Chipping at Memories: The Doppelganger in the House across the Road

Chipping at Memories: The Doppelganger in the House across the Road

In the house across the road, the lady who looks exactly like my mother comes out to hang a Christmas wreath on her front door. In our old house in Oranjemund, my mom’s beating the batter for the kingklip she’ll deep-fry with chips the way only she could make them.

There’s a lady across the road from my house who looks exactly like my mother. She doesn’t look exactly like my mother looked when last I saw her, when she was 70 and soon to be gone from me. Or like my mother when she was in the Land Army in Wales in the early 1940s, such a beauty with her lush auburn hair that I inherited. (Luckily. My dad had wispy gingery strands that eventually became a combover.)

No. She looks exactly like my mother looked in the Sixties, when she was in her thirties and full of laughter and life. When she’d get her hair dyed blonde and permed, and worked at the till in the grocery store, and all the customers loved her. When she and dad would go the the Rec Club on a Saturday night and come back sozzled and giggling, then have a row.

The lady across the road looks like mom looked when she’d be in the kitchen in Oranjemund in her apron, peeling potatoes for her favourite food, mashed potato; the peeled and halved potatoes in a bowl of cold water on the kitchen table to be boiled later. Or beating the batter for the kingklip she’d deep-fry to serve with chips the way only she could make them, the way I make them even now. The chips that my daughter calls “Dad’s chips” but which in fact are Granny Betty’s chips. The ones you make like this:

Betty Jackman’s 10 Points for making Perfect Chips

  • Peel potatoes and cut them into neat, even chips. Lay them out, with space between each one, on a kitchen towel, and use a second towel to pat them down on top, so they’re dry all over (today I use sheets of kitchen paper). This is important: they must be perfectly dry, so leave them uncovered afterwards for the air to finish the job.
  • Have to hand, near the stove, a large colander or bowl in which you’ve placed three or four overlapping sheets of kitchen paper.
  • When dry, place some of the chips in a wire chip basket, but don’t overfill. They need space for the hot oil to do their work on all sides. Like this:

  • Heat cooking oil (sunflower then, though now it’s usually canola, but either will do) in a chip pan (i.e. deep). I use an old orange cast-iron Le Creuset pot because I can’t find my mom’s old chip pan, which must be buried in a cupboard somewhere. You need it to be hot enough so that when you pick up a chip and dip the other end in the oil, bubbles will immediately run away from the chip in all directions. Practice teaches you to recognise when the bubbles are just right – tiny, rather than the larger bubbles you’ll get if the oil is too hot. Today I know that the required temperature is 160degreesC, but I still don’t use a thermometer, preferring to trust my eye. If too hot, turn the heat down and test again.

The bubbles here are too vigorous – turn the heat down.


The bubbles here are gentler. Maintain this heat.

When the bubbles are right, immerse the chip basket in the oil and immediately give it a violent shake, holding the pot’s handle and pushing the chip basket down against the bottom of the pot to avoid accidents. Then let go and step away. This is important – it’s that shake that gets every chip coated in hot oil and thereby prevents the chips from sticking together. You’ve had chips like that, right? That’s what causes it.

  • Check the bubble rate again as the heat might have increased. If extremely vigorous, turn down the heat a tiny bit. Practice gets this right. If it’s too hot the surface of the chips will be turning dark brown (too dark) while the centre is not yet soft. You want golden brown chips that are crunchy on the outside and fluffily soft in the middle.
  • Next: Leave. Them. Alone. Do not touch the basket until you can see that they are lightly browned. Like this:

  • Give the basket a shake, lift it out of the oil, give it three or so tosses to turn the chips over, and immerse it again. Cook until they’re exactly like the sentence in italics above.
  • With a slotted spoon or slotted spatula, remove the chips to the bowl/colander so that the paper can absorb the remaining oil.
  • Salt. Toss. Serve.


