My wife asked me to take over cooking for The Hungry Ones the other day.
She’d landed a big translation job – another one involving Big Pharma fighting with itself in Europe over intellectual property rights. Most distasteful I say. Venal multinationals scrapping away in Germany, Holland or wherever about who’s infringing on who with the latest remedies that promise to cure anything from ingrown toenails to tightening-up tummy tucks.
Of course we don’t like Big Pharma any more than we like Big Agri or any other of the Bigs who have overwhelmed our world. But we’ve had no guesthouse bookings for a month and we’re not likely to get any more for at least another; Heidi’s other translation jobs have dried up to a trickle and right now it’s impossible for me to sell any of my cheese. So we’ll take any offerings from anyone, even if their first name is Big, and this one was substantial.
‘They must get vetkoek,’ she said of The Hungry Ones before sitting down before her computer. ‘Mila will go to the dorp for supplies.’
I groaned inwardly. Vetkoek? Why can’t they have their usual soupy mass all made in an eight-litre stock pot? All that flour flying all over the kitchen, spattering oil – and not to mention the filling.
‘Curry mince?’ I enquired with trepidation.
‘Yes. The vetkoek must go with curried mince.’
So our daughter, equipped with mask and blue nitrile gloves, was dispatched to Deneysville to find the necessary ingredients for the day. I must add that she didn’t seem at all resentful and accepted her mission with good grace. While Heidi was settling down to wrestle with the German/English variations of retinal pressure, I fiddled around waiting for Mila’s return.
Eventually she arrived all breathless, pink-cheeked and irritable. The ATM was long depleted of cash. Schmidt’s Meat Mecca’s card facilities weren’t working so she couldn’t buy any mince. The Choonara family’s OK superette was so poorly stocked that she’d proceeded to the Pakistani store and bought halal polony and Imana savoury soya mince, plus lots of oil, yeast, flour and onions.
A look at of my wife indicated that she was building up quite a head of steam, so I decided that I’d better get on with the task at hand. If you’ve read this far you’re probably wondering what this was all about. Who are The Hungry Ones? And what did they do to deserve vetkoek with curried mince?
It all started a while back, about two weeks into lockdown, when our daily labourer Jan answered Heidi’s query as to how the people in the compound where he lived were getting on. He told her that since the advent of the lockdown, some of them had been laid off by farmers and were going hungry – particularly the children. As I’ve mentioned on previous occasions, there are certain trigger words that galvanise Heidi into action. Among them are ‘starving children’ and ‘hungry’. You see she worked in an NGO that processed displaced Serbian refugees in Belgrade during the Yugoslav War. So while we might complain that the Choonaras’ shop has run out of garlic, she knows that desperate times mean different things to different people. The Hungry Ones, those who have no food or money along with dismal prospects in the weeks and months that lie ahead, made up the names on the list that she’d asked Jan to compile.
Yes, Heidi knows about hunger. She also knows how to leave behind an exceptionally broad footprint in the kitchen. It must be said that when it comes to matters culinary we differ; I come from a more disciplined chef background so we bang head-on because she comes from (putting it delicately) a fun-in-the-kitchen environment. Once she gets going with all of that flour and oil, mayhem follows within minutes. Her mise en place, that sacrosanct workplace of the professional cook, transmogrifies into the entire kitchen. Face and chest daubed with flour; ripping; sprinkling widely; shaking and banging… it could be said that Heidi goes about her cooking with broad strokes, enormous gusto and great enthusiasm. I accept it these days because I tell myself that after all of that translating of legalese and tongue-twisting medical terms (in German nogal) – there’s an urgent need to wind down and express oneself in different ways – the kitchen being one of them.
But on the vetkoek day it was different. For those not familiar with this South African creation, vetkoek are deep-fried, yeast-leavened dough balls. Once fried to a golden-crispy brown, the vetkoek is slit open and filled with a spicy sauce – often curried mince. It was different that day because I was going to get this whole thing done neatly, professionally and efficiently. The kitchen was not going to turn into a student digs cooking affair and I was going to have a minimum of cleaning up to do.
