TGIFOOD

CHICAGO BLUES

The avant-garde theatre director who turned into a boere tannie

The avant-garde theatre director who turned into a boere tannie
Chicago lit up for Christmas. (Photo: Rick Veldman from Pixabay)

It’s the marrow edge of the zucchini wedge when your laatlammetjie son goes to college and from Thanksgiving onward it’s non-stop Christmas cheer for a whole bloody month.

Early Thanksgiving morning. At this very moment, the entire US of A is having a nervous breakdown at the thought of cooking a turkey and I’m sitting here thinking of hairy zucchinis.

Strange that every year, a humble, ugly old bird manages to bring a superpower to its knees. Just say the word “turkey” to Americans and they look stricken. Actually, it’s the same as when you mention the danger of dehydration to Americans. They get that panicked, deer caught in the headlights kind of look. I often come across articles about how to recognise American tourists overseas. And it’s always about clothing, how badly Americans dress, you know, the usual. Complete nonsense. Germans beat Americans by far in the bad dressing department. Not to mention South Africans. No, you recognise Americans by the water bottles they’re all frantically clutching.

Why am I going on about water bottles when I was talking about hairy zucchinis? Relax, I’m not being obscene here, it’s the food page after all. I went shopping earlier this morning because early Thanksgiving morning is the best time to shop. So there I was, wandering around the deserted produce section trying to figure out which vegetable would go with turkey. Traditionally it’s brussels sprouts but I really really truly hate brussels sprouts and I will not cook them. 

So, zucchini. And I suddenly had this memory of living in Oranjezicht in the Seventies and walking down to the Gardens Centre Pick n Pay and buying zucchinis. Not only were they a novelty at the time, they also came with hair and grit on them and you had to really scrub them before cooking. That was also around the time that they started selling cut-up packaged chicken. Being able to buy individual pieces of chicken breast was a novelty, a huge deal. Thighs came later. We’ve come a long way, babies. 

You’re probably wondering what’s with all this zucchini zucchini zucchini. Well, to be honest, it’s really just to annoy my editor. It drives him and probably quite a few other South Africans to distraction when I say zucchini instead of baby marrow or courgette. The Italians call it zucchini (actually zucchino, singular, but hey) and they cultivated it after all and brought it to the US, so I’m perfectly happy to go with zucchini.

The courgette that caused all the trouble. (The editor writes the captions.) (Photo: Matthias Boeckel from Pixabay)

Anyway, Thanksgiving. You know, I think the reason that every year Americans act like they’ve never seen a turkey before is that everybody here is suffering from a kind of brain damage similar to jet lag because daylight saving happens just before Thanksgiving and we lose an hour. Research has shown that it takes a few weeks to adjust and that it’s especially hard on school kids.

In the pre-digital days most people forgot to set their clocks back or forward twice a year so there was pandemonium the next day. The worst for me is that it suddenly gets dark mid afternoon so by nine at night it’s been dark already for quite a few hours so it feels like midnight and I want to go to bed. I have no issue with the different time zones here and as a matter of fact I think SA can use more than one. Probably why I have hairy zucchinis on the brain.

Speaking of my editor, time has moved on since my last column. Nearly a year, in fact. Oops, as they say. I didn’t believe him at first but after scrolling through the archives I realised my last column was written during winter time. (I did ask Chris recently: “Bud, isn’t it time for your annual column?” – Food Ed.) 

Okay, granted, winter can take up most of the year here in Chicago so I won’t bore you with snowy winter tales. But it was an eventful year. Our son Willem left home to go to college, causing havoc with my cooking routine. Willem was kind of a laatlammetjie. I was 48 when he was born and very set in my routine of cooking for two but as Willem grew older I ended up cooking for five because a teenage boy eats enough for three people. Actually, more than five because he always took a hot lunch to school so I cooked for five plus lunch. Now I have to adjust to cooking for two again and making a total balls-up of it. I’ll get there, I suppose.

I think after Willem was born I slowly morphed into aunt Stien, my father’s sister. Not my mother. My mother hated cooking. Aunt Stien lived in Uitenhage and every December in the late Fifties and Sixties we would drive to Uitenhage to visit, and for two weeks there would be a constant stream of chicken pies, melktert, koeksisters, you name it coming out of her tiny little kitchen. Oh dear, the boys are hungry! Feed them! She wasn’t satisfied until we fell off our chairs and rolled around on the floor, groaning. Real boere tannie, bless her dear heart. Fact is, I started showing the same tendencies, to Jill’s exasperation. The kid needs to eat! Feed him! The dog is starving, I can see his ribs! Quick, feed the kid! Feed the dog! It kind of rattles you when you come to the realisation that the once avant-garde Glass Theatre director has turned into a boere tannie fussing in the kitchen.

