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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Kos & Wyn | Food & Wine > Artikels | Features

A braai white season – an exposé of the soft underbelly of the Afrikaner


Christo Lombaard - 2011-02-16

  • Christo Lombaard provides a tongue-in-cheek take on one of Afrikaans culture’s holy cows.

To heat meat over a food fire is no new trend in the Johannesburg area. This culinary act may go back two million years and more, in this very vicinity. Proof? Less than an hour’s drive north-west of Jo’burg lies the “Cradle of Humanity”, the archaeological remains of the possible birthplace of our species. This is where many moons, nay, millennia, ago, some of our ancient forebears had found their final resting place. These Australopithecus africanus humanoids are now known as Little Foot and Mrs Ples, and were preserved in the earth through all those ages. Unexpectedly, and within walking distance of their burial caves, can also still be seen the oldest preserved remains of a human fireplace. First, these finds go to prove that one of the oldest families in the district is, indeed, the Du Plessis family. Foremost, though, they also show that the art of searing an antelope or two for dinner goes back ... well, donkey’s years.

Imagine the prehistoric scene: little Master Ples is running playfully around the family fire, a nice leg of baby kudu clutched in one hand, with a little blood still oozing from it over his dirt-crusted forearm. Just the way he likes his food! Young Ples stumbles. His dinner falls from his fingers and lands among the glowing embers. The meat sizzles and smokes a little; the scent of burning fills the lad’s nostrils; his meal instantly turns dark brown where it touches the bright red coals; and a little grey ash clings to the edges. Like any normal four-year-old the youngster utters his disgust in a teary wail that cuts through air and ear. No way is he eating that. A good mother, Mrs Ples, rather than enduring endless hours of crying and sobbing, passes her food to her son, who promptly pipes down and resumes his running games, happily munching away at the raw buck, the way Mother Nature had intended. Mom, still hungry, scratches the now well-singed portion from the fire. She risks a careful bite. Hmmm, she thinks to herself. Not bad. Softer. Saltier. And it carries the warmth from the fire into her body, as an answer to the nippy night breeze. We should do this more regularly!

And so humanity has.

*

Of course, since the days of this primeval Eve du Plessis much has changed in the way we barbeque, or braai, our meat. But the essential liturgy remains the same. Put a few small logs or some clumps of coal to flame. Wait a bit, preferably while sampling a beverage; preferably more than one; preferably alcoholic. Then manoeuvre the slabs of meat close enough to the fire to roast, but still far enough not to scorch. (Once we were past the Bronze Age, a raised metal grill did this trick nicely.) When done to taste, eat, drink and be merry. Afterwards, approach the fire again, hold out the hands in a gesture of blessing over the amber glow, and pronounce the closing mantra: Nou’s die vuur eintlik eers reg! (Only now is the fire actually perfect!)

The elements of this almost holy meal have also changed substantially over the ages, as might be expected. Afrikaners from farming stock having to some extent monopolised this ritual in its modern form, beef is now the protein of choice. Bigger is better; thicker too. Cholesterol rules. A lamb chop attends this main dish well, and for those with somewhat vegetarian inclinations, a side dish of chicken is fine too.

However, the main accompaniment to the steak on the cooking fire is the wors. Not just any old wors. Boerewors! (A literal but awkward translation is “farmer’s sausage”; closer would be “Afrikaner’s sausage”.) And it is precisely at this point that the Calvinist leanings of the Dutch-descendent Afrikaans-speaking originators of this sausage show most clearly. Here, purity reigns. In the same way as German culture had formulated a law on beer (the famous 1516 Reinheitsgebot), ensuring its quality, Afrikaner culture has formulated regulations on boerewors. Only certain ingredients are allowed, while others are firmly prohibited. Maximum and minimum proportions of fat and additives are prescribed. Some leeway is allowed with the kind of spices and the thickness of the sausage, but taken together it is quite clear to all “in the know” in the braai culture what boerewors looks and tastes like. Any old sausage can be wors, but all wors aspires to be boerewors.

Naturally, humanly, there are differences of opinion on, and hence a good deal of debate about, what precisely should be done to the fleshly elements of the revered braai. Much is said to be at stake about the salting of the meat. Before it hits the fire? Halfway through? Or only afterwards? With a little pepper? And what about all these newfangled mixed spices and infused salts?!? The perennial debate, even on television cooking shows and radio call-in programmes, is: Should the skin of the boerewors be pricked? What is the greater danger: too dry, or too fatty? The latter alternative is not because of health concerns. The motive is social: when the sausage skin is pierced by fork or tooth, the hot fat can spray sprightly to blot greasily one’s favourite shirt, or moustache, or friend. These are serious matters.

