An Archive of Food

 

A few weeks ago I was meant to be on a road trip, doing research with colleagues from the University of Pretoria, and the USA and Denmark, around the theme of Food as Heritage & Archive. Due to COVID-19 our trip has been postponed indefinitely.

Preparations for the trip stirred up many memories, though, since food is so intimately wrapped up in my sense of community – memories of celebrations and funerals where everyone would rally together in support of their neighbour, bringing a plate of something or offering to cook a pot of food. After the gathering everyone would leave with a barakat, or blessing, in the form of a plate of leftovers. Traditions such as these hark back to a time when the enslaved would come together, bringing what little they had to share with one another. Later, during apartheid, celebrations with laden tables were also a way of demonstrating respectability in a society where people had little control over anything outside the domestic sphere.

One of our aims with this project is to look at the food practices that transcend lines of language, religion and economic status. This immediately got me thinking about a dish that seems to embody the history and heritage of the Cape – a uniquely South African dish – the pickled fish, or ingelegde vis, that my grandmothers, one Muslim and the other Christian, would make every Easter. Explanations for the origin of the dish abound, but it seems to have originated in the Cape during colonial times.

Pickling as a way of preserving the fish, possibly came from the Dutch tradition of pickling herring, and would have been enhanced by liberal additions of spices by the enslaved cooks at the Cape. My grandmothers would start the process the week before Good Friday. There would be no fishing boats going out over the Easter weekend so the fish would have had to be bought in advance, either directly off the boats in Kalk Bay harbour or from the fish market on the corner of Hanover and Clifton Street. I remember the merchant, with horse and cart, who hawked his wares through the neighbourhood, blowing his horn to alert our mothers and grandmothers.

The best fish to use was geelbek, kabeljou or yellow tail. Making the dish in advance meant that the fish was able to absorb the turmeric, cloves, chilli and all spice. Enough fish was pickled to last all weekend. This freed up time for my maternal grandmother to spend three hours in church on Good Friday, since she didn’t have to cook. Muslim families would take advantage of the time off to go on picnics, to visit kramats, with an ample supply of padkos (road food) since there would be nowhere to stop and eat along the way since restaurants would have been limited to those catering for “whites only”.

The rituals around food preparation and the coming together to share it, are examples of the everyday practices of what it means to be human, in spite of living through oppression. In the absence of recorded history, they offer alternative ways of remembering how people survived, in the same way that photographs, storytelling and music does.

This year, Easter falls at the beginning of the third week of a national lock down in South Africa, but I do know that mom (whose pickled fish is the featured image) and my friend, Jen (who sent me the three photographs above) have both been making pickled fish, using the recipes that their mothers and grandmothers handed down. I’m sure many others across the country have managed to do the same and, while I might be missing out on actually eating it, I feel part of the virtual community who is sharing in the tradition.

PHOTOGRAPHS: Reza Kamies and Jennifer Hardisty

At Her Feet

grayscale photography of woman kneeling on area rug
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Last night I saw the play, At Her Feet, for the third time, since its opening in 2002. This is the 13th run of the play which was written and directed by Capetonian Nadia Davids and performed by another Capetonian, Quanita Adams, for whom she originally wrote the play.

Essentially the play is about the stories of four Muslim women in Cape Town a year after the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York and, as such, it brilliantly brings to life the stories of ordinary women in Cape Town and the effect of the global incident and its repercussions for Muslims everywhere.

The play starts, though, with the honour killing of a Jordanian girl, plunging us straight into questions of race, religion, culture and gender, which run throughout, coming full circle to end with the lamentations of the dead girl’s mother. This theme also provides the background for Auntie Kariema’s poignant realisation of her own link to the dead girl through her experiences as a young child who had lost her mother.

The portrayal of four very different characters – the young Muslim narrator, the slam-dunk poet, the middle-aged ‘Malay’ auntie and the newly-married Indian-Muslim woman – is so real that I could recognise each one of them.

Each time I have seen the play, it has resonated anew with me, but last night’s performance echoed so many of the themes in my research and, ultimately, is representative of Cape Town, and South Africa, as a whole because of its reflection of the legacy of slavery. This 200-year old heritage was intimately connected to Islam and had a fundamental impact not only on the city but on the country.  As such it speaks to a much larger audience and its central themes raise questions of complicity of racism and bias while at the same time offering an empathetic window into a way of life and invites us to find our commonalities rather than our differences.

Last night was special, too, because it was a fundraiser for The Sunflower Centre at Zonnebloem School and Davids, as an alumnus, had donated the performance of the play for that purpose. I was invited by Zephne Ladbrooke of The Otto Family Foundation, who I had met in the car park at a shopping mall earlier this year. I had approached her because of the poster advertising the centre on her car, which led me back to my old school. Accompanying me was Trudy Rushin who I had met when we were pupils at Zonnebloem School for Girls and with whom I had lost contact until recently. So, it was extra special because of connections on so many levels that had not been made when I last saw the play. Life seems to move in circles…

The play, a one-woman, one-act performance, employs music, poetry and dance to bring its characters inside your head until you want to weep and laugh with each character (the small Golden Arrow studio at The Baxter Theatre serves to take you almost right onto the stage with Adams) grappling with the very complicated relationships and questions which they conjure up.

