White People Can Eat Gatsbys, Too

A steak Gatsby (she assured me you don't have to have the polony for it to be real).
Zulfa and our steak Gatsby (she assured me you don’t have to have the polony for it to be real).

A few nights back I started reading a Rayda Jacobs novel where she keeps referring to Gatsbys and I realised I’ve never eaten a Gatsby and it’s about time I did so I know what Rayda is talking about. So, I asked on Facebook where I can find the best Gatsby in Cape Town and some American friends of mine joined in the conversation and apparently in France it’s called an Americano and it’s made with burger patties instead of polony or steak or curry. But what was interesting was when I tried to explain how come I’ve never eaten this quintessentially Cape Town sandwich before, loving all things local as I do. And I kept starting and then deleting my comment because I didn’t know how to say it: that Gatsbys are coloured food and white people just don’t eat them. It’s funny trying to explain your country to foreigners and realising, anew, how mad it all sounds (how mad it all is).

But, that’s the gospel truth, isn’t it? They’re poor food; working class fair. We mlungus might go into a café that sells them, but we’ll buy a samoosa or a chicken pie and a can of diet coke. Not a Gatsby. And I started thinking about that and how, a while ago, I had to attend a conference in Bridgetown and we white people looked at each other in bemusement. There’s a Bridgetown in Cape Town? Who knew? Well, a lot of people, it turns out. The people who eat Gatsbys. Bridgetown is in Athlone, and while all the coloured people in the world will know where Camps Bay is even if they’ve never been there, the vast majority of white Capetonians will never go to Athlone. Unless they got drunk at Forries and made a wrong turn off Klipfontein Road and pooped themselves when they realised.

And it’s interesting how the apartness a lot of us grew up with is reflected in our food. Black people eat samp and pap; white people eat fish and salad. When I lived overseas people would ask me what South African cuisine was, and it’s an impossible question to answer unless you précis it with a summary of the socio-political history of our country. Because there is no ‘South Africa’ in the sense they were meaning. There are pockets of disparate people whose lives are vastly different in terms of what they can expect to achieve; the dreams they dare to aspire to, and the food they can afford to eat.

Strangely enough, the thing that helped me understand the Swedes I was living amongst was when I started cooking Swedish food. The food of a nation says a lot about their passions and preferences and who, quintessentially, they are. Northern Europeans might appear cold on the outside, but bite into a warm-from-the-oven saffron bun on a frigid December morning and you know, underneath their chilly façade, beats the warmest of hearts. And when we break bread with one another we also break through barriers. Which is, I think, one of the reasons I insist on serving chakalaka at braais. It’s my private little rebellion against the repressive norms of my apartheid childhood. (And also because it’s delicious).

And, I guess, what propels me to put my 68-year-old mother in a car and drive us to Miriam’s on Adderley Street on a Tuesday morning in search of the perfect Gatsby in lieu of our regular coffee. And I guess it’s about needing to step out of my own little pocket; trying not to be so precious and white all the time. And I don’t assume for a moment that ordering a chip roll will change the world; I just mean we must try and be mindful of where we come from and the assumptions we make, and that there are worlds of experiences out there and a wealth of lessons at our fingertips if we can remember to open our minds and our hearts to them. It’s like, if you take the courage to break through the boundaries of what you order for lunch, maybe some other boundaries will be broken down too in the process. I don’t know.

I invited my friend Zulfa along as she’d joined in the Facebook conversation and seemed to be a bit of a Gatsby expert, and every time I see her she reminds me of the time I went to visit her at her home in Athlone and, being the type who can’t find her way out of Cavendish square, naturally I got hopelessly lost. With a dead cell-phone and driving around aimlessly with two children in an area which (to my mind) could only be teeming with murderers and rapists, my anxiety increased about a hundred-fold when I realised I was being followed by a strange man in a car. Not only followed, but he was making hand gestures and seemingly trying to pull me over. While I tried my best to get away from him, my Toyota Tazz didn’t have enough power and for endless, excruciating minutes, I had to watch this man wave his arms as he threatened to bludgeon us all to death.

When, by some miracle, I finally found the right house, I was surprised to see the scary man from the car sitting at the kitchen table having a cup of tea. It was none other than Zulfa’s sweet, docile husband, Moegamat, who’d ventured out in a quest to rescue what could only be the lost and hysterical blonde chick. Shame. This is how mad this country makes us. I still cringe when I see him. But, back to the Gatsby: It was bigger and spicier and more delicious than even greedy-guts, curry-loving me had expected. And while I tried to eat it with my hands – never mind one hand as is the Muslim way – within three bites I knew if I didn’t resort to my knife and fork it was going to become a soggy mess. The steak was tender and flavourful, the chips were crisp and spicy and the sautéed onion tied it all together perfectly. It might not be the healthiest of meals, but some food is soul food and, when eaten while laughing and sharing life stories with people you love it becomes some of the best medicine in the world.

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27 thoughts on “White People Can Eat Gatsbys, Too

  1. You have a beautiful take on the whole food story. I have to say that I haven’t really had the same experience. When I was little we ate samp and beans at least twice a week because it was cheap and easy and kept well for a few days. And I was lucky to be introduced to gatsbies in my first year of university. But I definitely haven’t had, you know… chicken feet, or anything, so there’s that!