I must comment at this point that Heidi’s food aid programme was being executed with grim determination. After her first foray into Jan’s compound, accompanied by the wife of a farmer downriver, they were warned off by a landowner on whose land some of the Sotho community was living.
‘They are pretending to be poor,’ he’d said. ‘They have money.’ He strongly discouraged the initiative. It was evident that man was of the opinion that the Sotho were being devious and trying to pull the wool over the ladies’ eyes. But when Heidi checked Jan’s list she found only the names of jobless people. Jan hadn’t put his own name on the list because he has work and gets lunch on the days that he’s working for us. It was this attitude from a wealthy white that had only further strengthened her resolve to press ahead – no matter what the local white community thought of her.
I was mixing the dough in my biggest stainless steel bowl – a legacy from my Zululand cooking school. The damn thing was still not really big enough and it was hard work. The dough mass was behaving like a recalcitrant monster, developing a will of its own as I worked and punched it around the bowl.
I was breathing heavily and the effort forced a mood shift. Now here we are again, I thought. Once more the Newbys become the district pariahs. Showing themselves up to be k*****boeties and lovers of the blex. People who don’t support their own kind – complete wastes of white skins.
I’ve heard it all before, I thought to myself as I slapped the dough monster viciously. This is what they invariably say: ‘You know that when you’re new in a community you must be careful. Don’t tread on your neighbour’s toes because we’re all in it together’.
‘Jy weet, ons mense moet saamtrek.’
We heard it in the Umvoti district where it was okay to call the Zulus ‘monkeys’ and for German settler descendant farmers to jump on their female labourers in the mielie fields and hump away like bunny rabbits. I’d heard it in the Bonnievale district where it was perfectly fine to coerce a labourer to call himself a ‘Hotnot’ then reward him with a bottle of cheap wine. We’ve recently arrived from Hopefield where for some years,we were regarded with deep suspicion and resentment because we’d questioned a prevailing policy attitude of keeping black people out of the district at almost any cost. Now here in the Free State on the banks of the Vaal, we’re expected to fall into line with what most people believe to be The White Man’s Way.
‘You people like looking for trouble,’ a burly farmer once told me. ‘Well here’s some advice. Don’t rock the boat because you’ll be the first to fall out.’
The dough was ready to sit and rise and I was panting. There was now the matter of turning that dehydrated soy into something that at least approached tasting good. I ferreted around in the fridge, found carrots and grated them into a huge pile. I rounded up all the potatoes that I could find and diced them fine – skins still on (extra Vitamin C, I told myself). I chopped up all of our remaining onions. With several cupful’s oil I sautéed the lot in the largest pot I could find, adding some fresh green chilli, Mother-In-Law masala, salt and a few stock cubes.
In a separate pot I boiled up the Imana in four litres of water until it achieved a thick porridge-like consistency to smell strangely enough like a cardboard-box factory. ‘Gross,’ muttered Mila as she drifted past the stove.
I pondered over Chris, the man who’d warned Heidi and her friend off. He’s certainly a mean-spirited bugger, I told myself. As suinig as they come. He just doesn’t want the blacks around his place to get too uppity. He sits in entitled judgment because they are poor to the point of being helpless; cunning because they’ve had to be to survive; drunks because alcohol is the only way some of them can escape their miserable realities for a few hours. He’s symptomatic of the worst that white South Africa can offer.
I checked the dough resting ominously in its stainless steel bowl. It was beginning to rise.
My mood shifted again. I was having a déjà vu feeling. It had something to do with all of this bulk cooking with relief intentions. I wondered whether Heidi thought about Belgrade during her cooking sessions for The Hungry Ones.
My thoughts spooled back 43 years to a village in what was then northern South-West Africa, several kilometres back from the Angolan border. There were hundreds of people, maybe more than a thousand sitting or standing around, wide-eyed and hollow-cheeked from exhaustion. They’d hurried, many of them running, tens of kilometres to the border fence to escape Cuban and MPLA forces. I could just make out the sounds of intermittent mortar fire while smoke was rising hazily above the distant northern horizon. Their villages had been bombarded and torched.
