Defend Truth


The Other News Round-Up: Food for Thought

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the left-of-centre news from South Africa and further afield. This week: food, glorious food. That is, if you actually know what it is.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that 7% of Americans believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

This is according to a nationally representative online survey commissioned by the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy, and extrapolated, it would mean that some 16.4-million milk drinkers are unaware that that chocolatey, sugary goodness does not squirt, in the style of liquid manna, from the udders of magical brown bovines. According to the survey, an even larger number – just shy of half – was simply unaware of where it came from.

It’s this kind of thing that makes me understand voting for Donald Trump. I’m not accusing anyone of stupidity. More like an exceptional optimism. In the land of Care Bears and chocolate cows, why wouldn’t an inexplicably brightly tinged man with plastic hair make your country great again? Heck, maybe if you squeeze him, he spouts orange juice.

All this lack of clarity makes me live in fear of US food, so on my more positive days I like to think of tougher border control as visitor protection. Maybe we’re all just being sheltered from horrors like Peanut Butter Fluff.

But it also makes me a little sad. Compatriots, if we as South Africans were to clear our throats and deliver a State of the Food Nation address, because that’s probably the one optimistic speech we could give honestly at the moment, there would be vetkoek and mampoer and homemade masala and mogodu and pap and bless her, if she is still around, the mielie lady. South Africans, I think, don’t always know what a good deal we still have. In the land of gatsbys and boerewors, homemade biltong and good, affordable wine, how could we possibly empathise with places where children don’t know a tomato from a potato? William Tell may have had a different challenge today: just get your kid to name the thing on his head. And if he can do it, please just go home and feed it to him.

A quiz conducted by two teenagers among their classmates abroad revealed the following: one thought a parsnip was ginger; another thought it was a “dehydrated carrot”. Another helpfully said a butternut was “a vegetable”; another thought it was an “awkward pumpkin”. One had absolutely no idea what a brussels sprout was. None of them could recognise beetroot, although one took a stab at it with “radish”, another guessed “onion” and another thought it was a “wild mushroom”. “I have never heard of it,” one said, sounding quite as astonished as if you’d told him Tony Gupta was eloping with Helen Zille.

What kind of foods do you eat?” one boy was asked.

Usually the ones that have calories,” he offered.

As one does, I suppose.

Many theories have been offered for this bizarre level of food ignorance, observed most often in the US and UK: from a gradual change in lifestyle, where convenience foods take precedence, to a lack of education about food and a deliberate obfuscation on the part of food suppliers. Not to mention a disconnect between human beings and the source of their food.

South Africans, it appears, are still dodging this bullet. Maybe it’s because many of us either visited the UK or know someone who did and innocently ordered black pudding, and vowed never again to be ignorant of what was being dished up. (What sick person would give something so vile such an innocuous name?) Or maybe we are still down-to-earth enough that we won’t trust anyone else to make our bobotie and bunny chows – even if they’re a celebrated chef, but certainly not if they’re mass-producing it, dehydrating it and putting it in a box. We lovingly dry our own biltong and pickle our own fish. Somebody’s granny always has a better recipe than Jamie Oliver’s. Auntie Frieda has been improving on whateveritis out of the Huisgenoot or the Kook en Geniet for donkey’s years. And for the love of Pete, don’t touch us on our boerewors or braai marinade and never try to turn someone else’s grid. The braaimaster will come for you.

More than one celebrity chef has fallen into this trap. I’m pretty sure that when Marco Pierre White stepped onto South African shores recently, he was taught a thing or two. Not the adoring gazes of the MasterChef home cooks, oh no. He was plunked down and politely fed an array of South African dishes. I don’t know who was holding the camera, but I could swear there was a moment of trepidation when the Michelin-starred chef pronounced the bunny chow, a little hesitantly, to be “quite spicy” and “a very big lunch”. Ja, Marco, don’t think you can come and tell us. You just keep chewing.

South Africa has been through a lot, and, Lord love us, it doesn’t look like it’s getting much easier. If the best jol we can look forward to is a TNA shindig that Nicki Minaj doesn’t pitch up for, it’s little wonder that we’re still feeling a little protective over our personal party dishes. But we’ve also, amazingly, managed to keep our love of food separate from the various conflicts and crises that have plagued us over the decades. Where homes have been destroyed, families separated, one thing that has kept heritages intact has been the passing down of beloved, evocative family favourites.

To this day, it’s something that remains, both tangibly and intangibly, within families, neighbourhoods, and is now being passed companiably to friendly strangers over the internet. “Try this,” someone will write. “My granny used to make it for us. It is my children’s favourite.” Ah, yes, food optimism. I do understand. When everything else goes to hell in a handbasket, at least there’s still that. Long may it last – well, that, and our ability to recognise the ingredients. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted