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.