April 11, 2011
Judging from the responses we got to this month’s Inviting Writing query, “what was the most memorable meal of your life,” many people’s most memorable meals were memorably awful. The experiences may have been unpleasant at the time, but they make for good stories later.
Today’s essay comes from Erich Hugo, who is now a digital strategist and digital service designer living in Stockholm, Sweden. But in 1992, he was a soldier in South Africa. He explains the circumstances: “Military service in South Africa during apartheid years was mandatory for all white males over 18 to fight the supposed U.S.S.R. and Communist danger. I served for little more than a year before the democratic elections. But by that time, the illusion of apartheid was shattered and the army was nothing more than a mechanical institution of a dying political system. We were not motivated soldiers, just kids biding our time.”
The Joy of Cooking Dried Eggs
by Erich Hugo
When writing about food and the pleasure of eating, it is easy to get carried away in the culinary halls of thought where sweet smells and musty aromas bring Rome and Paris to mind. My story is a little different.
It was in the final days of apartheid South Africa, and I was one of the last of the white male military intakes. Just because apartheid was falling to pieces did not mean the military training was any less arduous or our young instructors any less brutal. I was selected to become an officer, which made the training even worse, because one had to stay sharp mentally as well as physically.
During the end game of our training, we had to go into the bush and spend a dozen days living off the land. We were given seven rations (seven days’ worth) of ratpacks [contents listed below, none of them fresh] to last us the 12 days, which meant that we would inevitably run out of food and really live off the land.
One might believe that South Africa is a warm country, but this was midwinter in the desert and the temperatures were often below freezing at night. It was so cold that five soldiers would crawl into a two-man tent just to keep warm. And in the mornings we would stand in front of the diesel generator’s exhaust stream, putting our hands and fingers out, just to get warm. I guess we shortened our lives considerably that way.
By day nine we had all run out of food and that, combined with marching between 15 and 20 kilometers during the day, made us hallucinate with hunger. Some intrepid chaps caught some snakes and scavenged some duck eggs—a meal for a king, I jest thee not. I had never thought that ingesting such foreign food would induce such gratifying pleasure.
Then, on day 12, one of the officers in charge took pity on us and we got an extra ratpack. The meal was a king’s feast, better than anything from the finest restaurants in Paris or New York, from the “Just Add Water Eggs” to the tinned food and the rum and raisin energy bars.
Contents of a typical ratpack:
2 tins of preserved food, usually fish in curry, bully beef, Vienna sausages (hot dogs for Americans) in tomato sauce, or beans in tomato sauce
2 packages of crackers
Instant porridge (malt)
2 energy bars of the highly artificial variety
Powdered soup (chicken broth, minestrone or beef)
Powdered cool drinks
1 roll of candy loaded with Vitamin C
2 cheese tubes
Coffee and tea
July 23, 2010
The bowl was proudly passed around the living room like candy, obviously intended as a treat for the visiting Americans. My new South African relatives each picked up a bite-sized flake of something reddish-brown, savoring it on their tongue with a sigh.
Chocolate? Dried fruit? I ruled out those options as I got a closer look. No, more like bacon, or…
“Is this jerky?” I asked. Eyebrows shot up as if I’d said something a bit rude.
“No, no. Much better. It’s biltong. It’s a special kind of dried meat,” someone offered. “You must try it.”
Tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to, I thought to myself. Sounds like jerky to me. (Biltong, I learned later, is made from strips of rump meat and literally translates from Dutch to English as to “butt tongue.” Kinda glad I didn’t know that.)
I hadn’t eaten anything resembling jerky since stumbling into a decade of vegetarianism in my late teen years, perhaps to atone for the disturbing number of Slim Jims I consumed in junior high. (Now, those chewy, cylindrical snacks strike me as eerily similar to certain treats in the pet-food aisle.)
But these dear people had invited us into their homes—and their lives—in Cape Town, because of my brother’s marriage. The least I could do is be grateful for whatever they fed us. And the braai they greeted us with had been delicious!
The texture was tough, but not as shoe-leather-like as I expected—I could tear it with my fingers. It tasted salty and rich with umami flavor. Maybe they were right; this wasn’t the stuff of American gas-station gastronomy and vending machines. More like charcuterie than jerky, in fact.
I wished I could say that to the family member who had brought the homemade biltong, but he is deaf and lip-reads only Afrikaans, which I don’t speak. So I simply gave a thumbs-up and reached for seconds. He grinned and rubbed his belly, nodding.