We drove Willem to his college in upstate New York because, being his mother’s son, moderation is an alien concept when it comes to packing. Everything but the kitchen sink. And this is where Boere Tannie showed her true colours. I made a ton of biltong and sliced all of it up and divided it into little paper bags. I did order a “biltong slicer” on Amazon but the thing was totally bloody useless. Had to slice it all by hand and I think I did some serious damage to my elbow. But hey, can’t go on an important trip like that without padkos. Willem of course finished his stash before we left the state of Illinois, and we still had 17 hours’ drive ahead of us. Being the good dad that I am, I handed over mine, including my secret stash.

Clockwise from left: Willem and Jill exploring his new college campus overlooking the Hudson River; ​​Padkos. Pakkies Chicago biltong, ready for our trip; Smoked whitefish and fish sausage I bought in Leland, Michigan. (Photos: Chris Pretoris. Composite image: Tony Jackman)

The drive out east was quite a pleasant surprise though, if you blank out the part through Indiana. You drive around the bottom end of Lake Michigan then all along lake Erie and eventually lake Ontario, so all along three of the five Great Lakes. If a drive takes 17 hours you can imagine the sheer size of these lakes. Not talking Hartebeespoort dam here. It’s the world’s largest source of fresh water and referred to as America’s third coast, with 7,290 kilometres of coastline, more than the east and west coast combined.

We stayed over in Buffalo, New York, where Willem insisted on going out for Buffalo wings, seeing as they apparently originated in Buffalo. They tasted like Buffalo wings, not that I actually know what Buffalo wings are supposed to taste like. But he was happy. Being South African I often forget that my son is an American, a born and bred inner city Chicago boy and he takes pride in his country, and that my snotty remarks about all things American don’t always go down well. He’s very smart about America and all its problems but he loves this country and it’s something that I have had to come to terms with and respect. Never too old, right?

He’s also been to South Africa a lot and loves it, to the extent that the little bugger is even thinking of applying for a South African passport. I’m like, what?! Okay, I won’t go down that path.

So, Buffalo. Rust belt. These old, once majestic manufacturing cities along the northern lakes and rivers are quite something. Gorgeous art deco buildings, now abandoned, throwing shadows over once bustling public squares. Think Giorgio de Chirico, the Italian surrealist painter, and you get the picture. Melancholic. And these cities are just there, nobody ever thinks about them. Until you drive through them, of course. Anyway, breakfast in Buffalo and I’m chafing to get on the road but Jill and Willem want to see Niagara Falls first. Either I had forgotten or I just had no clue that the falls were in Buffalo. I spent 10 minutes grumbling about trashy tourists in white sneakers, camera vans, no parking, Parys, Vrystaat, whackos going over in barrels, honeymoon murders. But to no avail.

Clockwise from left: East Berlin on the Niagara river, the Canadian side of Niagara Falls; Leland, a fishing village on the northern shores of Lake Michigan; How they do it around the Great Lakes. The honour system. Take a dozen eggs and put your three bucks in the tin. (Photos: Chris Pretoris and Jill Daly. Composite image: Tony Jackman)

Again, pleasantly surprised. We got parking. And everything was landscaped with indigenous trees and little walkways, really nothing offensive, quite pretty actually. And no sign of all the notorious nasty honeymoon hotels and casinos. They’re there, but away from the falls area, which is part of the US National Parks system, an organisation that I’m getting a lot of respect for. 

So you get to the falls, and everything is really spectacular, except, on the northern side a bunch of buildings that look like they should be in East Berlin loom over the falls. I was totally shocked when Jill pointed out that that was the Canadian side. Nasty brutalist style hotels and casinos built right up to the edge of the falls. Even a tower similar to the Fernsehturm, East Berlin, circa 1965. 

Now, as we all know, Canadians are totally traumatised by the fact that they’re not Americans. Most Americans are not even aware that Canada is not part of the US. And it drives them totally crazy, so to counter that, Canadians present themselves as artier and more sophisticated than the boorish Americans. Until you see the northern banks of Niagara Falls. Bunch of bad taste bunnies up there, I tell you.

So we installed Willem in his dorm and my god, what a gorgeous campus. Old red brick buildings under gigantic oak trees overlooking the Hudson River. And then drove back crying. We probably didn’t say more than 10 words on the two-day drive back home to Chicago. Not much to say. Our boy is now living in New York State. And to Jill’s horror, he’s decided to become a New York Yankees fan. No more Chicago Cubs.

We stayed over in Cleveland, Ohio and let me tell you, that place is a dump. We thought we’d give their Little Italy a try because it’s supposedly famous. Well, it certainly is little. As a matter of fact it had only one restaurant. And it was the worst meal I’ve ever eaten. Not the worst Italian food, no: the worst food. Which of course made us feel even more miserable the next day.

A few weeks after driving Willem to New York State, we drove to Leland, Michigan, for work. It’s on the eastern side of the lake and about nine hours’ drive from Chicago. Imagine driving nine hours and you’re not even close to the top of the lake. But having just driven through the Hudson River valley, I realised that the landscape around the Great Lakes is nothing to be ashamed of. As a matter of fact, a lot of wealthy New Yorkers are building mansions along the shores of Lake Michigan and referring to it as the new Hamptons. And hardly any tourists compared to the East Coast. Oh jeez, this is starting to read like a travelogue.

