By Anelia Heese
Ouma Rusks. NikNaks. ProNutro. A can of Creme Soda past the expiration date. Vacuum-packed biltong from who knows what beef. Ask any South African living abroad: We admit that we buy these items at times at exorbitant prices.
But why buy mass-produced Ouma Rusks if you can have fresh Italian biscotti? Why are you in awe of the synthetic strawberry flavour of a Fizzer when you can feast on the sweetest strawberries at a centuries-old European market? How do Simba Mrs Ball’s Chutney flavoured chips work the magic in the presence of a freshly fried shawarma kebab with a warm, complex flavour? Why not rather swap the calories of a slippery, wobbly blob of Peppermint Crisp tart for the soft, rich delight of a German käsekuchen?
When nostalgia strikes, our childhood food becomes synonymous with the security of a South African embassy. The label on a can of Lucky Star Pilchards becomes the official permit to security. A Wilson toffee paper becomes a stamp on an airmail letter from home.
And yes, when summer arrives in Europe again, I might pay an arm and a leg for Oros guava juice concentrate. I will pour a cup of it into a plastic bag, tie it and put it in the freezer. It will take me back to a day in January 1996 when I was a barefoot school athlete on a searing dirt road, and a tannie sold me a refreshment at 50c from her squatter shack.
When the longing becomes an unbearable, yearning desire, we crave comfort food. Mom’s cooking reminds us of the country at the southern tip of Africa that made us who we are.
Bobotie for the outspoken, braaivleis for the pioneers. Rusks are not intimidated by any atmospheric condition and are a reliable companion on any journey, whether by ox waggon, express or tube.
Mealiepap was an answer for famished teenagers who returned from Vleesbaai’s beach at daybreak. It was a peaceful moment of rest under the vineyards with Gladys, who shared her lunch in a faded ice cream bowl with me.
Pancakes were a pleasant surprise on a school night after a thunderstorm. And for a fundraiser, the batter was beaten with a garden fork in a 50-litre oil drum.
When a family member records a tribute and sends it to Herklink to adapt it to a virtual funeral service, the most beautiful things are said about loved ones. Tributes are paid to their conscientiousness, their relationships with family and friends, and their hobbies. Memories of food are often woven into the stories.
There was the story about the oom who visited his family in Namaqualand and played cricket with the children until dusk. Each match ended with boerbrood (farm bread), kaiings (cracklings) and korrelkonfyt (grape jam).
There was the tannie who liked to welcome visitors at home and always was prepared with a cup of coffee – to the extent that she herself had eight cups of coffee a day.
There was the oom who worked at the railway and every afternoon properly set the table in the office to relish the lunch his wife had packed for him.
There’s the matriarch who ceremoniously baked a magnificent milk tart every Sunday, but when a friend tried the famous family recipe, “it didn’t even was half an inch high”.
Sometimes we have to face death to realise how important our daily bread is and how dearly we love the people with whom we break bread. Food is physical and spiritual security. The Infection Prevention and Control Council reported in February 2021 that almost 12 million South Africans are starving due to unemployment and the pandemic’s impact on food prices. Our fellow citizens deserve better: Better food, a better life, a better tribute.
Also read: A fear-filled leap year