For more about different types of jerky—pardon me, dried meat—around the world, such as Chinese bakkwa, read this interesting piece by Oyster Food and Culture blogger LouAnn.
July 20, 2010
I spent last week in and around Cape Town, South Africa, traveling with my mom to attend my brother’s wedding. All we knew ahead of time about South African cuisine was that they love a good cookout, and sure enough, our first meal there turned out to be a braai (Afrikaans for “roasted meat,” though like “barbecue,” the word is used to describe the event as well as the food itself) at the home of my brother’s new in-laws.
They seemed surprised that I was so impressed by the wood-fired brick oven built into their outdoor patio—apparently those are about as ubiquitous in South Africa as backyard gas grills are in America. There, as here, the grill tends to be literally manned, while the kitchen is women’s turf (at least in the homes I visited). On that particular Sunday afternoon, a guy named Willem was the chef d’jour.
See the boxy metal container inside the grill in this photo? That’s where Willem stoked a wood fire for at least an hour while the meat marinated. From time to time, he shook the container so that hot embers fell out and could be raked into a layer under the rest of the grill, creating a low, even source of heat.
“A good braai can take all day. It’s not just a meal, it’s an occasion, a time to get together and talk and relax outside,” he explained as my stomach rumbled. Finally, he brought out the meat, starting with a long rope of boerewors (sausage) which he coiled inside a clamshell-style metal grilling basket.
When I asked what was in it, he shrugged.
“I don’t know, just minced meat. Boer means farmers, and wors means sausage,” he explained.
“So….it’s made of minced farmers?” I responded, generating a round of startled laughter.
Next up were chicken sosaties, or what I would call kebabs, one batch marinated in mustard and yogurt and the next in a sticky-sweet barbecue glaze. Then came lamb chops, and finally, some three hours after it all started, the food was ready to eat.
I don’t usually eat much meat, but when traveling, my mantra is “be open,” which extends to both mind and mouth. Besides, I was ravenous! So I dug in, following the lead of others. We ate the meat with our hands, dipping pieces of wors in a sweet curry sauce, picking up the lamb chops like sandwiches, and plucking bites of wonderfully tender chicken off the skewers. For side dishes, there was also mealie pap, a kind of corn porridge served with tomato and onion sauce, and a salad replete with chunks of avocado (or just avo, as they call it).
Pretty tasty, but if I were braai-ing, I’d love to try some vegetables and fish, or even a pizza…
July 27, 2009
Perhaps no world leader’s eating habits have been more scrutinized than Barack Obama’s. The guy can’t bring home a bag of burgers without making the evening news.
But imagine having an entire book written about what you ate throughout your life. That’s what food writer Anna Trapido has done with Hunger for Freedom: the Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela.
At first, it sounds a little odd to write about something as seemingly trivial as food in relation to a hero and Nobel Laureate such as Mandela, who spent years as a political prisoner for fighting against apartheid in South Africa. But, as Trapido explains, “We all reveal our most elementary social, economic and emotional truths in the ways that we cook, eat and serve food. So why not ask those who changed the world what they were eating while they did it?”
Trapido’s “gastro-political biography” traces Mandela’s life, starting with early reminiscences about the simple foods of his Mvezo birthplace, such as the corn porridge called umphokoqo. She explores how apartheid and racial discrimination was manifested in what South African blacks ate. ”In the 1950s,” she writes, “parties given by anti-apartheid activists saw drinks served in very short tots so as to ensure that if the police raided the event black people would not be found engaged in the illegal act of consuming alcohol…. The racially discriminatory food conditions for prisoners on Robben Island and the prisoners’ fights to improve their diet mirrored those of their broader struggle.”
The book includes recipes, such as for the chicken curry smuggled in to Mandela in prison, where blacks were given smaller and lower-quality rations than prisoners of other colors. There are also happier dishes, such as the hearty casserole that was the first meal Mandela ate as a free man, after he was released from prison in 1990, and the sweet koeksisters, an Afrikaans cake, served to him in reconciliation by the widow of one of the architects of apartheid.
Trapido writes, “Mandela media coverage has a somewhat saccharine tendency to deify South Africa’s most famous son. Asking what he had for lunch restores humanity to a living legend.”
It makes me wonder, what other contemporary or historical figures are deserving of a gastro-biography? Any suggestions?