A wobbly but sincere ode to my grandmother

This article was adapted from a talk that chef and food writer Khanya Mzongwana delivered at the 2016 Street Food Festival in Jo’burg.

Recently, I took part in an amazing project which is now known as The Great South African Cookbook, where culinary artists from all walks of life (butchers, farmers, restauranteurs, professional chefs, home cooks and the like) were all asked to contribute some down to earth recipes that really spoke to their personal journeys with food. I was asked to submit something I grew up eating a lot of. So, I cooked chicken. Because nobody in this world ate more chicken than my family. We had set days to eat it, and we rarely ever saw any red meat in the freezer. And if we did, it was only prepared on special occasions, like… When we ran out of chicken. But somehow, I never grew tired of it. I cherish my food memories. There were and are still so many wonderful ways to honour it and to enjoy it. But, this is not a talk about chicken. This is a personal glimpse into the complex but beautiful relationship we as South Africans, and more particularly my family has with food.

I grew up in a not-necessarily-well-to-do-but-slightly-above-average working class home in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, a household where everyone who was old enough and able-bodied did their part to put food on the table, and a household where there was never really a massive abundance of anything. We had a strict but astute grandmother who kept a glass jar of fermented porridge under the sink and “issued out” bread for us in the mornings. So there was no casually reaching into the fridge to grab a can of Coke or a tub of ice cream. Habits my brother and I had grown accustomed to having recently moved out of our cosy flat which we shared with our mom. My gran disagreed with my mother’s liberal take on food and, like many grannies, made a valiant effort to buy the cheapest version she could find of EVERYTHING. She believed food was meant to be enjoyed, truly enjoyed, mainly on special occasions, like Christmas and… Christmas. But in the refuge of her bedroom she enjoyed the odd chocolate, glass of wine and a bit of cheese on the sly which she’d share on the rarest occasions.

My grandmother’s strange secret relationship with food shaped how we all related with food at home – I grew up to be a pretty lavish eater, forking out crazy amounts on inane things like my favourite brand of smoked paprika and expensive, smelly cheese. I suppose I’m still retaliating against my gran’s thrifty ways, while my mother and her sisters have all managed to keep relatively slim waistlines and watch how much they eat, in fact they’ve all developed an enviable detachment to the act of eating. All in all, whether we care to admit it or not, growing up with my grandmother’s constant hawk-like gaze on what we put on our plates has left our relationship with food and the way we eat somewhat strained.

Meat has always played the lead in the average South African home, and our home wasn’t any different. I think we can all relate to the usual accompaniments to whatever meat took up a third of our plate space at dinner time – Tastic rice coloured bright yellow with turmeric and frozen mixed veg, pickled beetroot which reddened everything in its wake, crispy deep fried potatoes, mashed butternut flavoured with cinnamon, copious amounts of margarine and sugar when nobody was looking, and my favourite, fried cabbage seasoned with Aromat. This is how an ordinary weekday plate looked at home. And I loved it! There was no hashtag to honour our meals. Our food was not dressed up or sexy, but it was wholesome. There were no airs and graces, it simply was what it was. We got our five-a-day in, and it was satisfying. And the best meal of the day. We weren’t worried about our MSG intake or that margarine is essentially the same thing as plastic, we were just happy to come home from a long day of hating school and failing tests, to something comforting and REAL.

We as South Africans, especially as poor or working class Black South Africans occupying the various townships around the country, have found many ways of coping with how harsh and downright shitty the world has been to us and, against all odds, found our own individuality and ways of expressing flavour in food, and bringing out the best we can in the little we have to help make it that much more satisfying and comforting. Food, much like music, has and continues to be refuge for us all. The vibrant food culture we all get to enjoy here in South Africa is essentially built on tough times, and for some, extreme hardship. And really that’s kind of an optimistic view, if we’re honest here.

We generally have a serious class distinction where food is concerned in this country, which I feel is caused by so many massive elements such as poverty, obviously, and apartheid and the Land Act of 1913 removing tens of thousands of Black people away from good, farmable land and into congested spaces that made subsistence farming nearly impossible. This tragedy caused the tradition of farming and eating natural foods to dissipate with the subsequent introduction of “convenience foods” coming into play in the average Black household.

This massive shift in Black food culture eventually gave way to the “7 colours” way of eating we’ve grown fond of in the townships. A sweet, salty and spicy mixture of vegetable preparations featuring preserved foods and sauces like tinned baked beans, tinned tuna, mayonnaise and chakalaka found its place in our diets, with a huge spike in meat and sugar consumption. We didn’t always eat like this.

Of course, I speak as someone who grew up in post-apartheid SA, under the guise of the rainbow nation and what have you. I’m currently in the process of learning about just how deep my culinary ancestry goes. I wasn’t lucky enough to ever experience rural Eastern Cape life, so my grandmother is the oldest reference point I have. In spite of some of her seemingly not okay habits with food, she taught us a lot about the healing and comforting effect food has on people. Whenever there was a death in the community, my gran would calmly assemble the ingredients to bake a batch of scones big enough to feed every family in our street. When a neighbour dropped by for a visit, she’d quickly chase us into the kitchen to fix a cup of tea and something to eat for the esteemed guest. On any occasion deemed special enough for a feast, my gran would whip up her famously delicious meatballs which were always the first thing to disappear from the table and demand that every one of us prepare a dish to present to the family, like a pot luck. There was no escaping learning how to cook.

Our grandmother taught us that no matter what you believed your big, bad role in society to be, cooking is a means of survival, not just a woman’s job. And we would ALL learn to do it, properly. We were taught various methods of saving food, like fermenting and pickling. My granny hated waste. I’d sometimes catch her peeking into the dustbin to make sure we hadn’t thrown out something somebody else could’ve eaten. And if we did, we wouldn’t hear the end of it. We all went out into the world armed with the timeless views my grandmother held about food. That it’s for sharing, and that no matter how little you have, you will always have enough. Food for my gran was a source of pride – it was unheard of to leave the Haya household without a full stomach and a happy heart. And no matter what crappy brand she defiantly bought at the expense of our coolness, we never, ever skipped a meal.

Photograph of Khanya by Nicole Olwagen.

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