I have never been a great fan of the “go travelling to find yourself” brigade. The way I see it, it you can’t find yourself in your hometown, surrounded by the people who made you who you are, why would you find yourself in Bali? That said, living abroad for an extended period of time is an intriguing experience. Fabulous in many ways, hard in many ways, but definitely intriguing. For one thing, you open yourself up to new experiences and broaden your horizon, sometimes without even knowing it, and it’s only when you spend time back in your hometown or with friends from home that you realise that you have changed in subtle ways.
For me, obviously, the greatest broadening of horizons has been in terms of food. As I have said before, a well-known store in my hometown used to sell bok choi labelled as savoy cabbage and nobody was any the wiser. And then you come over to the UK and learn the difference and you have a giggle at how provincial things were (I must stress that the shop in question no longer does this!!). Or you go out to dinner at a restaurant back home and service which you found perfectly adequate before, now seems annoying and amateurish. Or you roll your eyes in horror at the thought of serving traditional Afrikaner boerekos (literally, farmer’s food) at a fancy dinner party and serve up a truffle risotto with caprese on the side, and a chocolate fondant pudding instead.
But the other side of the coin is that you eventually start feeling rootless. You are surrounded by people who are not your countrymen, who don’t speak the language you spoke as a child, who can’t understand your jokes and recoil in horror when you mention that you love eating dried raw beef (biltong). Mostly, this doesn’t bother me. There’s still a certain romance attached to the concept of being a “citizen of the world” and it is a liberating feeling to know that you can live anywhere you choose to, not only where your birth determines.
But lately I have been pondering the question of roots more and more. Last year we attended a (yet-to-be-blogged!) wedding in Mexico and I remember watching some of the guests at the afterparty the following day at the bride’s house. The people I was watching were largely the middle-aged friends of the bride’s parents – men wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots without a trace of irony, women helping to make mole and tortillas in the kitchen to the same recipe as their great-grandmothers, and everyone singing along with gusto to all the traditional songs that the mariachi band played. They seemed to me so rooted in their country and culture, and so sure of their place in the world – and so proud of it all. Nobody thought the mariachi songs were uncool, or contemplated serving anything other than traditional Mexican food, and I felt an enormous wave of envy wash over me.
In South Africa (as well as in this country) there is a tendency to look down on traditional food, music and passtimes. Morris dancing? A standing joke – rather like jukskei in South Africa. And your average urban dweller has also relegated things like sokkiejol, boeremusiek, lang-arm and boeresport to the dark cupboard under the stairs reserved for the terminally uncool. And sadly, the same goes for much of the food that used to be the staple diet of many an Afrikaans family. (The notable exceptions are of course the braai and the potjiekos!). South Africans are such an outward-looking nation and are always eager to adopt whatever looks exotic from abroad, but this means we are forgetting the foods we grew up with. How many people under the age of 30 do you know who have actually made their own souskluitjies? Or (in this country) Bakewell pudding (present company of food bloggers excluded…)?
These are the thoughts that went through my mind on Sunday when we were invited round to Donald’s place for a late lunch. Forget the “Three Tenors” – our hosts were to be “The Three Tannies” – that is to say Christelle’s mom Tannie Joan (far right) and her two aunts, Tannie Vonkie (middle) and Tannie Naomi (far left). (Tannie is a wonderful Afrikaans word, literally translated as “Aunty”, which can be used to address every older woman, even ones that aren’t your aunt. It’s less formal than Mrs So-and-so, but more respectful than using their first names.) But a tannie is also a very particular type of Afrikaans woman: of a certain age, adept at cooking and sewing, and great at clucking over family and friends like a mother hen. Exactly the kind of person that you’d want to have inviting you to Sunday lunch then!
The Tannies promised proper boerekos and my goodness, that’s what we got. In Afrikaans, there is an expression, or rather a phrase, to list all the things you should traditionally find on a plate of boerekos, namely: “vleis, rys, aartappels en pampoen” (meat, rice, potatoes and pumpkin). And although this is more a figure of speech than an exhaustive list, indicating that there must be meat, starch (lots of!) and vegetables, the tannies took it literally. After much talking and laughing in the the kitchen, savouring the delicious smells wafting through the house, with Tannie Joan on meat detail, Tannie Naomi on vegetable detail and Tannie Vonkie on washing-up detail, lunch was finally served. Each plate included roast chicken, roast leg of lamb, fluffy white rice to soak up the lamb gravy, crispy roast potatoes, pumpkin fritters with a sweet syrup, and boereboontjies (crushed green beans). There were no foams, granitas, tians or cappuccinos; there was no fancy plating with drizzles of balsamic reduction; there were no clever combinations of texture or fusion foods. But sitting in the lounge and eating my boerekos off my lap, surrounded by these lovely Tannies and their bubbling laughter, I had one of the most deeply satisfying meals I have had in years. On that plate were the echoes of an entire childhood of Sunday lunches, the loving touch of a thousand Afrikaans mothers just like mine, and the taste of home. One mouthful is all it took to find myself – and I find myself undeniably, irrevocably South African. Thank you Tannie Joan, Tannie Naomi and Tannie Vonkie.
“If we do not honour our past, we lose our future; if we destroy our roots we cannot grow.” (Friedensreich Hundertwasser)