The day the kid at the back crawled out from under his rock
This is for people who live under rocks. Allow me to step away from my usual GastroTurf or Karoo Dreaming columns and respond to a circumstance that is strange and unfamiliar for those of us more accustomed to watching others bask in glory while we hover on the sidelines, wondering what that must be like. Never thought I’d ever make Turkish delight … or win this.
I have suffered from kid-at-the-back-of-the-class syndrome ever since I was in primary school. Once home, I could fling my brown leather school satchel on my bed, change, and go into the kitchen to see what was cooking. I had the confidence to bake biscuits and make fudge, mash the potatoes and stir the mince and, by the time I was 10, occasionally cook a roast and three veg on a Sunday. With a bit of help. But put me in class and I wanted to disappear into my shoes and hope nobody noticed me. The best perch, I calculated, was at the back of the class but not in the corner. The kid in the corner was more likely to have to go to the front of the class during English oral; one desk away and the bell might ring before it was my turn. The kids at the front were suckers. But maybe they sat there because they wanted to be the chosen ones; wanted “miss” to see them and delight in their confident waffling about their pet canaries or the stupid kite they’d made. Bet they couldn’t make a chocolate cake or peanut brittle.
One consequence of this unquenchable timidity, perhaps more accurately described as my terror of being in the spotlight, is that I have never been in the habit of entering awards. Somewhere in the Eighties I found myself one of three nominees for one; the Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery awards for enterprising journalists. You didn’t have to enter to be in the running, so somebody or other must have put my name into the hat and up I came. I have never understood why. I had to dress up and go to a posh Southern Suburbs dinner at Kelvin Grove full of VICTs (Very Important Confident Types). I quaked and quailed my way through the dinner, praying that I wouldn’t win and have to go up to the podium and give the speech I hadn’t prepared because I was as sure that I wouldn’t win as I was keen not to. That childhood fear of English oral class has never quite gone away. Luckily, it was won by a very good finance journalist, a very likeable man but somewhat timid of personality, so I was spared. My then Deputy Editor Mossie van Schoor popped his head around the Arts Department office door the next morning and smiled cheekily. “So, what’s it like to lose to (name withheld)?” My next thought was, damn, if I’d won it would have been all over by now and I’d finally be an award-winning journalist. Finally. How old and seasoned we think we are when we’re only just starting out.
It’s taken another 30-odd years for me to be able to be described as one of those, thanks to the judges of the annual Galliova Awards (for food and health writers) looking kindly on my way with a word or two. Had to wait until I was 66 and beyond what used to be Retirement Age to finally be called “award-winning”… not that it’s in any way important. Whenever I’ve seen those words in front of a colleague’s name I’ve been happy for them while wondering, what does it feel like to get that, to win. Does it change you. Is it in any way important. And I know it isn’t important, but I do feel just a tad changed this week. Fears of being secondary, try-for, second-rate, the kid most likely to come last in the 600m, even feeling worthless at times, somewhat banished or at least receded; being aware that I did not have a proper academic education is a touch dissipated right now. As if someone has lifted a rock and found me under it; oh, there he is! Where’s he been? Or, more likely, who is that? Hang on, isn’t he that bloke who never wins awards? How’d he wangle one now?
Mind you, I never entered them. For years I didn’t know you had to enter. I thought they just sort of found you or noticed your work and thought, hey, how about him? That they had meetings and said, right, who shall we give some gongs to this year? And never thought, hey, what about that bloke under that rock over there?
Two years ago, the Galliova Awards people did find my rock and pushed a letter under it asking if I wanted to enter. TGIFood had been going for about nine months (we’re about to turn three). I was proud of what we were doing. I did enter, and there was a lovely lunch event in the Cape Winelands. They even flew me in from PE. I felt just a tad more of myself; my sense of self-worth soared from A to B. At the lunch, I was very much the wallflower remembered from earlier times, a relic; they all thought I was one of a group of veterans who had been invited because it was the 30th edition of the Galliovas. A younger Food Personality of Note who has even been on TV brushed past me and stopped to say a sort-of-hello. Asked me if I’d ever won a Galliova. Without pausing for me to draw breath to reply, she replied for me. “Oh no, of course… you don’t write recipes….” And walked off.
That touched a nerve, because just writing recipes, with nothing broader and deeper, must be soul-bruising. I’m more interested in really writing about food and offering a recipe as a part of that. That’s what we’re all about at TGIFood; it’s the brief I set for all of our writers. To research, to colour, to paint, to add shine and sparkle, depth and nuance. That’s my endeavour at any rate; if I succeed or fail is another matter. But that is what I want. There are stories everywhere in food.
In fact, I got a second place in one category at that awards lunch but didn’t feel it was something to shout about. I hid that little light under a rock. My colleagues will only find out if they read this. Consider where I work: my colleagues are Very Serious Journalists who expose corruption and bring down crooks and politicians. They’re powerhouses of investigation and digging deep. They’re Gods of the Pen who bring out fabulous books; they risk their lives to find the truth and publish it. You don’t want to put your hand up in that milieu and say, “Ja, me too, I’m the runner-up Egg Champion because I wrote about eggs and chickens.” (Don’t deny it, I know you chuckled at that, proving my point.)
