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Baking Bowls & Painted Aloes: Unlocking lockdown in the deep Karoo

Photo by Tony Jackman

When you can’t kuier in the countryside, just yell over the back fence, unless you want to risk putting a cake in the middle of a lonely road.

There was a lovely country moment the other day. The other day when we still could go out of doors and browse in shops and at markets as we do in ordinary times. Times when we think that times will always be ordinary, just like that time, just the other day. And, just like that, suddenly your world changes.

But, luckily, the bowl came to me before all that, back in those ordinary times. So there it is, on the top shelf of the dresser in the kitchen. And now I will have the time to use it. A lot. (Hold thumbs, cross fingers.)

This is a story about friends. Friends who live just across the road or around the corner. So, I can wave at Wilma, because she lives just over there, in that house where the sheep truck is almost always parked outside, because Johan has a removal business. Removal. Not the best word in these times. (No, Millennial, not that sort of removal. We Boomers hope to stick around for a while, despite your apparent eagerness for us to move on.) I can’t wave at Heyla, though, because her house is two blocks away in that direction and all the way up the road alongside the cemetery. Eek. Another word we try to avoid in these times.

Wilma and Heyla were in Prince Albert rummaging through collectibles in a ramshackle store a couple of Saturdays ago when Wilma spotted an age-weary beige Mason Cash baking bowl on a shelf. Its marblesque discolouration hinted at its interesting past. This was a bowl that had lived a life. “Tony is looking for one of those!” Wilma exclaimed. Heyla quickly photographed it on her phone and then dove onto her WhatsApp.

“We are in Prins Albert, Wilma says you are looking for a bak like this.”

“I am! Is it the big one?”

“Yes, must we buy it for you?”

“Yes please!”

“R320. Just EFT into my account.”

And, a minute later, done.

That’s how life rolls in these small towns. Well, it did. Someone will arrive with some or other fruit or vegetable or a jar of something, gratis, just because they know that’s what you like. Tony likes quinces, he’ll make quince jelly. He uses the recipe in his ma’s old Kook en Geniet, on page 304, opposite the photograph of koesisters (no, not koeksisters, koesisters, the sweetly cinnamony dainties made with the dough from a Swedish tea ring) and green fig preserve. I’m not saying city people don’t do similarly generous things (even in ordinary times), but there’s a particular air about how these things happen in the country. Usually. And will again soon, we hope and pray.

Kuier. There’s a thing we all now miss. Already, only one day into the lockdown. There’ll be no kuiering in the next while in all these small towns all over the country. We don’t know yet how it will all pan out. Maybe, if we get some warm evenings, we will kuier in our backyard and the neighbours will kuier in theirs and we can all yell greetings and cheers over the fence. Tjeers, ou swaer. Hoe moed, Tannie.

Observant readers will have spotted Heyla in these columns before, though it is Wilma’s first appearance. Both women have “the eye” for a beautiful old thing. They have bought and sold many such things down the years, at one point in the lovely house that is our veterinarian’s premises now. Wilma was one of the first people I met when we first came to Cradock in 2014. I was shopping at More4Less, the capacious warehouse of a store that sells anything you can think of. Sandra Antrobus was there too, and when she spotted Wilma, she introduced us. It turned out eventually that Wilma lives across the road from us though we hadn’t at that stage bought the house and moved in.

Heyla used to be the chef at Sandra’s hotel, the Victoria Manor, and recently she has set up on her own. Her massive back garden is abundant with roses and lemon trees and lavender and much more, while in her kitchen she makes glorious preserves, jams and the like to sell all over the place under her Sense of the Karoo brand. Wilma runs a truly beautiful shop called Cinnamon which is part pancake and waffle house and (much bigger) part home accessories shop. This is Wilma’s domain where she gets to show her superb eye for beautiful things and excels at displaying them in a way that makes it hard for you not to buy anything. I’m always coming away with things I hadn’t planned to buy. (Okay, I do that everywhere.)

In the weeks before Christmas, the two old friends set up a pop-up Christmas shop in a small theatre in town. As we went in we said to each other, let’s just have a look and show some support, we can’t afford to buy anything. We left with a vintage washstand jug and bowl, a giant enamel plate, an African print tablecloth, several jars of pickles, and a Christmas cake. Oh and some dried aloe flowers which Wilma had spray-painted orange-red.

This is how relationships form in these small towns. (Normally.) Over fig preserves and carrot cakes, baking bowls and painted aloes. And over time. You get to know your community and your community gets to know you. So, once Wilma knew I was after an old bowl of the kind my mum had when I was a kid, it was only a matter of time. Just two months, okay nearly three, and there it is.

It arrived on a Tuesday evening just more than two weeks back, back in the good old days, in the rain, wrapped in bubble wrap. The rain that week! Extraordinary. Our backyard pool had been empty on the Monday. On the Thursday morning we awoke to find it full and overflowing. Just from rainwater. Now I fill up two 25-litre bottles of water from the pool for the garden and my vegetable seedlings in the garden shed. (Baby carrots, beetroot, cabbage, parsnips, broad beans, Japanese radish, Welsh onions, red onions, and cauliflower, in case you were wondering. Last year’s crop of tomatoes, brinjals, peppers, chillies and more are still providing some sustenance.)

The Mason Cash original bowl, or bak, is now on the top shelf of the turquoise Fifties dresser we bought from Marlien at More4Less last year. I can’t say how much for cos I fibbed to my wife at the time. Let’s say R1,500 and hold thumbs I get away with it. Marlien is a wonderful woman, such a character, a true original, hardy, no-nonsense, and so, so kind. You’d never meet a Marlien in a city. People like her only live in towns like this. If Marlien found herself in a city she’d go inside until it was all over. Like we’re all doing now, but for different reasons.

The beige baking bowl that angels brought to me must have many a story to tell. Whose hands first held it, whose wooden spoons and whisks have beaten how many cakes of how many kinds in it over its many decades.

It holds great meaning for me finally to own one again. The last time my eyes saw my mum’s bowl was in the early Seventies when everything had gone to hell without a handbasket and everything we owned went to the auctioneers in a big truck. Everything. The handbasket probably went too. So did my little policeman bedside lamp. My old Meccano, my little-boy Teddy bear. Mom’s bowl was wrapped and boxed and went away. I’ve often wondered what became of it and so many other items that had always been there throughout my boyhood. I suspect that the going away of all those things has everything to do with the grownup me’s appreciation for the old things and how much I love to preserve and admire, displaying beautiful treasures in our home. An old washstand, bought from an antique dealer in Sea Point’s Main Road in the Nineties. The Fifties scale I found at the Veldskoen farm stall outside De Doorns, a treasure trove for those who like period kitchen stuff and for a great breakfast or lunch in their leafy garden. And a cheap piece of old tat can be a treasure too.

The old-new bowl got used last weekend to make a batter for a dish for an Asian-themed dinner party we had. Back in those days, when we still did that. It was the batter for the sweet and sour pork. I’d never cooked it before. I also made spring rolls – vegetable ones, and shrimp others – and onion and coriander bhajis/chillibites.

It wasn’t I who first stirred the batter in the bowl. I was busy finishing the sweet and sour sauce, and reheating the chicken cashew and serving the Thai beef salad. So my farmer/sous chef friend beat the batter. Perfectly, whereas as my beating would have splashed it all over.

Back in the day, my mum made cake batters in a bowl just like this one. Fancifully, I imagined that when it had been sold at that auction in Cape Town in the early Seventies it had gone to a family somewhere. That years later it had been passed on to a new generation, who had in yet more years to come moved to the Karoo, to Prince Albert. And that its owner had finally succumbed, and, as happens in these small towns and on the farms nearby them, all the old things would have been put on auction. And that it was bid for by a lady who owns a ramshackle store. And one day Wilma and Heyla had walked in, and said, hey, Tony is looking for one of those.

These are fanciful times, after all. There are worse things we can do, in lockdown, than imagine good things that once went away somehow finding their way back to us. I might drink a toast to that. Not over the back fence but across the road. To Wilma.

I plan to bake something in it soon. I’ll sanitary-wipe everything in sight, don gloves, put the cake in the middle of the road and WhatsApp her to come out and fetch it. There’s not likely to be any traffic. DM

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