The Language of Food in a South African Jewish Family
My mom’s 90th birthday was rapidly approaching and I racked my brains to figure out how to do something meaningful that both she and I could enjoy. She was in a very frail state, with little attention span and mostly aphasic. Conversations were pretty one sided although she was quite expressive non verbally and seem to understand fairly well. As I was driving to work about 2 weeks prior to leaving for my trip back to South Africa, I heard a clip on storycore, an NPR program. A woman was talking about her relationship with her mother. The story was heartwarming , as many of them are, and a light bulb turned on. I decided to assemble a book of stories about my mom, solicited from friends and families around the world, read them to her during my visit and in the process create a document so her grandchildren and great-grandchildren could learn more about this larger then life figure in the family, who had become a mere shadow of her former self. These tales often emerge when someone has already passed on, but what an opportunity to have her hear the stories and bring back memories of people she no longer saw and to remember happier times in her life.
The internet and email made this project doable with a 2 week window.
I received wonderful stories from our network of family and friends now living across the globe. ( There has been a huge emigration ofJewish South Africans to Israel, England, USA, Canada and Australia). The stories were heartwarming and funny. And most of them were around food. Dishes they remember my mom preparing, recipes she had shared, meals hosted at our family home in Port Elizabeth during Jewish holidays, braai’s( BBQ) in our garden and other celebratory meals. My parents loved to entertain and we frequently had guests staying with us.
I have spent the last 30 years working as a nutritionist with a passion for food, without totally connecting the dots of how I came to choose this as my career. To go back a generation, my maternal grandmother, Minnie, immigrated to South Africa from Lithuania when she was 12 years old.
Her mother had died previously and she arrived with her father and brothers.
No doubt she cooked for this family of men and then later went on to run acountry hotel with her husband in Houhoek, a small village in the Sir Lowry’s Pass mountain area on the way to Cape Town. There she supervised preparation of food for the travellers. She had brought her recipes from the old country and even some of the cookware. As in many families, these were passed down. My mother’s younger sister, a enthusiastic and creative cook, owned a kitchen store at one time where cooking classes were held. Her daughter went to Cordon Bleu training in France. So this love of food and cooking came to me honestly.
However, in my family healthy eating ( and exercise) was also a passion. We always ate lots of fruit and vegetables.
The year was marked by the seasonal offerings from our garden and surrounding farms as well as the special dishes for Jewish Holidays ( which all have an agricultural component).
Our vegetable garden yielded salad ingredients, fresh corn ( mealies), papayas ( pawpaw), figs (when the birds didnt get them), grapes- the kind that pop into your mouth leaving the skin behind and bananas. My cousins had mulberry trees which were great fun to climb and get a snack at the same time but the juice was a disaster for your clothes. Many neighbors had cape gooseberries, which were one of my favorites (more about that later), little tasty orange morsels hiding in a papery sack. We would go to a farm nearby to get the strawberries, which were available for a very short period in the spring. Early summer arrived with cherries, apricots and then lichees. Mid summer offered peaches- starting with delicate whites followed by deep orange clings, juicy stringy mangos( eaten over the bath tub so the juice didnt ruin everything) all of these bought by the tray. I would beg my mom to buy them when they first appeared but she was firm. The first fruits will not be very flavorful or juicy, it was best to wait. Later summer brought large striped green and white watermelons with juicy bright red insides, usually eaten as dessert on braai days with lots of black pips that were fun for spitting contests. My mother would say a short incantation- jildy jildy- before cutting open the watermelon in the hope that it was a perfect one. Small, very sweet pineapples were bought on the side of the road by the trunkload(boot) when passing through the Grahamstown area, nearby Port Elizabeth, that was famous for this fruit. Mom loved these just grated and served at breakfast or made into her famous pineapple freeze ( a parave ice cream). Prickly pears ( cactus fruit) had to be ice cold and peeled very carefully with a knife and fork or else you would end up with tiny little white hairs in your fingers that hurt like anything. Juicy golden delicious apples were eaten as is and sour-sweet granny smiths were often cooked into a cake, tart or baked with a cloudy meringue topping, that yielded little brown drops of sweet nectar as they cooled. Autumn and winter were marked by oranges brought by the pocket( a big orange netted sack), naartjies ( a type of mandarin), tart grapefruit, grenadillas - cut in half and eaten with a spoon, seeds and all or as a mandatory ingredient in fruit salad which was routinely served for dessert. And then there were guavas. The very strong perfume of stewed guavas, cooked with a little sugar and cinnamon stick, frequently pervaded the kitchen. Fortunately it was one that I loved. Much of the fruit was eaten fresh but konfyt( jam) or preserves were made from various fruits, watermelon skins and marmalade from citrus. It seems each household had their favorites. Grape jam was a given Pesach (passover) time at 21 Brighton Drive. I can smell and taste the musky sweetness on matza. It certainly helped one make it through the week when many of the usual foods were forbidden as they contained leavening. My sister, Sandy, has continued the tradition to this day, using the copper pot that belonged to my grandmother to make the jam. Pesach falls in the autumn in South Africa ( it really is a spring holiday as the timing is northern hemisphere based) and this is a prime time for large purple-black juicy grapes.
The vegetable variety was much more limited than what I include in my diet today. Maybe other items were available but just not part of my household’s menu. There was iceberg lettuce with cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers and head cabbage eaten raw. Onions, carrots, peas, mushrooms and green beans and sweet corn were cooked as side dishes. Potatoes andcreamy yellow sweet potatoes were very frequently served. We didnt eat brinjals( eggplant) until my middle sister, Barby, arrived back from a 6 month stay in Israel and introduced it to us. She showed us how to make it “snitzel” style. This was a very novel additional to our repetoire. Our household help ate dried beans, pumpkin and samp( dried corn) stew with some meat flavoring but legumes did not grace our table. These local dishes are now served in “African style” restaurants, which are a feature of post apartheid South Africa. I dont think I tasted broccoli or other leafy greens until I came to North America. The only vegetarian meals were had were mac and cheese, toasted cheese or creamed corn on toast( Sunday night by the fire). Fish as a main course was considered a light meal but was always served on Friday evening as part of our shabbat dinner, with leftovers for Saturday lunch when food was not cooked.
South African fish options were and still are excellent. I remember with great fondness fried sole made with a light batter ( although I barely ever eat fried food now and get it grilled when I go back) and fish cakes( minced fish with onion and herbs, deep fried). There are some lovely fleshy fish that work well on the grill and fish braais are very popular, but in those days meat was the item of choice to put on the fire.
Sunday lunch was roast chicken with roast potatoes and peas. Michael (my husband) and I have often giggled about the similarity of this menu in both of our households. I wonder how many more homes were serving the same foods each week. At times, we had a cold Sunday lunch or braai in the garden.
South Africans have a great fondness for meat, especially on the grill. Chops, sosaties( kebabs) and the all time favorite, borewors ( farmers sausage). These foods harken back to the time of South Africans in the veld, hunting and cooking their kill on the open fire. Although all kinds of meat( buck, ostrich and many other animals) were eaten, in our household only kosher meat was consumed.
When I think back on my early days, I appreciate so much the emphasis my family placed on eating good, wholesome food each day and the pleasure that was derived from preparing special dishes and sharing these with guests. In my early twenties when I moved to North America, my world exploded with new foods and ideas. I was particularly influenced by books like Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe and the concept of eating lower on the food chain and Laurel's Kitchen which helped me learn how to make good tasting vegetarian food. It was at that time the my husband and I decided to become vegetarian, which is more than 80% of what we eat today. My interest in nutrition exploded at that time and led me to to pursue this as my career.