Melancholy Morsels: Comfort in the Kitchen

By Tony Jackman 11 October 2019

Image by Thanks for your Like • donations welcome from Pixabay

When the family cook goes all melancholic on you, you never know what might come out of the kitchen.

Even in simpler, kinder times, there were moments when we all needed a hug, a physical reminder that we mean something, are not alone. How much more so in these inexplicably dark days in the shadows of the monsters bearing over us. In these times most of us didn’t see coming, of hook-nosed figures in their long coattails stomping about the world stage. Times when comfort is called upon. But even in those kinder, simpler days, there were times when… you never know when, or how, but when it comes, people can surprise you. The human heart is not far from the skin.

When you’ve suffered loss, true loss, you know what comfort is. The aunty arriving with a platter of food from her restaurant up the road on hearing of your grieving. The white rose stuffed into your letterbox. The ficus, planted in its little pot, with the advice: when you’re ready you can plant it in a bigger pot, and later in the garden, to remember. Given to you on that dark day of days. Which stays with you for many years, and beneath which friends one day got married, an embrace of tall ficus branches above their heads.

There’s comfort in a rose, or a carnation, as there is in a smile or an aroma from the kitchen. When the Unsmiling Ones grimace at our endeavours to live a kind life beneath the comforting sun, and place in our path their grim obstacles and their forked-tongued promises, it might be best to disappear indoors, bolt everything that can be bolted, light the fire in the range, get the chopping board out, turn on the stove and get cooking.

The bubble and splatter as what’s in the pot simmers away, the smack of a waft of hot aromatic air on your face as you open the oven to check on the roast. The chicken roasting with its cavity stuck with onion or lemon and a bunch of herbs, the slab of pork belly simmering in its sweetly sticky baste. Or the mutton curry gurgling in its Dutch oven on the stove top.

And long, long ago, the boy’s finger swiping the side of the sweet cake batter in the big beige baking bowl. The cornflowers in the garden, now, just outside my dining room writing perch. Blue as your mom’s lovely eyes, and planted in her honour two years ago, now in their third annual flowering. You’re remembered, mom. But now Phillip is too. You were only two and a half when he went. Funny how there were lilies in a vase in the house on the day he died, and when you married, your life partner confided that she had a brother, whose name was Philip, who died in childbirth. And there were lilies in the house. You don’t like lilies, either of you; won’t have them in the house.

What did mom cook the night Phillip died? My Phillip, that is. Even grieving people have to eat. Did she fry some kingklip, bake a meat and potato pie? Did someone arrive at the door with a pot of stew? Was there something left over from the previous night’s supper? The last meal of that life. Could it be the first meal of this life? Because, if you’ve lost a child, you have two lives; the before one, and the after. You’re never the same.

What did Phillip like? Did he eat his veg? Did he love mashed potato as much as mom did? Eat it out of the pot, scrape, scrape with a fork? What did a six-year-old boy eat for breakfast before going out and dying? Did he have Kellogg’s cornflakes or Rice Krispies; creamy oats or Maltabella? Had he ever had a double-thick malt? If you think about it, probably not; the cafe only came to town years afterwards, with their Coke floats, double-thick malts and fruity parfaits in their lovely ornate glasses.

Funny, you think now, how you never gave much thought to your own brother in the years of your growing up and for the first several decades of your adult life. He was always remote, the brother you couldn’t remember outside of that one photograph, the one of you and him on the front lawn, him serious in his new school uniform, you in shorts and a jersey mom had knitted, grinning cheekily. Neither knowing what would soon come. Not funny ha-ha, or even funny peculiar; more like funny strange, the kind of off-kilter puzzlement that you call funny, even though it’s the last thing that it is.

You never know when something will be triggered. You decide, in 2018, to revisit your old boyhood home town, in the hope of finding your old school friend Stephen. Step-Hen. Henny. Henny at the school gates, mournfully, as if hating to be on this side, wanting to be on the other, going home. Who would spend his entire life in the diamond mining town. And you do go back, and he’s gone, and he’s dead. And no one really remembers him other than he was the strange man who worked in the store. You stop and try to absorb that. Henny, artistic Stephen, who could draw a pencil Father Christmas in exquisite detail in two minutes flat, worked in the general store. And you wonder what your boyhood friend was like as a grownup. Did he like a steak, a braaied chop, did he twirl pasta on a fork, do a jive on the dance floor?

But you had to make a pilgrimage while there, to the old graveyard in the desert sands outside of the town, and you step lightly towards where Phillip’s grave must be, and you see it, and it’s so small. It’s 16 months, now, since that graveside visit, but its impact on you has not dimmed. The Unknown Brother is in your thoughts every day, from that day forward, trying to know him, longing to reach out, needing to fathom, to love and regret.

