March, 2013 browsing by month


Foodism: Let them eat artisanal cake!

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

‘You are what you eat” has never rung truer. The revolution has failed. Consumerism and globalisation have triumphed, and it has been done through food.

Where once there was a rebellious middle-class youth, today there are little gourmands more interested in lemon grass than marijuana, in menus rather than manifestos, in mixing pisco sours rather than lobbing Molotov cocktails. It’s no longer the doors of culture they want to see opened for the proletariat, it’s the pantry.

Dinner conversation among the chattering classes has turned from Marikana to parmigiana, from the arms deal to where to get the best veal, from discussing the secrecy Bill to fussing about what doesn’t go with dill. What piques us is not the Nkandla scandal but cooking à la king.

Foodism is supplanting art and culture. We prefer fettuccini to Puccini; bok choy to Tolstoy.

As a food columnist I feel partly responsible.

The change in my lifetime has been remarkable. When I grew up in the 1980s, the culinary culture of South Africa was dire, sexist and very unhealthy.

But, in my case, the die was cast early. As an eight-year-old on the school playground the other kids would run away screaming when I opened my lunch box of stinky Roquefort cheese sandwiches, courtesy of my Belgian father.

At home, we had witloof (chicory — almost unheard of in those days) and ate raw herring. On the rare occasions my school friends visited, they thought my family was trying to poison them.

They were accustomed to braais and potjies, beef and potatoes with gravy powder, chicken and white rice with canned mushrooms, cauliflower with instant white sauce, I&J fish fingers and slap chips. For a while, the snackwich machine cheered everyone up.

Coffee was instant chicory. Pasta was macaroni baked with slices of watery tomato and melted sweetmilk cheese. When the first packets of dried spaghetti arrived, South African housewives cooked it until it had the texture and taste as close as they could get it to spaghetti in a tin. Bolognaise was made with sugar and a packet of tomato soup.

Going gourmet
Today, our supermarket shelves groan with variety. In Woolworths, you find carrots in three colours, Polish blueberries, Mexican avocados and snoek from New Zealand, not Kalk Bay. Pick n Pay has dozens of brands of olive oil and balsamic glaze, and even sells lime foam in aerosol cans.

My local Checkers, for years a shabby place where anything special would expire, now offers live crayfish, an oyster tank, rabbit and buffalo milk mozzarella.

My hamburger, my boerewors roll, even my samoosa have gone gourmet. With the current meat scandals, and apparently giraffe and kangaroo doing the rounds in our biltong, and possibly horse in our supermarket burgers, there seems to be a cogent argument for gourmet fillings, where one has the reassurance that only the choicest ingredients procured from the best suppliers are used.

Within 250m of my living room (I have measured this on Google Earth), I have a choice of dozens of restaurants, including fusion, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Lebanese and Indian.

Perhaps it’s because I live in Cape Town where we are obsessed with eating out. I mean, how many sous vide water baths are there outside the Western Cape?

I admit, I would rather talk about creamy potage than grubby politics these days, but I’m beginning to have some doubts. My bedside creaks under a pile of biographies of the pineapple, the potato and tuna, and an autobiography of a chef, Anthony Bourdain. Morris Kline’s Mathematics in Western Culture has been pushed aside by Cooking for Geeks; my Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology is invisible beneath my Larousse Gastronomique. On Sundays I no longer paint: I cook.

Thankfully I don’t have television (it has been replaced by the oven) or I would end up watching reality TV shows such as Junior MasterChef (there are now versions in 10 countries) with children aged between eight and 13 making nori rolls and parfaits. How did we get to a point where four-foot-high tykes are pitted against each other imitating Heston Blumenthal with foams and molecular cuisine?

Insatiable eating machines
Is this a better world? Part of me wants to rebel: I wonder whether it’s not all too gluttonous and self-absorbed; a great distraction from what really matters; a world where we are turned into profitable, insatiable eating machines consuming more than we need, driving up demand, chasing every new fad.

As the fashion industry gave us the must-have item for every season, now we will have the flavour of the month.

Just as the pharmaceutical industry invented all kinds of new ailments for us, the food industry — at a price — will keep finding new things to free us from — not from wage slavery, but from eggs, caffeine, gluten, lactose, sodium, sucrose, genetically modified plants and the preservatives and additives they added in the first place.

Is it even possible to rebel? Isn’t the real appeal of the free-range, organic, local, artisanal, humanely butchered slow food not altruism, not hitting back at the corporations, nor even saving the planet, but the greedy promise of the next titillation of tastier, more scrumptious, guilt-free food?

Some worry that foodism is a fresh form of class warfare, a new disguise for snobbery and elitism. Are the yuppie markets and little eateries springing up in Woodstock and Salt River or Maboneng really the fifth column of gentrification?