*

Clothing, too, has a code that no braai novice could fully appreciate. Although Johannesburg, the hub of Southern Africa’s economy, is a suited city, its citizens will never dare to show up in such formal attire at a normal weekend braai. That may have been possible in the staid Afrikanerdom of the 1950s. Now, though, even the opposite extreme is more palatable: the slightly inebriated lout in a well-worn pair of shorts, which are probably a tad undersized. A cloth hat may be the only other gear complementing this downmarket outfit. The wearer’s exposed boep (beer gut) will be sagging, depressingly so. The rest of his poise may be only slightly more appealing. He will stagger slightly as he edges up to the fire to offer his unsolicited assistance by flipping over a steak with his bare fingers, quickly licking off the heat and salty juices with a smack of his lips, whipping together the cooling fingers in the air, and smacking them together. Sizzle-slurp, smack-slap is the accompanying sound track, and a moment later the ritual is repeated. Same fingers, different steak ... the act recurs – and yet again ... Sizzle-slurp, smack-slap! Afterwards, an obliging smile: a good deed well done, if somewhat slobberingly. Rather that, at a normal braai, than a chap in a Carducci.

Usually, though, the clothing for a braai would be a step up from this loutish fellow’s. Some years ago the apparel may still have been, for Afrikaner men, khaki. Shirt, shorts, and knee-high socks – all khaki. But here, too, the new South Africa has brought change. The single biggest contribution of Nelson Mandela’s brightly coloured “Madiba caftans” to Afrikaans fashion sense is that men’s shirts have now evolved from boring old monochrome khaki to, dramatically, a two-tone affair with broad green and – yes, still – khaki blocks. Here and there you can also find the more daring dandies replacing the forest green blocks in the shirt with a deep sea blue. Intercultural influence in action!

*

Less successful in the braai culture has been the new South Africa’s emphasis on women’s place in society. Although the country had already acknowledged female suffrage in 1930, when it comes to the braai, gender differentiation remains stark. A man’s place is around the fire, outside, accompanied only by a can of beer and lots of sports talk, whereas the ladies languish inside, all white wine and girl talk. Theirs are the anciently assigned tasks of cooking the pap, the crumbly maize porridge akin to Italian polenta, pan-steaming the accompanying tomato-and-onion sauce, and cutting a few wedges of cucumber and such into sliced lettuce leaves – this counts as greens; salad; health. A diced potato-and-mayonnaise mix, prepared earlier in the day, is tipped from a Tupperware bowl into glassware. Then the wait, always the wait, seemingly endless at times, that goes along with appeasing younger, louder appetites with empty promises that “die kos is nou-nou reg” (the food is almost ready). Small wonder that a colloquial definition of a braai is “a social gathering at which the children get hungry and the adults get drunk”.

A part of this womanly apartness at braai evenings has never been known to the other sex, but here, now, that secret will be revealed. Men have hitherto assumed that all their lady loves spoke about during these kitchen gatherings were traditional feminine fare such as recipes for melktert (custard slices, more or less) or, perhaps, fine-tuning a paper serviette into an even more elegant swan for the Christmas table. That, of course, was the female ruse. This is what women at a braai want their menfolk to think. In reality, they use the men-less minutes in the kitchen to slander their mates pitilessly.
My husband is ssssuch a bastard, one will blow off steam, going on to share her frustrations with his financial management, fidelity and hygiene. Or rather, his lack of such. This will be followed by another sister-up-in-arms spilling all about her boyfriend’s exes, or hers; and by a more matronly compatriot flailing open her son-in-law’s flaws for all to gape at in awe, and shudder.

It may be at precisely such a point that one of the males enters the kitchen from outside, in search of salt, or ice, or braai tongs that will not prick the wors. Now it is only the honed guile of feminine rhetoric that perpetuates the generations-old ruse perpetrated on the Afrikaner man ...

“The doos (so-and-so) actually had the nerve,” Mrs Du Plessis will be sputtering forth, “to return home from his so-called” – deep breath – “’hunting weekend’” – deeper breath – “with that” – deepest breath – “tert (floozy) of his, and then ...”

Enter man; door right; at a brisk pace.

Mrs Ples’s tone smoothes instantly to custardy softness:

“... and then you put the tart on a cooling tray, and sprinkle just a touch more cinnamon over it ...”

And thus a secret has been shared.