You wonder. You wonder about what he might have liked, done, thought, hated. You think back on your own life and count all the things he’s missed. Didn’t see the Sixties, hear the Beatles, Stones or Kinks; see The Sound of Music or The Pink Panther, read Oliver Twist or watch Oliver!. Missed long hair and Woodstock (Did dad also make him have a short back and sides every Wednesday afternoon at 2?), bellbottoms and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Missed Seventies disco, Nixon and Watergate, the blimmin’ army, John Lennon dying (Would he hate Mark Chapman as much as you do?). Was spared from Eighties Big Hair, missed learning to drive, marriage, kids, holidays; Putt-Putt and Trivial Pursuit, going to the movies and playing Lego with his kids. Was deprived of To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye, never saw Meryl Streep collect an Oscar or Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Knew nothing of Thatcher or Mandela, never met his Yorkshire cousins. Everything you haven’t missed, he has.

Would he have been any good in the kitchen, been the cook in the family like you? Known his way around a roast chuck, sought out obscure local foods when travelling, appreciated a grilled scallop, a pile of garlicky prawns, a piquant peri-peri?

Would he, like you, find solace from life’s unkindnesses in the kitchen, and in the garden? Like the garden that solitary photograph was taken in, in early 1958. With the small palm tree and the lawns and the vegetable garden and the orchard. Which, when you returned, those 15 months ago, was barren except for that small palm, now twice as tall as the house; just as Phillip’s angel was missing from his gravestone. That palm has lived through all those years and decades, when Phillip has not. In your mind’s eye, a faded photograph of a little cheeky-faced boy smiling at the camera – you – and emptiness next to you where a brother should be.

These things are pondered while you chop and mix, whisk and stir. While you grease the baking dish and pour in the mince you’ve just made, layer it with lasagne sheets, pour on more sauce, and more lasagne, and pour the cheesy béchamel on top, give it a sprinkling of grated Cheddar, and shove it in the oven. Life and grief are mulled upon while you cook up a chicken bake in which you use black olives and orange, and garlic and cashews, to try to replicate the dish Leo Caviggia, father of dear John, used to make; and both now gone. While you make avgolemono, that splendid Greek soup (or sauce), and a warm salad of grilled calamari, green pimento-stuffed olives, feta, Roma tomatoes, to impress good friends due for lunch on their way home to Grahamstown, which they still call Makhanda. And macerate some strawberries in sweet-and-sour blueberry balsamico to serve with rum-infused whipped cream.

And while you make a peri-peri sauce the way Maus taught you to make it. You’d first been taught to make a good peri-peri by Drin, your broker who became your friend, who is now older and not at all well in his southern England home. Who you miss dearly and who proudly made certain things, and extremely well: peri-peri chicken, fillet steak on the coals, and homemade biltong. Pure comfort, by a man whose idea of a hobby was to sit at the bedside of the dying in hospices, counselling and comforting. And who now may need at his side someone much like his younger self. Whose hospice charges, many many years ago, included Peter, who had once stuffed a white rose in our letterbox, in those darkest of days after our great loss. And held Peter’s hand as he died.

In the kitchen of his southern England home, in the days when we lived in West Sussex, Drin made biltong in a (spotlessly clean) black garbage bin, which dare I say had never been used for its intended purpose. Later, his fillet steaks were cooked on super-hot coals on the braai, with the grid so close to the coals that the steaks were almost touching them. His method, as with all things with Drin, was precise. Just so many minutes on the first side, watch for the “bleed” of the juices to appear at the uncooked top side, then turn for not too long.

One night in his Cape Town Southern Suburbs home, it would have been circa mid-Nineties, he fulfilled his promise to show me how he makes his peri-peri chicken. His sauce was good and traditional, and included ground cumin in the mix, and sundry details which I would not share out of respect for his privacy about his recipe. It was utterly delicious; perfect in fact.

Then there was Maus, a lovely Pietermaritzburg girl whose life story reads like a Sixties movie starring Claudia Cardinale. Maus, who, one night at Graeme Shapiro’s The Restaurant in Green Point, back in the late Nineties when she came to visit after more than two decades of living on the Algarve, told me the secret of proper Portuguese peri-peri. Not Mozambican-Portuguese, not Angolan-Portuguese or even Madeiran. Proper Portuguese peri-peri, from actual Portugal.

No no no, Tony,” she said, with that eye-locking way of hers, leaning forward over the dinner table. “Whiskey! You put whiskey, Tony.”

And making, just this week, what I imagine to be her recipe, and being told by my wife that this, this is how to make peri-peri chicken, that this is a keeper. A compliment relished. So I’ll share with you how I made what will now have to be a new staple in my little repertoire, the peri-peri with lime, whiskey and garlic, for chicken or prawns. As I’ll share the avgolemono and that calamari recipe for the Grahamstown brigade, and my exotic take on Leo Caviggia’s strange chicken dish with orange and green olives, rosemary and toasted cashews.

It’s been a bit of a wild ride in the kitchen this past fortnight, when all of these dishes were made in our Karoo kitchen, and which is what happens when the family cook goes all melancholic on you. Buon appetito. DM


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