Instead of critiquing the latest art-house movie or Booker Prize winner, you will end up being looked down on if you don’t know how to thicken a runny ganache or rescue separated mayonnaise — that is if you still dare to buy mayonnaise in a bottle, chicken stock in a cube, or sneak bottled salad dressing under your guests’ noses.

You will only impress if you can pontificate on why egg whites are best whipped in copper bowls or know what length makes a French loaf a baguette, a bâtard or a ficelle — all this in a country where the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research says we throw away 9.04-million tonnes of food a year. In pure maths terms, that is half a kilogram of food waste every day for every one of the 50-million people in South Africa. How many half-kilos are you responsible for?

And on a global scale, the foody quest for exotic wonders is harming communities out of sight and far away. The global popularity of sushi has pushed the bluefin tuna to the point of extinction. Since quinoa was discovered by Westerners and its virtues extolled by food writers, myself included, Andean peasants can no longer afford what was once for them a dirt-cheap and vital staple protein.

Perhaps, as with all cultural revolutions, there are aspects we love and others we hate. We should be on our guard: foodism has the potential to be as oppressive and harmful as any of the isms, from consumerism to communism. We have become wary of politicians and not wary enough of celebrity chefs.

And we best be mindful that, unlike art, food only superficially nourishes the soul.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 8 March 2013.

Ultimate Braai Master

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

Justin Bonello

With the first series of the Ultimate Braai Master, celebrity bush cook Justin Bonello (pictured above) inducted the first batch of South Africans into the world of reality TV cooking shows. Fifteen teams of two contestants covered 8 000km and 13 locations around Southern Africa in a 52-day outdoor cooking roadshow that involved “extreme cuisine” and gruelling challenges. Auditions for a second season are now underway.

The first series excelled at showing off, TV fashion, the beauty of South Africa, with colours boosted in post-production and tumid Carmina Burana-style music. The format of an escalating tournament with elimination rounds had the suspense, judging and rewards of shows such as Master Chef.

There were elements of Survivor, as when in the fourth episode Bonello told contestants that it was very likely they could be bitten by a snoek, which has anti-coagulant mucus; in the event of that happening, they would have to burst one of its eyeballs and rub it on the wound. Some challenges, such as dishing out huge, whole catfish for braaing, evoked Iron Chef.

But, even for an arch sceptic of reality television, there was something more honest about Ultimate Braai Master compared with most reality TV shows, which are notorious for their misleading editing and hidden scripting. In a departure from the norm, Braai Master had a sense of generosity and bonhomie among the competitors; the finalists even made a pact to share a portion of the prize money.

Bonello, the man behind the series, is similarly down to earth, despite his meteoric career — a dozen books and TV series and more in the pipeline. He is sporty, slightly rugged, loquacious but also discerning, alert and cultivated — more metro-oke than metrosexual.

He insists he is a cook, not a chef. “I’ve never said I’m anything else.” A chef “is trained to give you an experience. I can just give you an experience”. When he was growing up, he was “lucky” in that his family went away a lot, and he was the one who went diving for abalone, harvesting mussels and fishing. His grandmother taught him to make pancakes at the age of six.

I ask Bonello what he looks for in participants. “I’ve discovered that five-tenths of the protagonists we use in content will develop ego, and ego is the killer for me … If they can retain the humility, then I’ll use them again.”

And in the contestants? “Obviously they have to be able to cook but, then again, it’s television and there has to be the entertainment element.”

Aspirant braai masters have to be screened and must answer an on-line questionnaire. For the first series, one question was: How would you cook a warthog? “Venison is notoriously difficult to cook but the minute I saw the third red wine and pineapple recipe, I knew it was cutting and pasting from the internet, and there is no skill set involved in that.

“I boiled it down to one point — generally, the contestants were the one within their circle of friends who was the braai master … the gregarious one, the life and soul of the party.”

After a few days, the contestants forget about the camera.

Now that people have seen series one, won’t things be different, I ask.

“I think people were scared by the calibre of what was produced [in series one].” But, says Bonello, people shouldn’t be discouraged; those contestants improved enormously during the filming from having to cook every day and going through the challenges under pressure. They developed their expertise in leaps and bounds.

Getting it right
I say that there must have been an enormous temptation to manipulate the show, especially in the South African context, to get the demographics right for the TV audience. Series one ended with three pairs of whites. “Yes, you can skew things in reality television but, if you blow your integrity …” He shakes his head. “We have an obligation with the contestants to tell the truth … Only you can make yourself look bad … We don’t construct.

“We really wanted Nqobani and Mbuso [Mlagisi] to go through but there was nothing I could do … at the end of the day it’s who did the best.”

Looking ahead, I wonder what is left to braai in the second series. Bonello laughs. He says almost anything can be done on the braai. “We’ve been cooking in the outdoors from time immemorial … There’s an alchemy behind food … You can do an Eggs Benedict on the braai!”

Indeed, before electricity and gas, fire was the stove. And the fire, like Bonello’s own flair, gives it something unique.

This aticle first appeared in the Mail & Guardian.