like I can do anything I choose. And what I probably love most of all is the freedom and the open-endedness of life down here; there is something which makes the human spirit sing. A sort of wonder at being alive which Europe – for all its fabulous old buildings – lacks. For reasons I can’t really qualify, it seems to fill people with joy.

So, what I’ve learnt over the past four years is that I can’t save Africa and, frankly, I’ve started to wonder whether it needs my saving. A while back I got a whatsapp from a friend who receives daily words of wisdom and counsel from a sage by the name of Abraham, and it was a message that challenged the way I see this country. It said, what if there is nothing ‘wrong’ with South Africa? What if it simply operates by a different set of standards and norms? What if the ‘problems’ are about us and our perceptions and that there is nothing, in fact, to fix?

Of course I interpret this in my personal paradigm that nothing is random and that this earth realm is the school of hard knocks. We come here for a certain type of experience, and we choose our setting accordingly. No, this doesn’t exempt us from doing the right thing and giving whatever we can, but it does serve as a type of reminder not to take too much to heart; to step back a bit and observe rather than taking everything on as a personal battle. Practice love. Be a good human being. But, it is what it is. It was the a-ha moment I’d been needing all along. You don’t always have to understand things to love them. Sometimes it’s the complexity and the mystery that create the firmest grip on our hearts. We all have different ways of interpreting our truth, but I felt like I ‘got’ it at last. And what a relief to lay down my panga.

Bloody Marvellous Mushroom Risotto

These three little mothers will make your dish kick some serious butt.
These three little mothers will make your dish kick some serious butt.

What I have finally learned after years of making mediocre risottos is that the recipe books simply cannot be trusted. The thing is, what you’re cooking is white rice which tastes like a whole bunch of nothing. So, forget all that talk about texture and timing – it’s actually pretty forgiving in both those departments – the most important thing about this dish is that you need to add serious amounts of flavour. Roughly speaking, what I’ve figured out is that whatever they tell you to add, double it. Two gloves of garlic? Use four. A handful of herbs? At least two. And make your stock nice and salty. You shouldn’t have to add salt later.

And then, on top of that, if you really want to blow people’s socks off, you want to come up with some tricks. Without a doubt, the best for mushroom risotto are lemon rind, truffle oil and enough garlic to scare a Sicilian. The lemon gives it the most beautiful lift, while a drizzle of truffle oil adds a whole new flavour dimension (it’s called umami, by the way, but never mind that, you mouth will like it). So, here it is – the yummiest risotto that’s ever come out of my kitchen.

Ingredients:

Risotto rice
Large white onion
Three carrots
Two celery stalks
Five cloves of garlic
A glass of white wine
Punnet of mushrooms (doesn’t matter what kind)
Chicken stock (powdered is fine, but make sure it’s strong enough)
Plenty of fresh herbs like basil, thyme and origanum
Rind of a lemon
Butter
Truffle-flavoured olive oil (or real truffle oil if you’re fancy)
Parmesan Cheese
Salt and black pepper

Method:

– Finely chop your onion, carrots, celery, four cloves of garlic and most of the herbs. Fry them in a large pot in a few lugs of olive oil. Add a sprinkle of salt (Maldon really is better).
– Add a small bag of risotto rice and fry it up a bit, moving it around with a wooden spoon. In a separate pot, warm your stock. Turn the heat up high on your risotto, add your glass of wine (if you’ve already drunk it, you’re my kind of cook – pour another) and let the alcohol cook away.
– Start ladling your stock into the risotto, stirring regularly, one ladle at a time.
– In a frying pan, fry your sliced mushrooms on high. Add a sprinkle of salt and pepper. When they’re almost done, add a chopped clove of garlic, a pat of butter and the remainder of the herbs.
– Keep adding stock and stirring your risotto
– Taste it – when it seems cooked but still has a bit of a bite, you’re pretty much there. Add your cooked mushrooms with the juices from the pan and stir them in along with the rind of a lemon.
– Add a bit of black pepper and about two cups of finely grated parmesan cheese.
– Serve it with an extra twist of pepper, a drizzle of truffle oil and more parmesan cheese. Heaven.

Scrumptious Jewish Chicken

Shame you can't see the lemons - they're really the hero of the dish.
Shame you can’t see the lemon – it’s really the hero of this dish.

I think my Jewish envy started when I was eight years old and my best friend, Lauren Zaacks, would show up at school on Monday morning with a pencil case full of the latest, coolest Hello Kitty gear some relative had brought back for her from the US. Jewishness and America became indelibly linked in my mind, and when I went home to her house in the afternoon and ate buttered matzoh and listened to Grease I was almost Jewish too, and that much closer to being cool.

