Merry Mid-Summer Christmas

Writing 101, Day Ten: Be inspired by a favorite childhood meal.

It’s not very trendy to admit, but growing up, food wasn’t really a big deal. I mean, that’s a good thing in world terms; it means we weren’t missing it. But it wasn’t until I met my husband that I became a foodie. And in all honesty, even now I’m only a foodie by association.  I struck it lucky Big Time by marrying a foodie. Our minister’s wife is also a foodie, and her husband and I often congratulate ourselves on our cleverness in getting caught between competitive foodies in our all homemade, all homegrown dinner get-togethers.

But as I was saying, it wasn’t always thus. Which is not to say we didn’t eat food, or enjoy it, or that my mother and all the aunties were not good cooks (I grew up in a patriarchal culture, and cooking was a woman’s job), because there was certainly food, good food and plenty of it when the family got together, and we did that a lot. I just didn’t pay it the attention it deserved. In part, precisely because of the chauvinist connotations, of which I was acutely aware before I ever knew the word, owing mostly, I believe, to the fact that “female” chores clearly outnumbered the “male” chores at least 10-1, and that the burden of these girl jobs fell to me, being the lone daughter, while the gardening and other boy jobs were spread nicely across 3 brothers. If my parents had wanted me to buy into the patriarchy, they should definitely have considered how it was sold to the overdeveloped sense of fairness of a child.

But anyway, my parents both came from sizeable families, so that made for large and frequent family gatherings, at which, as I was saying, there was always food and eating. It was mostly pretty standard type European food; roasts and veg, but also featured was the braai (barbeque), which was favoured by the women, since braaivleis cooking was a man’s work. Well, when I say man’s work, as anyone familiar with the worldwide institution of the barbeque knows, women make the salads, the breads, the puddings, set the tables and clear away, while the men get bragging rights for how hard they have toiled, and the women quietly roll their eyes and smile indulgently.

But everyone enjoyed a good braai. I have many memories of tearing about gardens with cousins, the smoke and heat of the braai blending with the roasting African sun while the men huddled around the skottel, fueled and cooled by beer alone, waiting for the coals to reach the exact cooking temperature to produce the perfect boerewors (sausage), which was clearly a science well beyond the ken of women.

One of the times of year we’d have a braai for sure was Christmas, especially every second Christmas when we’d spend the season with my dad’s side of the family; the German side, although they weren’t strictly pure blood Germans, but we’d observe German Christmas traditions, including opening gifts on Christmas Eve (sweet as, opening presents a night early!). The real magic for me, besides – and maybe even equal to – getting at the presents, was the giant tree, lit with candles, in my aunt and uncle’s lounge, so big it brushed the high ceilings. In our home in town, we’d manage a small to middling tree, but out on the farm where my cousins lived, we had a Real Christmas Tree, just like one from a story book.

There would be a full house that night, as our family, with the four of us kids, had come to stay for a few glorious days of farm freedom with my aunt and uncle and their three kids; the twins and their little brother, along with our bird-like granny, who was fit as a fiddle but unknowable and prone to snapping at small children. We posthumously diagnosed her with autism.

Dinner would be unnecessarily prolonged, as far as I was concerned, and consisting of roast meat and potatoes, and completely unwelcome vegetables, of a type and prepared in a fashion both unfamiliar and objectionable to my fussy self. (How my tastebuds have developed since then with regards to veg!)

Eventually dinner would end, and there would be songs, sung at the foot of the magical tree, some of them in German, so that I moved my lips vaguely to the tune and attempted to look knowing. Finally, gifts would be dispensed to the eager hands of children; the enchantment of wrapping and ribbons never surpassed by their actual contents, or so I remember it. At some point beyond that I suppose we were herded into bed. It didn’t matter; when we woke up there would be the big garden with the towering metal windmill in the middle, and the sugar cane fields and pine forest outside to reconnoitre – unadulterated liberty for town kids – and the braai; the smoke, the sun, the bean sprouts to avoid.

 

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Writing 101, Day Eight: Death to Adverbs

I was the first to arrive at the cafe. Not just of our group, but of anyone, it seemed. There was a car parked out front, which I had pulled in beside, but otherwise there was no sign of life, besides a lone chicken which wandered over, and then wished it hadn’t, as the Burglar proceeded to haunt its steps.

I rattled the closed door with it’s fat round handle set low in the middle of the door like a hobbit’s, but it was locked, despite the the “come on in, we’re open” sign nailed to the doorframe. Peering through the door’s coloured glass panes, I couldn’t detect any movement, though I could see down to the kitchen, where a commercial fridge stacked with cold drinks faced the long passage. The interior was darkened and unpromising. Looking at the deck on which I stood, I felt even less confidence. There was an old and uninviting wicker loveseat propped against the railing, against which an aged painted sign was discarded. But there was a new-looking flag pronouncing the presence of a cafe standing to attention outside the gate.

I stepped back, looking around and biting my lip. I vaguely remembered, now that I was here, having a similar dilemma the last time I’d stopped by. But I couldn’t leave without consulting with my girlfriends, and they were running late.

I went back down the old and uneven steps and planted myself in the short red brick path in front of the cottage. Emmie was still pursuing the fat chicken, who seemed happy enough to have the attention, though she  was playing hard to get. There was still just the one hen; a bit of hide and seek probably relieved her boredom.

