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Lighting up the darkness in the season when nothing gro...



Lighting up the darkness in the season when nothing grows

Photo of the famous Chicago Theater in downtown Chicago, under snow, by Rezal Scharfe on Unsplash

Sometimes I fire up the Weber grill in a snowstorm for a braai. It’s kind of fun huddling over the warm coals with a glass of wine, watching snowflakes swirling around you and going crazy in the updraft.

A week or so ago I was sitting on the train from the airport absently gazing at the bleak passing landscape. I’d been out of town for more than three weeks and was dying to get back home. The airport being O’Hare International, having recently regained its status as the world’s busiest and probably craziest airport, and home being Chicago. Staring out the train window at the grey winter landscape, it suddenly struck me just how totally insane it was that I fondly call this place home. Fact is, I’ve lived here twice as long as any city I lived in back in sunny South Africa. Goeie moer, as they say. This is my home. Ja-nee.

Actually, I’ve been out of town a lot longer than three weeks, starting with LA in November. Not my favourite city but apparently very popular with South African expats. Driving through the hills in LA I kept experiencing a déjà feeling of the koppies around Pretoria. It even had that same hot, dusty, dry air. You can smell it. Must admit, unlike with LA, I have never mistaken Chicago for Pretoria, that’s for sure.

Then over New Year, Jill, Willem and I spent a week or so in Morocco, one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever been. But more about that some other time, perhaps. And finally, just as a reality check, I spent the last three weeks since Morocco in Washington DC. God, what a dreary place. It’s like Pretoria on steroids. At least it is a functioning city, which is about all that can be said for it. And expensive as all hell. And full of politicians. Maybe it was just me, but there was a sense of depression in the air. I read something a while ago that during the Obama years DC had a very vibrant, active social scene. Not just on the diplomatic circuit but fuelled by the fact that the Obamas dined out at local restaurants at least a few times a week. By actively engaging with the city they were living in they created a buzz and a huge boost to the restaurant industry. Unlike Trump, living in a state of lockdown and surviving on fast food. Because of his paranoid fear of leaks, he has imposed a total ban on his administration attending any kind of social event. It’s like a pall hanging over the city. Happy to get out of that town.

Okay, so what does all that have to do with food? Well, sitting on the train staring out the window, not only was I thinking about being home, I was thinking about food. Eleven in the morning, just off the plane and already planning dinner. To my mind, home is where the kitchen is. Eating restaurant food for weeks on end really wears me down. For the first few days, it seems like fun but after a week or so, I’ve just had it. And Washington is surprisingly expensive. Probably because of all the foreign government officials on expense accounts funded by looted aid money. So is LA, but I knew that already. The thing is, restaurant food is just not like home cooking, no matter how many dollars you fork out. And by home cooking I mean cooked in my own kitchen, unlike here in the US where “home cooking” is a term used by restaurants for tasteless, mushy food. It took me many years to figure out that “home cooking” isn’t something done at home. Same as “like grandma used to make it”.

The Chicago river, downtown Chicago. Photo: Chris Pretorius

And the dinner I was planning? Plain old salt and pepper roast chicken, baked potatoes and green beans sautéed in olive oil and garlic. Or broccoli, or whatever looked fresh. Something simple and delicious. For some reason, I always crave roast chicken after travelling for a while. Maybe I’m not the only one. Maybe there’s just something about chicken roasted in your own oven. Anyway, speaking of roasting birds, I have a confession to make. In my last Chicago Blues column I was railing against roast turkeys for Thanksgiving, saying they were overrated and all that. Instead, I ordered a goose from my butcher. No way was I going to roast a turkey like an American. But my family, both of them, insisted on turkey.

Feeling an utter fool, I went to my butcher to cancel the goose but he ended up saving the day. He had a few free range turkeys, a breed that a farmer in southern Illinois imported from Spain. And they were the exact same species of turkey that the conquistadors brought back to Spain from southern Mexico, four hundred years ago. Totally unrelated to the tasteless American supermarket turkey and half the size, fully grown. And delicious. I’ve changed my mind about turkey. Actually, I roasted another one for Christmas.

But sitting and gazing out the train window also made me think of winter and how strange it is that a Pretoria boy like me has become acclimated to the brutal Chicago winters. It took a while for a warm climate guy like me to understand that this far north, everything revolves around winter. Sure, we had a few freezing nights and chilly days back in Pretoria, but here the ground freezes from November to late April. And because the sun moves so far south the days are very short and the sunlight is ineffective.