Then came 2020. It was the early months of lockdown that were the turning point for me. The isolation and sense of not knowing where all this was going brought everything into fine focus; colours brightened, edges sharpened. I sensed a new vigour when I was writing, a new confidence in my cooking. My mind started traipsing all over the Karoo and it would come out in meanders about food and life when I rattled my keyboard. I had introduced what we then called a Lockdown Recipe of the Day. For the first few months I cooked and wrote down some recipes myself and greatly relied on contributions from others. But one day I sat myself down and gave myself a stern lecture to the effect that this was an opportunity that I could either grasp with both hands or just coast along with, stepping back and letting others shine. I decided I would come up with a fresh recipe of my own every day of the week. Even made Turkish Delight. Found the gumption to take it on, bearing in mind that every day’s recipe has to be different. There can be no repeats.
There is something else. In the early Eighties I was in my mid-twenties and full of ambition. I wanted to be one of the best arts writers in the country, and aspired to be an Arts Editor one day. I worked hard at it, tried to hone my writing, to push my pen to places it had never ventured before. One day I submitted a story to my then arts editor, who only ever wanted bare-bones arts reports; any attempt at breadth and nuance was cut. It was a story with which I had taken a lot of trouble to be creative and write something deep and worthwhile. He read it, got up from his desk and approached me with insouciant condescension, “Tones, you mustn’t think you can write,” he said. “Your value is as a news gatherer.” Only a decade later, once I had come to my senses and realised I needed to extricate myself from that job and find a new path in my profession, did I really have an opportunity to write better, to hone my craft, having found the freedom to push myself and editors who encouraged me rather than trying to hold me back. Mahogany Row heroes like Kosie Viviers, Chris Greyvenstein and Gordon Kling and, later on, Moegsien Williams and Ryland Fisher. The lights came back on. Another two decades further on and here was Daily Maverick and the best team I have ever been privileged to be a part of. People who give me my lead and let me run with it. The DM effect came into play and the light somehow found its way under that rock.
I’m humbled and honoured and this is the main reason I am writing this: to thank the organisers and sponsors of the Galliova Awards, and of those other awards systems that reward those insanely hard-working and risk-taking colleagues of mine at DM, for seeing our profession as worth spending some effort and money on. For offering some encouragement to journalists toiling in an industry under siege, with newspapers in trouble and magazines having closed down or facing closure. There is great uncertainty in the world of print publishing especially, and online publishers do not all emerge unscathed as waves of retrenchments and closures crash onto the shores of journalism in the 21st century. In the past two decades I have twice been retrenched from magazines that shut down, in 2001 (20 years almost to the day) and in 2008; I know what that feels like, to have to dust yourself down, find your feet, and walk on to whatever lies ahead. The first magazine closure even had us packing up to move to another country, as there was little work here for the likes of us at that time, two decades ago.
That was then. But nobody saw Daily Maverick coming, least of all me. At the age of 66 I feel affirmed and underscored, a decade or more younger, such a far cry from the years of fighting and clawing my way back.
I often measure how things are going by the car I’m driving. On moving to the UK in September 2002 we spent an entire year without any car at all, carrying supermarket bags by hand two miles from shop to front door. Then managed to buy a rusting blue Ford Escort Harrier we hoped no one would inspect too closely. On returning to South Africa and fetching up in Sutherland, we scraped together R20,000 to buy a clapped-out dirty-burgundy Opel hatchback. Used to get stopped by every traffic cop who saw it because it looked like people up to no good would be in it. Two years later I sold it to a dealer in Salt River who looked it over, frowned, and asked: “Plaas kar?” He offered me R5,000, “best I can do”. Like he was doing me a favour. I took it. The next two cars, a Renault people carrier followed by an old Kia sedan, spent more time in the shop than in the driveway. That amounted to a decade of car agony.
When Daily Maverick entered my life, things looked up. Soon, I was able to negotiate a finance deal on a new car, for the first time in my life. She’s a Toyota Aygo, a tiny little thing, called Cricket. Everything kept going right, just like everyone says about the brand. Six years later I’ve just pre-ordered a Corolla Cross hybrid, the ones being manufactured at Prospecton in Durban. In Nebula Blue. Haven’t received the car yet but his name is going to be Picasso. (It’s by far the cheapest car in its bracket, if you’re wondering, and the pre-order launch offer is eye-wideningly generous.)
At an age when others have had the peaks of their careers long ago and are put out to pasture or put themselves out to pasture, I finally seem to be coming into my own. The guy who was so far back in the race that everyone had forgotten about him, yet plodded on and only came in once the stadium had emptied and everyone was at home cooking dinner.
Most of all there’s this: this is a young people’s world. Okay, boomer, you’ve had your turn. Not everyone says it but you can see it in their eyes. It’s easy, even expected by some, for those of us who reach a certain age to disappear into the wings or the woods, yet some of us (not least because we’re the first generation that, in many instances, cannot afford to retire) are keeping on keeping on, taking on new jobs and opening horizons that earlier generations of our age did not. I’m sure some of the younger entrants in these awards, during the online meeting ceremony, on seeing me must have thought, yoh, that dude is old hey, what rock did he crawl out from under?
But signing up for that new hybrid car is me stepping up to the plate, committing to being fully employed for six more years and please god more (he hopes) beyond where we are now. I fling myself at the fates and the universe to bring on what they will, and cross fingers and hold thumbs while waiting to find out whatever might unfold. Bring on that blue car. Face the new blue horizon head-on, shoulders back. But turn your back on the blue rinse. That’s for old people. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is the Galliova Food Champion of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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