The gardens were somewhat overgrown, but they’d always been pleasantly so, in an English country garden way. I’m sure if I knew more about garden plants, I’d have been able to pick out older, now uncommon species. Even now, in the middle of winter, there were some blowsy, old-fashioned looking blooms among the leaves. The cottage itself was small, it was hard to believe that for the settlers whose homestead this had been, this was a luxury property. Owners over the years had done their best to keep most of the original features of the house, while converting it to a cafe, and had managed to retain the secluded feeling of the place, even as it had been encircled by suburbia.

Finally I heard the crunch of tyres on the long gravel drive, and the sound of an individual car broke away from the general hum. It was Marie, one of the buddies I was meeting. She’d busied herself at the back of her hatchback by the time I strolled over.

“I’m not sure anybody’s here,” I said, as we hugged.

She looked up at the flag, making its promises to the breeze, and gathered her parcels up under her arms, stylish as ever in her boots and snug black pants, blonde fringe flipping forward over her dark glasses as we picked our tentative way back to the door over the gravel in our heels.

“Do they have their hours anywhere?” she asked, going through similar motions to those I had performed 5 minutes earlier. Of course, she managed to notice the opening hours writ small at the bottom of the chalked sign on the deck beside the door, which I had missed.

“10-4,” I said, “Right…”

I pulled a wry face. Marie grinned, and we followed Emmie and the chicken round the verandah to the back, where tables and chairs were set up on the grass. Still no sign of life or movement, but it was a more promising place to wait for the others, while Emmie spied a sandpit and playhouse and toddled off to investigate. A hoard of pukekos were in residence in the adjacent orchard, but for a change they kept their distance.

Marie and I hovered beside an empty table, making small talk until the rest of our party eventually arrived; Isabelle, tall and trim, not looking at all like the mother of 3 large boys, and Niamh, a bundle of energy in a flowing bohemian top, red hair bouncing  in tandem with her personality, tousled little nephew in tow. (Later that morning the nephew would mug Emmie, whose first experience of hair-pulling and being sat on it would be, but still later they would explore the playhouses together, with the nephew repeating to himself “I’m being gentle”…)

By this time 10am had arrived, and since we felt there was a promise of coffee close at hand, Marie, by going round the back, established that there was, in fact, life in the kitchens, though with the qualifier that the manager had not arrived and they were not certain when they would open. This was a little unorthodox, but I feel one must take the good with the more amusing when it comes to the relaxed nature of life in New Zealand.

In any case, the kitchen opened shortly afterwards, with the young manager issuing from the building, waving and distributing menus and instructions for ordering, and we had a very pleasant morning tea in the thin winter sun.

 

 For Writing 101, Day Eight: Death to Adverbs

Can you spot any adverbs (you shouldn’t be able to, but one, or more, may have snuck past me)?

The View Down Here

the farm

Writing 101, Day 2: A Room with a View (Or Just a View)

There are places in diverse parts of the world that have grabbed and pulled out parts of my soul from the dusty bottom drawers of my being, to be scrubbed and hung out in the wind to dry, sparkling white, in the sun. They haven’t been particularly sensational or impressive places, but they’re places that have lodged memories in my head – the kind of memory you keep in a box tied with string, a box that may gather dust in the attic, but every so often, you blow the dust off and rummage around inside, re-examining mementos, sights and smells and emotions returning with the touch of them.

There is a place, not far from where I live, that has been an oasis for my hectic little family, you might even say a life raft to sanity. It’s just a farm, or it was before it was sold and subdivided for lifestyle blocks. When we first started going there, we were all shell shocked by life, but my husband was (and is) convinced that being in touch with the land, harvesting food from it, being on it, is essential for mental health and healing. He’d used his theory with a lot of success with clients, and the opportunity to control the pest population on this farm meant that not only would rabbits and hares hunted on the farm would go into the pot at home as free meat (and be saved a slow death by poison), but the time spent on the land would be as therapeutic, if not more so, than hours having heads shrunk by psychologists. That was the theory, and so it was. Though the farm was eventually sold, over the approximately 2 years we had access to it, we glued our loose and broken bits together to form a functioning unit.

When I said it was just a farm, I may have been slightly misleading. It was a farm, but it was extraordinarily beautiful. The landscape varied from sheep-grazed grassy slopes to broad vistas across the city and coast, to dense native bush cutting steeply down into gullies which would have taken considerable effort to access.

One of those gullies, less sheer than some of the others, had a path leading through it, starting deceptively evenly, then descending into a church of trees, down to the font of the stream in the nave. The sun would, depending on the time of day, scatter the treetops with its brightness, until we settled down further into the embrace of the ravine, where the sun never touched bottom, the well was too deep. There slender trees rose silently over our heads, their feet in the loam, serene as transcended spirits. Small birds, like sprites, flickered close around us, briefly fascinated by our intrusion. Leaf matter, the detritus of years of shedding, covered the ground, rustling with our footfalls, dampening the echo of voices, though I never liked to be loud in that space; it seemed impious. The sides of the valley, grown with tree ferns, rose up, high and steep, from the ravine floor, where a stream shushed an eternal path beneath the roots of brackeny ferns. Though it accompanied the path as long as it stayed on the valley floor, the stream wasn’t easy to see. It had dug itself into the earth, the koura and slow fish living virtually subterranean lives in its lithe serpentine belly.

We’d follow the path to its conclusion, and then stop and have our lunch, hovering over damp ground while we ate, before turning to head back, descending from sublimity, ascending to mundanity.

 

PS. During the time we were going there, the place pulled a poem out of me, published here.