*

Altogether better adapted to contemporary society than the gender segregation habit are the feminine braai fashions. Their mothers’ old crimplene dresses a faintly remembered nightmare from decades yonder, the diversity of latter-day styles for the modern woman at a braai finds cohesion only in the dual purposes of comfort and appealing to one’s man’s sensuality. After all, a braai is usually a Saturday affair. And what red-blooded Afrikaner male, after an afternoon of rugby-watching and an evening of A-grade beef, wouldn’t want to spend a few erotic moments exercising a muscle or two with the missus? Say between 23h13 and 23h16. After that, a good night’s rest! No better way to prepare for a quiet Sunday morning of church and newspaper either.

Such erotic dimensions to the Afrikaner’s sport-and-braai culture should indeed not remain unnoticed. After all, the word braai itself contains three fifths of the letters required for the crudest Afrikaans term for making love. The macho prowess of a tough rugby match and the soft fleshy tenderness of a fine T-bone steak offer further suggestive preludes to a sensuous full stop to the day.

Still, as devilishly revealed in the recent novel Dagtaak (Daily task) by DR Syn, there must remain a few nagging doubts about the true sexual orientation of any culture so utterly enamoured of a sport that encourages ample measures of very intimate touching and a dish so unsettlingly suggestive as a decent piece of boerewors...

*

To finish on a different note:

If music is the art of noise, then the background tunes to the traditional Afrikaner braai can only be described as white noise. For it takes decades of cultural inbreeding to appreciate the clamour that constitutes boeremusiek. Played with concertina and accordion to rhythm guitars and soft, predictable drumbeats, this derivative of German, Dutch and French folk music lies at the heart of much Afrikaner social engagement. The squealing windy sounds of the two lead instruments have much in common with Scottish bagpipes, mainly in their fear-inducing qualities. It takes true loyalty to retain allegiance to a culture hooked on this kind of screech. Enemies and outsiders, indeed take heed! Had it not been for this music, the racial purity expected of earlier generations of Afrikaners would simply not have lasted: Which culture could, however humanely, have been expected to marry into such a melod(ramat)ic wail?

Still, the almost-repressed truth is that the earliest boeremusiek of the 1920s Afrikaans dance clubs of Johannesburg and neighbouring Pretoria had been pooh-poohed by the Anglicised Afrikaner establishment of the time, namely as racially inferior tastelessness – almost exactly parallel to what would happen three decades later when white America found rock-and-roll music.

Still, then as now, this wordless folk music gives voice to an innate Afrikaner yearning for simple rhythms to dance to, or at least tap a foot. The accompanying dance will, for those still so inclined, be a local waltz-foxtrot combo that involves a great deal of circling and sweating for the couple. At its orgasmic turning point, the panting gives way to a loud masculine cry of “balke toe!” (heave ho!), at which point the members of the live band, where there is one, will break into a rare smile of recognition on faces usually frozen in earnest concentration.

Often at a braai nowadays, this musical repast will be complemented with more modern formats: CDs of local icons with electric guitars and, most importantly, a lekka beat (an upbeat dance tempo). The affixing of lyrics, though an innovation for braai tunes, has not been an aesthetic enhancement. Rhyming words of the order of “rokkiebokkiesokkie” (dress – deer – dance, all in cutesy diminutive) are no intellectual challenge. This is, still, folk music, intended merely to add vibe to a strictly boundaried culture of meat, beer and sport, where any attempt at cultural depth is frowned upon in blank distaste.

These are outdoor traditions: anything that requires a roof – books, paintings, drama – is just too formal, too hoi polloi,1 for broad Afrikaans appetites. Such quiet tastes are simply silenced by the thundering of sports boots, musical doof-doofs and beered red meat diets. Culture is not meant for the head to grow, here, but for the gut. If it doesn’t feel good, from the very first instant, and right in the midriff, then it is some sort of elite enterprise, worlds removed from the gewone ou en vrou (regular guy and gal). A visit to another city in South Africa would hardly ever include a trip to the local museum; it would be unimaginable, though, without a braai or two. With meat and fire, ball games and beer constituting the prime reference points for describing “the Afrikaner”, ideally-typically, there’s no danger of misrepresenting this group as primarily an intellectual, artistic, sensual, or even truly gastronomic culture. Although in most aspects of “high culture” – from literature to medicine to law to religion to music, and so forth – world-class achievements by Afrikaans speakers can be indicated, these are few and far between, and then always not because of the broad Afrikaner culture, but despite it.

Such is the searing tale of meat.


1 In Afrikaans, “hoi polloi” carries connotations of high-class exclusivity, probably based on misinterpretations of the sounds of the English words “high” and “polite”. The Afrikaans meaning unwittingly carries some irony in it, though, since in the Greek original “hoi polloi” meant “the many”, thus the exact opposite cultural stratum, which upper-class English would render as “the unwashed masses”.