Frozen waterfall, Illinois. Photo: Chris Pretorius

Not only do you not get enough vitamin D, but imagine how that affects farming. Back in the early 19th century the government offered free farmland in the upper Midwest to those willing or stupid enough to take on the winters. This, of course, after they kicked the indigenous Indian population off the land. Actually, the prairie country around the Great Lakes is very fertile, if you can figure out how to deal with the winter. No surprise then that the people who took the government up on the offer were farmers from northern Europe and Scandinavia. Whole communities moved out here and resettled all over the Midwest. And brought their farming and cooking traditions with them. Even their architectural traditions. Drive around Lake Michigan and it’s possible to tell old German or Dutch or Scandinavian towns apart by their architecture. Across the lake in Michigan is a town called Holland in a county called Zeeland. And guess what they grow over there? Tulips. There’s even a town up in Wisconsin first settled by Welsh that is famous for its Cornish pasties.

You can also usually tell these communities apart by the types of sausages they make. And these sausage-making traditions go right back to the regions of Germany or Poland or wherever the communities moved from. Not only is sausage-making a big deal around here but so is preserving meat and vegetables by smoking and pickling. Everything gets smoked. If it moves, it gets smoked. I’m pretty sure even squirrels got smoked, back in the day. The old farmhouses were built around a smoking room which had a dual purpose of preserving meat and heating the house. Smart.

The old farmers spent their summers preparing for the long winter months because come November, the ground freezes. This kind of complicates the very fashionable “eat local” movement, if you want to be strict about eating within a certain radius, or reduce your “food mileage”, as they say. Not that I’m against it, I’m just being realistic. In a climate like Chicago’s, it’s just not possible because for nearly half the year things just can’t grow here. Unless you cheat of course. The only way to have a varied diet is to import stuff from warmer climates, or use hothouses. But creating artificial heated environments might have a bigger carbon footprint than transporting produce from other regions. Interesting questions.

In fact, I don’t mind the cold so much. Actually I like the extreme cold and the snow. Well, to be honest, the first snow. After a few months it gets a little tedious digging your car out to get to work or get your kid to school. And shovelling snow can be backbreaking work. In fact, by law you even have to clear snow from the sidewalk in front of your house, unless you want a fine. At least I get some exercise shovelling snow, although lately I’ve become lazy and I just pay a young neighbourhood guy to do it.

And the extreme cold can be invigorating, unless your garage doors freeze shut or your water pipes freeze and burst. But I can live with all that. Sometimes I even fire up the Weber grill in a snowstorm for a braai.

Weber grill in my backyard. Photo: Chris Pretorius

It’s kind of fun huddling over the warm coals with a glass of wine, watching snowflakes swirling around you and going crazy in the updraft. It’s the short days that bother me most about winter. The darkness eventually just gets to me. Getting up in the morning and it’s still pitch dark outside. Coming home from work and it’s pitch dark. Willem goes to school in the dark and gets home in the dark.

Trying to get Willem to school. Photo: Chris Pretorius

So anything to alleviate the darkness of the deep winter months helps. Even Christmas. Okay, time for another confession. Over the years I’ve actually gotten to like Christmas. I’ve figured out how to ignore all the commercialism and religious stuff associated with it. And Christmas music drives me and I think everybody else, except my wife, completely crazy. She starts humming Christmas tunes the day after Thanksgiving. I love everything else about her, though. No, I like Christmas because to me it’s a festival of light. Growing up in the Southern Hemisphere, I really never understood this. Who knows why we even bothered having Christmas down there. Here, in the cold, dark North, Christmas is all about snow and lighting up the darkness. I’m not getting all spiritual on you, I meant that literally. Twinkly little Christmas lights and candles and stuff. And the little lights are everywhere. Downtown they wrap rows and rows of huge trees in them, turning the dreary winter cityscape into something magically theatrical. It is quite awesome, even to a cynical old grump like me.

Well, it feels weird writing about Christmas in the early days of February, but, first of all, I missed the deadline for the piece I was going to write for Christmas, so I’m making up for it. And second, it’s only early February and there are three more winter months ahead. And this really hits home when at the end of January they turn the fairy lights off and plunge us all into deep winter gloom.

Valentine’s Day is coming up, I know, but I’ve never really got into it. Suppose it wasn’t really an Afrikaans thing, or maybe it just reminds me of how pathetically shy I am. I could never manage to get over myself and write even the silliest little anonymous card. And complicating things more, I don’t have a sweet tooth, even for chocolate. Maybe biltong would have gotten me more into the groove. Dried meat for Valentine’s. How romantic can you get? Anyway, the dark winter gloom might be really unhinging me. Perhaps that’s why I ended up roasting two turkeys in the space of one month. Maybe I don’t like turkey after all. Even Spanish turkeys. I’ll let you know next Thanksgiving. DM


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