ALLERGIC TO NUTS
Bread genitals and booze experiments: Ten lessons from lockdown
During the past few months, Helen Walne has learnt that this new normal can be both weird and wonderful.
- Online shopping is not for sissies
It’s a good thing our supermarkets are still relatively standard and aren’t behemoths of choice, like those found in the US. Otherwise, right now our fridge would probably be filled with rare-roast-beef kimchi and yak yoghurt and our cupboards with miscellaneous dehydrated molluscs. Having said that, my adventures with Pick n Pay online shopping have still been somewhat ridiculous: I ordered a single lunchbox-sized juice instead of a litre; 10 packs of biltong instead of one; a jug of Jik so large you could tie-dye all of the residents of Scarborough and still have some left to clean the bathroom; and two bottles of hideous coffee that were on special but may as well have been given away free as slug repellent. What is it about online shopping that turns many of us into morons? Are we really so Freudian that we need to touch and feel and smell and see the products we want to buy in order to identify them? Why is it that, faced with thumbnails of the products, I am seemingly unable to gauge their size and volume, despite accompanying text that clearly says 250ml, or 500ml, or 1kg? But at least I wasn’t as inept as a friend, who accidentally ordered 20 pineapples for her grandmother.
- Homemade booze is terrible
Unless you’ve been making umqombothi for years, or have a hipster beer-brewing kit, or live in a Cape Dutch mansion on a vineyard where people know about grapes, making your own booze is harder than it looks. If not done correctly, it tastes like some sort of glandular perfume and, because getting drunk is usually the ultimate goal, it won’t even deliver the goods. During the hard lockdown, when the alcohol ban was in place and we had a lone bottle of wine left on the shelf, I started brewing apple cider. I use the word “brewing” here in its loosest, most unscientific sense. Essentially, I boiled up some rooibos, hacked up some apples, threw in some yeast and a Pavarotti load of sugar, and left the mixture in a large glass bottle to bubble and splutter through a nifty aeration pipe my husband had set up. We called the cider Dwayne and tended to him like a newborn, moving him around into the sun, peering at his bubbles and sniffing his nozzle. “Smells like booze!” my husband would say excitedly. “Smells like rotting bread!” I would say unhappily. We made four iterations of Dwayne, each one slightly better than the last. But, still, it tasted like rock-bun dough mixed with cough mixture mixed with the juices of a failed teenage holiday romance. And even if we drank all of Dwayne on one night, we were still sober enough to wash the dishes.
- Treats are unnecessary
Sometimes in the evening I will turn to my husband and say: “Where’s the chock-o-lit?” We always pronounce it like that because we are immensely childish. And we’ll think about a big bar of Bubbly, and the garage shop down the road, and our masks hanging like little G-strings on the burglar bars in the kitchen, and the dark night, and the coughs in the queue, and people in tracksuit pants, and breath and yawns and sneezes. And we’ll turn to each other and say, “Nah”. It’s not worth it.
- It’s possible to eat all the carrots
Before lockdown, we wasted far too much food. Carrots would go bendy in the fridge, yoghurt would grow fur and the potatoes would sprout and start stinking in the cupboard. Now, however, in our bid to avoid nipping out to the shops, we’ve started using up every scrap of food in the house. Old lentils? No problem. Soak them, boil them, mix them up with olive oil, chili and garlic, and you have a tasty emulsion to pile on top of the roasted bendy carrots and the dreadlocked potatoes.
- Working from home is the path to comorbidities
I have worked from home for the past four years, so am fully apprised of the dangers of having one’s desk in waddling distance of the kitchen. After a particularly bad run-in with dozens of rusks over a three-month period, I reined myself in, banning all processed carbs from the house and drinking lots of water instead. However, lockdown has stirred up my anxiety, and this, coupled with my inept online ordering skills, means rusks have found their evil way back into the house, as have chocolate digestive biscuits, rice crackers (“Baked, not fried!”) and the occasional bar of chocolate. My husband has also started working from home, and I thought having him around would moderate my snacking. I wouldn’t want him to think he’s married to a food-addicted loser who lacks self-discipline and, increasingly, a discernible waistline. But no. Despite his desk being right next to mine, I regularly drift from keyboard to caramel crunchie, from desk to rusk, without shame or pretence or concern for my future. At this rate, trying to avoid the plague is turning me into the plague’s perfect victim.