Kingston, one of the cute old towns on the Hudson River; Our local decked out for Christmas. Look closely, even the walls are covered in Christmas paper; the author, obscured by Hugo the malevolent puppy, wishing a Merry Christmas to one and all. (Photos: Chris Pretoris and Jill Daly. Composite image: Tony Jackman)

Another huge event since my last column is my brand new pair of hearing aids. After years of my wife and son maintaining that I’m as deaf as a doornail, I finally broke down and paid the audiologist a visit. And lots of money. For some reason hearing aids are not covered by insurance and damn, they are not cheap. But she did assure me that I’m not nearly as deaf as my family wants me to believe but that aids would be helpful in situations like eating in restaurants. I kind of enjoyed sitting in restaurants totally tuned out and oblivious to the surrounding conversations. With a stupid grin on my face, according to Jill.

All that has changed, of course. Now I hear everything. These little gadgets are quite amazing and you control them on your phone. They even have a directional ability so you can zoom in and eavesdrop on a specific table near you. So if you’re on a sneaky date or something, be careful of that elderly dude with little gadgets in his ear sitting a few tables away from you. He’s probably up to no good.

The one thing I’m dreading now though is going to a restaurant with my mother-in-law. She lives in San Francisco, or the Bay Area, as she calls it in her breathy Bay Area way voice. You might not be aware of this but people from the Bay Area are even bigger food snobs than Capetonians. Think Alice Waters. And not only are they food snobs, they make food noises. You’re not really enjoying your food unless you’re moaning and groaning while masticating to broadcast your pleasure to every poor sucker within earshot. Oh man, in future I’m going to be sitting there nailed to my bistro chair, forced to listen to my mother-in-law making orgasmic sounds right through the meal and in bloody stereo too. The horror.

Okay, some advice. Don’t suck prawn heads and tails while plugged in to your hearing devices. Jill finds prawn heads yucky because she thinks the little eyes are staring at her so I usually clear the plates then quickly suck out the heads in the kitchen. I did just that of course with my hearing aids in and it sounded like I was being dive-bombed by a supersonic jet fighter. I nearly dove for cover under the butcher’s block.

Some more advice. Don’t lose them. I lost my left one a few days ago and it costs a few thousand dollars to replace. It’ll be ready by late December so I’m probably getting a left hearing aid for Christmas.

South Africans don’t have Thanksgiving but here it’s basically the start of the Christmas season. On Thanksgiving all the Christmas decorations go up and from then on its non stop Christmas cheer for a whole bloody month. And everything reeks of synthetic Christmas spice, that mix of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. All spices that I love, but not in that particular combo. 

Even our local pub has gone nuts. They did not leave a square centimetre undecorated. It looks like they brought boxes stuffed with Christmas decorations up from the basement and then let all the drunk regulars loose. And then it was okay everybody, if you can still stand, grab a ladder, a bauble and a thumb tack and stick it up somewhere. If you make it back to the bar without falling off a ladder or breaking a bauble  you get a free shot of your choice. For a few nights in a row.

On the bright side, Willem will be home for Christmas and Hugo the malevolent puppy will have better things to do than terrorise me in the kitchen. He still positions himself by the stove right where I need to cook and stares at me with his vicious little glow in those dark eyes. Except now he’s added a new barking routine to his repertoire when he thinks I’m taking too long to prepare his food. At least only the right side hearing aid is working so I’m not getting him in full bloody stereophonic sound. What can I tell you. Merry Christmas. Catch you later dudes, as they say here.

CODA

I’m back! After submitting the column above I saw on the news that a major blizzard was heading towards Chicago and expected to strike over the Christmas weekend. The definition of a blizzard is when heavy snowfall combined with at least 55 km/h winds continue for three hours or more, causing a whiteout.

They are expecting 40 cm of snow and winds up to 80 km/h. So things are going to get interesting. And the high temperature at a merry -13℃. But the news item that really caught my eye was that all incoming and outgoing flights into Chicago will probably be cancelled.

Can that be true? Could it be possible that a certain member of the family will be stranded in the culinary paradise known as the “Bay Area” for the duration and that we won’t have to endure orgasmic groans during Christmas dinner? There’s always a bright side, as they say. Too much to hope for really but hey, stay positive.

I’ll post a picture of me climbing up on the roof in the blizzard and stringing barbed wire around the chimney to keep out those pesky Disney reindeers. Merry Christmas dudes, and don’t forget your earplugs when you go shopping. DM/TGIFood

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Karin Eriksson Eriksson says:

    As a Capetonian domiciled in Sweden with relatives “back home” and in the USA (North Dakota Chris – not so far from you), I loved, loved LOVED this column! Once a year is too seldom. More please!
    God Jul, Karin & Mats

  • Chris Hill says:

    Nice. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another year.

  • David Bristow says:

    Lovely old campus overlooking the Hudson … At what stage do you think he’ll figure you’ve shipped him off to West Point!?

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