The potato reverie broken, in my front room across the road, where I sit at a table working with the passing parade as my daily punctuation marks, I see Betty Jackman’s latterday doppelganger stand at the gate in the early afternoon as a mother pulls up to collect a tousle-haired little boy. I see my small self coming home from school, through the side gate and in at the back door, through the laundry and into the kitchen to see what mom’s making. There she is, wiping floury hands on her apron, that too-perfect smile, hello love, still pronounced luuv in her mild Yorkshire accent, not like dad’s broad Yorkshire tones. Or so I thought, until I met cousin Molly’s husband David in 1987 and couldn’t make out a single word he said. Even Molly sometimes asked him to repeat what he’d said.

Mom’s making pastry for the beef and potato pie she used to make once a week, without fail. There’d be fish and chips on Tuesdays and Fridays; steak, egg and chips, the requisite pie, or a soup – pea and ham, mostly – on other weekdays. No one ever cooked pizza back then. No one had heard of chicken nuggets, though fish fingers were already a thing. Saturday night meant roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, almost without fail. For lunch on a Saturday there’d be slices of ham from the grocery store and fried eggs with runny yolks. Proper cured ham, with the lovely white fat running along the edge.

Often, on a Sunday morning, dad would make my favourite cheesy egg breakfast, which became my daughter’s favourite and which will soon be passed on to a third generation when GrandBoy Jem is big enough to wield a knife and fork. Like this: a slice of lightly toasted bread, a soft-yolked fried egg on top, sprinkle with Cheddar cheese, pop it under the grill for the cheese to melt, and top liberally with tomato sauce (ketchup). I love it to this day. Once in a while, also on a Sunday, a man from a few doors down would arrive with three or four whole crayfish for my dad that he’d just caught. Dad would make crayfish mayonnaise for us, with a tomato salad and mom’s chips. What a feast, free from the sea. If only.

But let’s stay in my street, and there’s the lady across the road, who’s just come out to sweep the yard. She’s nothing if not industrious, always doing something. I don’t want to get too close, lest the reverie dissipate into what the woman really looks like, the likeness reshaped without the distance of the road between us. And the years between me and mom. She seems to be a carer for little kids. A woman arrives in a white saloon car every morning to drop off her kid. My neighbour stands at the gate with the child, both waving as she drives off for her working day. They seem unaware of my hidden eyes, watching and wondering. My friend says I’m turning into a curtain twitcher. Only we don’t have curtains. Luckily. Unlike the layers of curtains and lace curtains in Oranjemund, where dad would sometimes braai on a Saturday night. He liked braaing steak – fillet in slices, done medium well. I see the braai against the wooden fence in the back garden – the only part of the wraparound garden not to be given to trees, flowers, vegetables or fruit trees.

There’s the ungrateful boy beside him, unwittingly starting out on a journey of braaiing that would last decades. The ungrateful boy now cooks whole fillets of beef on the braai. Neither mom nor dad would have thought that you could cook a whole fillet that way, on the coals, surely it had to be roasted, good and proper, and no runny, bloody juices please. The thought of braaing an entire leg of lamb after deboning it would have brought frowns of puzzlement.

Across the road, the lady who looks exactly like my mother in the Sixties has just come out and hung a Christmas wreath on her front door. There’s some faith in that – you never know who’s gonna come along and pinch it. We put ours inside the front window, just in case. I don’t usually use the word “lady” by the way; it strikes me as sexist. But here it seems to fit. Sight of the neatly placed wreath slips me into our sunny Oranjemund lounge, making streamers out of rolls of crinkle paper. I’d choose a red roll and a green one and interleave them to make a streamer which we’d pin up to the picture rail from corner to corner. In the kitchen mom would be adding more brandy to the cake she made in October, and rolling the sweet shortcrust pastry for her mince pies. I wonder if the lady across the road makes a Christmas cake, and douses it with her husband’s brandy. Look, there she is now. Maybe I should go over and ask her. Nope. I’ll keep the reverie intact, a daily reminder of my mother, who loved Christmas almost as much as she loved mashed potato. DM


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