This is a somewhat roundabout way to get to a discussion about the potjie, the braai and the Gatsby, and the belief that they set South Africans apart.
An old friend whom I haven’t seen for a couple of decades once told me that I could never be a chef. This friend enjoyed the two or three dishes I had prepared over a week or so — one of which was for a dinner party of about 10 people — but, he said, I lacked consistency. He explained that people returned to restaurants for particular dishes and expected them to be the same every time. He was right, but I was not wrong.
The great thing about the preparation of food is its variability; changes and adaptations based on what is affordable, accessible, and on personal tastes. I hated cabbage when I was a prepubescent lad, especially when it was on sandwiches the next day, yet bobbejaan in kombers (cabbage roll) is one of my favourite dishes, and red cabbage is a delight in stir-fries and salads. The best cabbage rolls I have had were in the former Yugoslavia, in Romania, and in Bulgaria (in the home of a self-declared ethnic-Turkish family); the most surprising one — after believing for years that it was “a coloured thing” — was at Mi-Vami in Hillbrow in the early 1980s.
Food, and particular dishes, are sometimes presented as identity markers and cultural artefacts, and are considered by ethnic purists as the “property” of a people, as if identity, culture and ethnicity are all fixed. I say this knowing that it was my interest in Yiddish culture that first introduced me to Eastern European cabbage rolls. Nonetheless, I have difficulty accepting the belief that any culture (often a byword among more conservative people for race) owns particular dishes or that one group invented a certain dish, and that particular “culture” does it best.
I should add that I have no intention of telling people what their culture is or what it should be. It is laziness, expediency and intellectual desperation to make up cultures as you go along in an era when, for better or for worse, we are marked by the search for home and a sense of belonging. There are very few among us who do not feel a sense of belonging when the smell of freshly baked bread wafts across a room.
The fallacy of food as ethnic property
Food has become, or perhaps always has been, a marker of ethnic or racial stereotyping and expedience, while particular dishes are presented with cultural pride. The idea of a French cuisine gets slipped unconsciously into discussions of food. There are, of course, unique aspects of French cuisine that may be admirable, but the social and political-economic transition from the mediaeval era, through feudalism and into the modern era is much more interesting.
For what it’s worth, there is probably a rich history of imperial Rome’s influence on early French cuisine, which has been reproduced in the modern era. I should add that I know nothing specific about the Roman Empire’s culinary traditions. However, when I read about the greed and gluttony among contemporary elites, the Bacchanalia festivities of the Greco-Roman era come to mind.
We persist, though, and insist on racial, ethnic or cultural supremacy. In Al-Quds, a settler, formerly from Cape Town, once told me that “Israeli hummus” was “the best”. I have heard the same claims in Greece as I have in any of the Arab restaurants and cafes down Edgeware Road in London. The Moroccans and Tunisians would have us believe they make the best couscous dishes. The best couscous I have had was in Spain. It’s hard to keep up.
In East London, someone explained how skop (sheep’s head) was “a Xhosa tradition”. I have also seen it served in Jozini. And in Reykjavik, I saw sheep’s head blister-packed and sold “to go” in a shop in a bus terminal. When I was growing up, sheep’s meat was referred to as mutton. In Mogadishu, goat’s meat was called “mutton”. I always imagined that the offal we ate when I was growing up, especially tripe, was unique to “us coloureds” until I learnt about mogodu (tripe in the Eastern Cape) and trippa con fagioli (tripe and beans), and fried tripe in northern Italy.
All of this notwithstanding, and for as long as one cares to remember, foods have been defined culturally with an attendant sense of pride, exclusivity and exception. This may not be entirely benign. At the extremes, social control is exercised through food by religion. It is, significantly, also an indicator of class, of privilege, poverty and wealth.
My curiosity about food, aside from cooking as my main source of relaxation, is how the roles of food preparation, distribution and consumption are determined. During early adulthood I became interested in the value of communal eating. When I considered, very briefly, the idea of writing a history of the restaurant, I had a theory that it originated in communal eating. It turns out communal eating is also not universally benign. One especially disturbing recent event was when I was told to move to a different table before a meal, because men and women should eat separately.
Food and racial, ethnic and cultural determinism
I have been reading a book about coloured people in South Africa. I am insufficiently qualified to review the book, formally, and (never mind my writing on the subject) I have no interest in coloured politics, the politics of coloured people, and least of all in cultural determination or stereotyping. The whole idea that “you are what you eat” is just nonsense. If that were true I should be a lentil. But seriously, I should stress, again, that I have no desire to tell people what their culture is or what it should be.
Over the coming week, South Africans will celebrate Heritage Day. The braai is one of the artefacts of Heritage Day, another is the potjie. I have two instinctive reactions to the potjie. The first, like the braai, is that it is one time when men show that they can cook. The other is that there really is very little culinary skill in throwing things into a pot and letting it cook. Yes, I know that there are some skills involved. I simply don’t have these, nor do I see them.
I am inclined to believe that there is nothing particularly South African about cooking food in a cast iron or any other type of pot over an open fire. Nor is the braai unique to South Africa. If anything, the braai is simply a throwback to a time when meat was cooked on open fires around the world. The Gatsby that is so revered by people on the Cape Flats is nothing new or unique. I have had a chip barm on the Anfield Road which was as good as any Gatsby and, well, slapping chips and stuff on bread is as old as bread itself. I’ve had a most delicious sandwich in Naples that tired me for hours. So we can forget the idea that the braai, the Gatsby or the potjie are unique to specific groups in South Africa, or that black people have a cultural monopoly on eating offal or sheep’s head.
As it happens, I have never had a potjie (though I have slow-cooked oxtail over six hours, and I have some venison in the freezer for what I hope will be a killer ossobuco). I may be prodding a bear/tiger, but a potjie, Gatsby, or a braai does not make anyone more South African.
Location, location, location — and food
Travelling across Central and South America, and in countries across east and Southeast Asia (sadly, I spent almost my entire visit to India in hotel rooms and meetings), I learnt that you can travel from one village to the next and the “same” dish will be prepared and served differently. I experienced this in Colombia, where the “same” dish was prepared with a few different ingredients in Armenia and Barranquilla. The same goes for rendang, my favourite dish after the Brazilian feijoada — and without some of the nasty bits that are sometimes included.
Rendang, ostensibly a Southeast Asian dish, is prepared differently in Borneo, Sumatra or peninsular Malaysia — almost always depending on the local availability of ingredients. There is a version made with oysters (which I am not crazy about), but the one made with beef stands out. This does not mean that there are not specific communities across thousands of islands in Southeast Asia who will not claim that rendang is a sure marker of their culture or heritage. For instance, the Minangkabau, a massive matrilineal people across Southeast Asia, do indeed claim that rendang is part of their heritage.
About that claim that you are what you eat, I am probably an ethnic, cultural or racial tempest. It’s difficult being a cultural stereotype, never mind what identity merchants want to have us believe. We can enjoy a potjie or a Gatsby or a biryani without signing up to the ugly version of identity politics. While all of this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I do seriously believe that industrialised food production (the McDonald’s or Velveetas of the world) is culinary assault, and if I were king, I would ban it. DM