- Al fresco dining is for the birds
With both of us working from home, and with Cape Town’s winter days unseasonably warm of late, we’ve been trying to get into the habit of having lunch in our courtyard, under an oversized berry tree whose roots are threatening to topple our entire neighbourhood and whose branches are alive with the twittering and wittering and shittering of resident starlings and doves. So instead of a pleasant al fresco meal, we usually end up with bird poo on our plates, glasses of water bobbing with berries and bits of nest in our quiche. Ah, Living the Good Life. Not.
- A braai makes everything better
We’ve never been big on braaiing – unlike our new neighbours, who have one every Thursday and Saturday evening. Even when it’s raining. However, since the beginning of lockdown, my husband and I have had a braai most Saturdays – just the two of us huddled for warmth around the flames, playing too-loud electro. And, as a vegetarian, I have been thrilled to discover Urban Vegan’s BBQ Vegan Spare Ribs, which are ridiculously tasty and pleasingly chewy. At some point in the evening, we play Beck’s Wow – a song that seems to chase away any dark thoughts of the plague – and I wave a fake rib in the air and dance around the fire, while the neighbours’ Bette Midler cover versions sidle in through the smoke. In these moments, life almost feels normal.
- Local is indeed lekker
For the past three months, we have eschewed large supermarkets in malls and have turned to our local mini mart instead. They’re a shrewd bunch. When the booze ban was in force, they erected a massive display of non-alcoholic beers and wines at the entrance to the shop and are seemingly stocking a wider variety of food items aimed at our middle-class suburb: pesto, those silly miniature vegetables, rye bread, ready-made soups, fancy full-fat yoghurt. Numbers of shoppers are strictly regulated, the owner is always on hand to help, and the sanitiser they use doesn’t turn my hands to parchment. Warning: non-alcoholic wine should only be drunk by inebriated people, who won’t be able to discern just how hideous it is.
- Those sourdough wallies were right
At the beginning of lockdown, the middle classes took to baking like Muizenberg surfers have taken to illegal waters. Every second picture I saw on Instagram showed some wally showing off their wally wares: banana bread, cookies, walnut loaf and, most pervasively, sourdough. I scoffed at the desperation and privilege. “Why don’t they just go and buy a bloody loaf from Woolies?” I ranted, scrolling through yet more images of starter dough and crusts and steaming loaves cooling on windowsills. And then my husband, bored and fed-up one Saturday, decided to make two loaves of French bread from an ancient recipe book he’d found while decluttering the spare room. We pretty much demolished an entire loaf within minutes of it coming out of the oven. Slathered in butter, it was so delicious – so yeasty and spongy and melty-in-the-mouthy – that we vowed never to do it again. And promptly made more loaves the next week, and the next, and the next. So, yes, the locked-down home bakers were right: homemade bread is indeed heavenly, making it is fun, and eating it is even more fun. And using leftover dough to create mini loaves in the shape of male genitals makes all the slog worthwhile.
- Priorities get reset
With restaurants closed until recently, I have often lain in bed thinking about all the meals I’ve had out, all the money I’ve spent on sometimes horrible food, all the disappointing plates I’ve been served, all the incredible creations I’ve been lucky enough to eat. And I’ve thought about how many of the best restaurant experiences have had nothing to do with the food and everything to do with the ambience and the people at the table. Oh, the laughs we’ve had! The mess we’ve made on tablecloths! The long conversations we’ve had about sea slugs and how they breathe out of their bums, and why it is that music sounds better at night. When this plague is finally reduced to a sniffle, one of the first things I will do is gather together my favourite people and muster at a restaurant that serves unpretentious food that makes us feel good about the world, and laugh and laugh and laugh until someone knocks over the bottle of chilli sauce. DM/TGIFood
Helen Walne is an aspirant vegan who detests food snobs, kale fascists, tartare sauce and misplaced apostrophes on menus, but is very fond of broccoli.