Listening to the radio since dawn. An hour later. Still no news from Zimbabwe, no news from Masvingo, from Hatfield, from Harare, from Bvumba, from Gweru, where the recount shows Mugabe’s Zanu-PF still losing. The time for signing petitions and sending food parcels is over. UN embargoes cannot help a destitute country. I sit like others waiting for updated news reports. Thinking about baskets of wild string beans and mustard-coloured ndembe beans, gem squash, groundnuts and peanuts in red skins, maize cobs papery and rustling, the masasa and marula trees. Fruit of the wilderness, the roots out in the bshveld, the velvety grey pods of the baobab.
Feeding people. I think about the hungry queueing for food, my freezer with meat and frozen left-overs, soups. Anout feeding friends.
Sociability is a funny thing. I am not sociable at all. The alcoholism required hours and hours. days and weeks, months and years alone for drinking. Una is very sociable, loves people around her, is a great carnivore and bread eater, conventional but a very good cook. Anyone is welcome. I am offbeat and a good cook at very different dishes. Shy but warm and reaching out to others, eager that they feel at home.
Years ago when I was a student we had black activists coming in to camp out in the passage at Guildford Road commune and I began living in student communes about that time, in a tough political climate, the year of flight and hiding and exile. One Saturday morning I went down to the vegetarian Left commune, as it was known, at Bridge Street. Alison and Farieda were making a vegetarian stew on a Baby Belling stove with a Matisse poster above the stove, a nude spattered with what could not have been bacon fat. A tall pot with celery stalks and Swiss chard boiled to death and cabbage and old potatoes and no onions and browning heads of cauliflower, withering zucchini, unripe tomatoes, very sour, cubes of pumpkin, bland and no salt. We ate and ate. There were old sash windows in the kitchen, as tall as a ladder, original early 19th-century windows, with a pressed steel ceiling above and old tulip-shaped brass chandeliers suspended from the ceiling. No doubt all destroyed now. We sat around on piled pillows and rickety benches, laughing and eating, even having seconds.
I ate some of Alison’s veggie stew in a clay dish, handthrown and chipped at the rim, squatting or cross-legged, sun falling in oblong squares through the sash windows, wearing my blue wrap-around tie-dye skirt and white T-shirt with pink nipples showing. Long sun-bleached hair and hemp sandals. But the food was atrocious and I had eaten communal fish stew in Kenya on the coast and bean pots with toasted peanuts in Malawi, Italian casseroles in Piedmont, French pot-au-feu. I remember thinking, ‘Fuck, even I can do better.’
So I began cooking lentil and vegetarian stews and making moussaka and lasagnas and then doing dishes with mince as well as lentils. I didn’t know how to tackle any other meat. When people arrived I would get them to chop veggies with me and we would chat and drink Tassies red wine in two-litre flasks and some of the wine would go into the food. I learned more from a Polish housemate Laura C, from Amy G from District Six. from Beatie H. It wasn’t about my social skills, it was about hungry people. That is really still where I come from. Hungry people.
Then I shared a flat with Steph in the 1980s, who was Lebanese and classified as non-White so we had to pretend she was a visitor. From her I learned all about spices and the use of cinnamon and za’tar.
And when I began working in publishing I read food writers — I still do — and slowly began to experiment. I am not a smart dinner party cook or hostess at all. But I enjoy cooking for those I love and for the hungry. There is always somebody alone and unfed down the road, always somebody going hungry nearby, always somebody waiting for a cheque, who will welcome a hot plateful of roast vegetables or lasagna. Nothing expensive, but food for the soul. Some thing to warm you, something to inspire