One woman had a screaming infant at her breast – it had made its appearance into that chaotic world while she was on the run. She’d given hasty birth, gathered it up and continued her southward flight. Nearby, under a Makalani palm tree 15 or so bodies had been laid out by SADF soldiers in neat formation. They were individuals who’d been overtaken by heat stroke and dehydration to expire and die as they reached the border fence
These were pro-Unita refugees who’d entered Ovamboland because they had nowhere else to go.
There was this tall sallow army cook from Newcastle. Initially he’d been happy to be called up to the border to ‘shoot terrorists’. But much to his chagrin he’d ended up in the company camp kitchen with the thankless task of making food for troepies. But on this day he was organising food for refugees.
I remember so clearly: there was a huge pot filled with simmering rice water positioned over a wood fire. He was standing over one of those foldup army steel tables opening tins of Glenryck pilchards. A waist-high pile of empty cans stood at his side. Several bust tin openers lay on the table. He was working furiously, opening the tins with his bayonet, levering and tearing the ragged-edged lids off to empty the fish into the pot. His knuckles were bleeding and a rag was tied around his left hand to staunch the blood – but he wasn’t slowing down. I noticed then that his mouth was tight and his eyes were wet. Whatever the emotions that had overwhelmed him…were clearly profound.
I bumped into the cook years later when he served me at a small takeaway café on the Durban North side of the Umgeni River. His greeting was restrained, almost serene. He was no longer the same person who’d gone to the border to shoot terrorists.
The exodus of thousands of refugees fleeing south into South-West was an event that went by almost unrecorded in history. There was so much else going on at the time. And on the scale of things, the army cook’s contribution was miniscule – in fact I suspect that I was the only person who’d noticed him weeping while he bled. Hardly anyone even thinks of those refugees anymore; even fewer know what happened to them. But for the participants in that long-past drama that played itself out in the summer heat of southern Angola and Ovamboland, the event must have been nothing less than a sea-change in their lives. Nothing would ever be the same: the southern Angolan villagers who’d had no option but to support Jonas Savimbi and for that their lives had been overturned by war. And an Afrikaans army cook who’d undergone an epiphany.
We too are insignificant players in this current drama that’s playing itself out around the world, I thought to myself as I added diced polony to fry for a while in the sauce that was supposed to be curried mince. Heidi’s little effort is not even a drop in the global bucket. All she’s doing is feeding a handful of crones, some pathetic jobless men and their women, some kids including a five-year-old girl with wild frizzy hair and a man who’s apparently of unsound mind.
But it’s something, I reasoned. If everybody did something then we have a chance of coming out of this thing better than we went into it. Being prompted to change our existing paradigms to include kindness and care in our mindsets might just collectively shift the way we manage our existence on this planet. It’s possible for all of us to change and maybe this Corona-thing is our Last Chance Saloon opportunity before we all go down like the Titanic. Because sure as hell, empathy is one of the things that are going going to be the salvation of the human race.
Maybe this Chris person who so callously and unilaterally decided that hungry people don’t need food could conceivably end up like the Afrikaans cook from Newcastle. Maybe he just hasn’t yet opened himself up for that Damascus Moment which might just upgrade him to become a better human being. I knew that I was being optimistic but suddenly I was in the mood for giving a bigot the benefit of the doubt.
I’d heated my oil in a large pot and was about to begin with the frying when my wife blew into the kitchen. She’d reached her translation targets for the day and was gatvol of the machinations of Big Pharma. So she fried while I made up the dough balls.
The vetkoek came out beautifully: golden-crisp and not at all oily inside (a consequence of having the oil at the right temperature). And although the ersatz curry soy mince, once the Imana had been combined with my custom sauce base, was never going to get even half a Michelin Star, it was passably tasty.
Declared Heidi, a person not prone to mincing her words: ‘If you don’t eat you vrek.’ And with that she set off to deliver her offerings to The Hungry Ones.