My Jewish friends assure me that I wouldn’t like everything about their religion, but I don’t agree. I would have made a great Jewish mother – my favourite things are feeding people and bossing them around. And there is something very beautiful about the community and family values. We miss that in our secular world. Go to a Jewish wedding or funeral and you realise how sterile and boring ours are by comparison.

Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are a wonderful way of honouring the young men and women who will one day uphold the values of their community, and gathering the people you love the most around a table at the end of a long week for fellowship and nourishing food is a tradition we should all institute in our homes. Not only do these rituals give life colour and meaning, but they remind us that we belong somewhere. Sadly, being vaguely Methodist I must be content with buying challah on a Friday and cooking good chicken. I saw a pic of this dish on Facebook, and had to look hard to find the recipe. It’s actually Israeli, and I couldn’t locate a few of the spices so I had to leave them out, but it was delicious nonetheless.

Ingredients:

Chicken pieces
2 Onions, finely chopped
1 Lemon, sliced finely
2 Cloves of Garlic
One cup of chicken stock
Sprinkle of cinnamon
Sprinkle of allspice
Two lugs of olive oil
Few sprigs of fresh thyme
About a quarter cup of toasted, crushed sesame seeds
Tablespoon of honey
Handful of Pine nuts

Method:

Mix all your ingredients together in a bowl. Wash and pat dry your chicken pieces, and put them into a ziplock bag. Add the ingredients barring one onion and the pine nuts. Move the bag around to make sure all the chicken is coated. Put it into the fridge for at least six hours. Heat your oven to 150 degrees, and put your chicken on the middle rack in an ovenproof dish. Don’t cover it. Fry your second onion in butter until it’s caramelised, and then fry your pine nuts till they’re gently browned (don’t burn them, they cost the earth). After the chicken’s been in for about an hour, take it out and sprinkle the onions and pine nuts over it. Put it back into the oven for half an hour on 180 degrees. When it’s ready it should be darkish and have bits of crispy skin. The cinnamon and lemon really come out, and the flavour is sublime.

The Thing About Unrequited Love

On the Brooklyn Bridge.
On the Brooklyn Bridge. Not the photograph I would have liked to use.

An entirely inconsequential regret I’ve been harbouring for years is of a photograph I didn’t take. It was something I looked up and saw as we walked underneath the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City once, graffiti letters the size of a person and what they said was, ‘But I still love her.’ Those words have lived with me ever since – a simple statement somebody, at some point in time felt compelled to shout out to the world. Maybe (I’ve always assumed it was a guy) he’d gotten to a point where he didn’t know who to tell anymore; maybe his friends had had enough of hearing him say the same thing over and over. And maybe she knew, too, but had moved on and left him behind. And what do you do when that happens? What is there to do?

Few people make it through life without experiencing the searing pain of loving somebody who has moved on. For you, they consume your world like they always did; for them, you’ve become something of a nuisance. You can see it in their eyes, and it’s the worst thing you’ve ever felt. You encounter friends in the same situation, where the truth is patently obvious to everyone but them – the guy just doesn’t want to be there anymore. And they make up excuses for his behaviour, as one time in your life you made excuses and it was your friends’ turn to take your hand and say, what do you see in this guy? You need to let it go now. But you can’t because you can’t, and that’s just the way it is.

I’m not good at letting go of things. I hang on until the bitter end, getting bashed up in the process. While we know on every level how foolish it is what we’re doing; while we understand that the people who love us and urge us to leave it alone already are every bit of right, somehow we have to stay until we are ready to go, and when you’ve loved a lot for a long time, that can take a while. Which is why I can’t judge the ones who are holding on like their lives depend on it. In a way, their lives do depend on it. The heart wants what it wants, and it has its own time – for loving, for holding on and also for letting go.

I wish I could say time heals all wounds, but I don’t think it does, always. I’ve seen too much damage done; people who get broken and don’t ever recover fully. It’s like you get badly hurt one time in your life and you never allow yourself to suffer that way again; a part of your heart gets sealed up never to be re-opened. I hope that that’s not the case for the man under the Brooklyn Bridge. I hope that that anguished night of misery and desperation was a turning point, and that when he eventually took himself to bed and lay alone in a room somewhere in that cold, vast city, he found some semblance of peace. I wonder if the graffiti is still there. I guess I’ll never know.

There was a time I listened to this song often and identified so much with its words. Tonight I dedicate it to him, whomever, where he is in the world and to every one of us who’s been smashed up on those rocks.