[The play takes its name from the hadith, Paradise lies at the feet of thy mother. A hadith, or saying, is a teaching which guides the behaviour of Muslims. Apart from honouring the role of all mothers it also emphasises the importance of women in society.]

The play is on at The Baxter Studio until 8 December. Do go and see it.

The Burden of the Bullfight

bullfight

When Rafael woke up at three that morning he was dripping with sweat. It took him a moment to realise that he was back in his childhood room. He had been dreaming about plunging the banderilla into the back of the bull’s neck. The accusation in the bull’s eyes as it lowered its head for the final blow haunted him.

They had all gone to the bar the previous night to celebrate his return. Posters were plastered on the walls outside and inside. They proclaimed that he was the grandson of el famoso, Jose Fernando Martinez, and the nephew of Luis Fernando Martinez.

It was his fate to be related to two of the most famous matadors Spain had ever seen. The nation had mourned after his grandfather had been gored to death in the bullring and a statue had been erected in Madrid at the entrance to the arena. His uncle had followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and his cousin, Jose Fernando, another great bullfighter in the making, had been carrying on the family tradition until he was killed in the car accident. He was from a family of bullfighters and he had been raised on its glory. Not for the first time, the burden of tradition weighed heavily.

He had never bought into the blood and gore, the displays of machismo. He could appreciate the beauty of the intricate dance and the skill of the matador. But was it necessary to kill the bull in such a cruel way, taunting the animal until it charged desperately to its end? The roar of the crowd reminded him of spectators at a gladiator show except here defenceless animals were slaughtered. The bullring even resembled a Roman amphitheatre.

Of course he had done the training, gone to bullfighting school for years, if only to keep the peace at home. In truth, he was happiest sitting with a book in the shade of the olive trees, breathing in the aroma released by the rows of lavender bushes, or sitting under the bougainvillea in the courtyard, the fountain creating cool sounds while he painted.

“Your mother does not want you to be a man! What is all this drawing and painting you do?”

It had been with great relief that he accepted the offer of a place at the art school in Barcelona. His father had thought it was a waste of time, and there had been a terrible fight with his mother. Getting the scholarship had made it easier to leave. Before he had left, his mother had taken him aside.

“Try to understand your father, Rafael. It has been hard for him to lose his father, then Luis and now, Jose too.”

“But I cannot be all those people for him. And why do you let him speak to you like that? Sometimes it is he who reminds me of a bull, raging around the ring!”

“Tranquilo, mi hijo. Your father has worked hard to give us a good life. I will be fine, don’t worry.”

But he had worried about leaving his mother. What was it that made his father so angry all the time? Perhaps it was tradition that weighed him down too. Everyone close to him had died and the Martinez name would no longer be heard around the arena. There had been many passionate debates around the dinner table till late into the night when everyone had had far too much red wine.

“It is not about the bull, not about the killing,” his father maintained. “It is art. Los toros needs grace and style…and bravery.”

Dios mio! In other parts of Spain the bull fight has been banned!”

“We should never have sent you to Barcelona to study. Those Catalans do not even want to be part of Spain! Now that Europe is one you will forget what it is that makes you Spanish.”

“This display is for tourists who think they are seeing the real Spain.”

“Do not speak to me of drunken tourists who run with bulls in Pamplona. They complain when someone gets hurt.  Stupid Americans, think they know it all from an old book. For hundreds of years, Spain has had bullfights. You young people want to change everything.”

“Spain has art and books, music and beautiful buildings, too. What of Picasso, Gaudi, Dali?”

He didn’t understand it. Surely Spain had moved away from all this? After the bloody civil war many people had had little appetite for the cruelty of bullfighting, even less so after Franco’s death.  Bullfighting did not make sense in this century. He and Jose had been close.  His mother had been as devastated by his death as if he were her own son. The flamboyant decorations glinting in the moonlight where the suit hung on the front of the cupboard, seemed to mock him.  It had been made for Jose. It symbolised everything that he was not.

 “Do it this one time, for Jose,” his mother had appealed. He had come home to pay tribute to Jose but he wasn’t sure that he would be able to go through with it. He’d never be able to return home again if he shamed his father in front of all those people.

Of course he was proud to be Spanish. But enough with the fighting!  He remembered seeing Picasso’s Guernica for the first time. He had gone back to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid many times to sit in front of the painting, to try to understand its message. To him, the bull in the haunting black and white painting was a symbol of hope, showing the continuity of the Spanish nation after the civil war.  The bull seemed to be protecting the mother.  That’s why he was doing this, to protect his mother from his father’s anger for the son she had raised.

This was a Creative Writing/Fiction exercise that we worked on over a few sessions with novelist, Consuelo Roland, who presented us with this picture of a bullfighter and cautioned us not to search for it on the internet before writing. I since discovered that it was not all it was made out to be. Read more here