    To add to your musings on our socio-political climate and food, I find it interesting that when we travel overseas we go out of our way to eat what the locals eat. We get all touristy and insist on trying the streetfood and the dumplings and who knows what else, yet we are sketchy on trying the foods that our compatriots eat every day…

    Glad you tried – and liked! – the gatsby!

  2. Apropos the compartmentalised Cape Town lives we lead – a wealthy Muslim lady friend was doing her tuck shop duty one morning at Bishops when her Blonde-in-boots fellow duty mate asked how long she’d been employed there.

  3. Susan Hayden, you rock. You make me smile every time your blog plops into my Inbox, not because you’re funny (although you are, mostly … you also sometimes make me want to cry.). But because you take the most arbitrary situation in the world and turn it into a life lesson for South Africans. I have seen Gatsbys chalked up on the board at our local fish and chip shop, but have never bought one. I prefer to stick to what I know and understand – a hake and calamari combo with chips.

    Shame on me! I’m off to the Greyton Chippie tomorrow to get my first Gatsby. Just don’t tell Prof Noakes.

    Jenny Duncan 46 The Country Village PO Box 324 Greyton 7233 Tel: 028 254 9975 Fax: 0866 858 510 Mobile: 082 886 4093 ifs@icon.co.za

  4. Interesting and in some ways strange. I get the impression that the blonde-in-boots Bishops lady must have been out of the country and lived overseas as well. I think for those of us who have stayed, it’s not as ‘abnormal’. First, you see people from different cultures mix so freely everyday, everywhere, more so than anywhere overseas when I travel. It’s like apartheid’s never been. I have friends who have their parents in elderly homes in Athlone and visit them regularly without fail and have never felt threatened. There are ‘good’ areas in Athlone too, where people live in mansions, only because it was the only area available to them. I’ve understood the Gatsby to be a ‘fun’ food for people of colour, except maybe for your blue-collar worker. The bunny-chow is another big sandwich, popular amongst the Indian community, but also essentially more so amongst the youth. That said, my son and his colleagues, all lawyers, went out of their way to find this food outside Sandton where they work and live. They thought it such fun and delish. On one occasion, when he came to CT, he dragged his brothers off to look for same. They loved it and thought it fun and delicious. My sons were schooled in Rondebosch, played rugby against Bishops, but nobody I know, snooty as some were, ever mistook a Malay Muslim or Indian mom for a worker. In fact the school took pride in referring to their scholars and parents as all ‘family’.

    Sounds more like the person is stuck in the past or still yearning after it.

  5. Hmmmmm, not so sure about us whiteys not knowing Athlone, Rylands etc…. One should never generalise – i have been into most of the so-called “coloured” areas and have never been scared.

  6. As Jenny Duncan says, this post, and many others, shows such a depth of SA society one often doesn’t think of. Fascinating! Loved it for exposing us for what we were made to be. Which I suppose means that as you did, and Jenny is going to do, we don’t have to be! Brainwashed comes to mind.

    Reminds me that although I was born and raised in SA, the first time I ever went into a “township” (5 minutes from an international airport) was around the age of 48. Our company volunteered us to build a number of houses in one week. What an incredibly satisfying experience. And as you say, try explaining that to a foreigner?

    Really enjoy your blog, even though some lady friends of mine thought it hilarious that I should follow a blog called “The Disco Pants Blog”!

  7. I think the thing that some people don’t get is that a gatsby must be cut up and shared (like a pizza!). If you ever brave enough to venture out to Wynberg, I’d recommend Cosy Corner or Aneesas. Oooh and tell Zulfa to take you to the Wembley Roadhouse in Athlone as well, the double hot dog is killer – Rif

  8. I love reading your blog Susan. One thing that might give you hope for the next generation of South Africans is that this food divide is one of the first things to go when apartheid went. I am not a born free, and I finished school almost 10 years ago, but I went to school in the Southern Suburbs with kids of all colours and I had my fair share of gatsbys, umngqusho and other such things while at school and after. I might not eat gastbys too often now as they are not the healthiest of foods, but I will certainly not pass one up a yummy umngqusho! UCT also has an “African Food” stall (at least they used to!) where you can buy pap, mushy butternut and stews to your hearts content, it is very popular among all the students as it is filling, delicious and cheap! So in my mind it is at least one aspect of apartheid’s legacy that is being quite quickly broken down from the bottom up.

  9. Susan you rock – absolutely love every article that you write! A Cape Town friend and I keep on saying we would love to meet with you under an old Cape Oak and just chat.. One day we might just send you an invite…!!

  10. My husband took one look at that, cackled, and said “Oh my God, imagine the heartburn. Enough heartburn for two people for a week.”
    My boytjie’s tummy is getting old. :-D

  11. Now where would I find one in Pretoria?
    (And just to show how diverse SA is – an Afrikaans person might use braaivleis & pap as example of our traditional fare. That is…north of the Gariep then 😄

  12. Great post! Growing up in Durban, Bunny Chows were always a big part of my life and a weekend was best started with a Quarter Mutton at lunch on a Friday. When I moved to Cape Town I was very excited to try the local soul food but unfortunately my first gatsby experience was so terrible that I haven’t tried it since. I think I was definitely dining in the wrong place and your post has inspired me to give gatsbys another go!

  13. Awesome read. Well done… First time ive read your blog… A good blog is like a good gatsby… You will go back for more… Peace. Love and a Masala steakk gatsby with caramelized onions… Peri peri powder and bbq sauce…. Now im hungry

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