Sat 18 May 2013
Yesterday was the first day of the 2013 Franschhoek Literary Festival, and was an action-packed day with good attendance. ‘Cooking up a storm‘ was the only food-related session of the Festival, and was chaired by Taste Food editor and Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly (left), with a panel of ‘Scrumptious’ writer Jane-Anne Hobbs-Rayner (second from right), ‘Karoo Kitchen‘’s Sydda Essop (second on left), and Hilary Biller (right), editor of the Sunday Times Food Weekly insert, and of a book with a collection of its recipes. The panelists were unanimous in heaping praise on ‘Karoo Kitchen’.
Sydda Essop grew up in the Great Karoo, and used to travel with her father to farmworkers in the region, as his job was to fight for their rights. This allowed her to enter the homes of people living in the region, and she noted how little they had to eat, and how modest their kitchens were. When she started working in Social Development, she visited the region again, and did research into the Karoo cuisine, and the food heritage and culture of all resident groups in the area. She pays tribute to the women who cooked in farm kitchens especially, noting again with how little money and food the families survived. She was sad to see that the claimed ‘Rainbow Nation‘ had not materialised. She took more than three years to write the book, interviewing 78 self-taught cooks in the Boland, the Eastern Cape, the Free State, Eastern Cape, and Northern Cape. She had the recipes photographed by Craig Fraser, and the book was published by Quivertree Publications. Abigail described the book as containing 80 ‘very basic recipes’, and that it describes a ‘melting pot of culture and heritage‘, saying that the book had ‘touched her soul’. Essop kept the conversation grounded, and kept reminding the audience that cookbooks like the ones by Hobbs-Rayner and by Biller spoke to the top end of the market, which can afford to buy food. At Essop’s end the Karoo locals can barely afford a chicken on Sunday, a head of cabbage once a week, and food from a can on the other days. Her book contains recipes for interesting dishes such as pomegranate syrup, sheep’s head, offal stew, Auntie Meraai’s chicken pie, ‘gebakte rissel’ (porcupine back), ‘skilpadjies’ (fried sheep’s liver), and springbok tongue, Essop admitting that she did not try all the dishes in her book, using the excuse that they were not all halaal when she was not sure about eating them! The cookbook was described as a ‘classic of South African cooking’ by Hobbs-Rayner, not only containing recipes, but herbal remedies too. It won a Galliova Award, and Essop received an award from the Minister of Arts and Culture for recording the food culture and heritage of the Karoo. The recipe participants were humbled in receiving this recognition, said Essop.
The writers were unanimous how preserving the recipe heritage and handing down the food culture in a family is a ‘dying tradition’, as young people are no longer leaning Home Economics at school, nor are they helping their parents in the home or cooking with them.
Hobbs had eight weeks in which to publish her ‘Scrumptious: Food for Family and Friends’ book, and created 90 new recipes, not drawing from the wealth of recipes on her blog, built up over six years of blogging. Her recipes for starters, salads, soups, seafood, chicken, meat, and desserts are more complex, she said, and would be suitable for dinner parties, for which one would prepare the day before. Recipes are a piece of social history, the origin of which could be 300 - 400 years old, transmitted from parents to children, but with a ‘broken telephone‘ risk. She gave an example of mince pies as a ‘heritage recipe’. She admitted to not enjoying baking and making desserts, even though she included recipes for them in her cookbook. She urged new cooks to read the classic cookbooks. Asked what her last supper would be, if she had a choice, she laughed and said it would be Bangers and Mash with gravy, the favourite dish made by her mother Jenny, Director of the Franschhoek Literary Festival. The cover design of her book is very weak.
Biller’s Sunday Times Food Weekly cookbook was praised for its vibrant colours, also characterising the weekly newspaper insert. It is written for a more affluent market, and Biller described it as ‘frivolous’ compared to the depth of Essop’s book. What makes the weekly insert a success is that it is soft, light, gentle, and fun, compared to the bad news that most of the rest of the newspaper contains. Given that newspapers do not have longevity, publishing a cookbook seemed a good idea, she said. She proudly shared how she managed to get the book to retail below R100 (at R99), by self-publishing it within three months, with printing done in Singapore. She admitted to a dispute she had with the designer about the front cover design, and regretting not listening to him in hindsight. An important chapter in Biller’s book is cooking for and by children. Other chapters include fish, comfort food, Christmas, road trips, Chinese, and Mexican food.
The discussion was divided as to whether cooking is declining or growing. TV cooking programs by Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, as well as MasterChef, have stimulated an interest in cooking. Yet many may be watching the programs but eating take-out food while watching it and not preparing food themselves, just enjoying watching the programs. The children of Biller and Hobbs-Rayner have learnt to cook from the TV cooking shows rather than reading their mothers’ cookbooks, the mothers had to admit! Cookbooks ’seduce the food junkies in us’, Donnelly said. Young people who learn to cook grow in confidence, and they often become new food bloggers as a result. Hobbs-Rayner urged such bloggers to pay attention to detail, to follow the recipe presentation guide, and to be accurate with ingredient quantities and the method description. The rise in the number of food blogs (about 70 - 80 in South Africa) was blamed for declining cookbook sales. The recipes are recorded on the internet permanently, and can be corrected or refined over time, based on feedback received in the comments section of the blogs. Sales of cookbooks written by top chefs still are on the increase. It was noted with concern that new New York apartments are being built without kitchens. Encouraging is that UK schools are adding cooking to school curricula, and that local parents are having a stronger say in what school tuckshops sell to their children.
The use of ingredients was raised too, Nelson Mandela’s cook being a heavy user of Maggi and Knorr, leading to the comment that it does not appear to have harmed the ex-President, seeming ‘well preserved‘, said Biller!
Another contentious question was why there are so few female top chefs, and why they are not included in judging panels such as for MasterChef SA, other than Jackie Cameron from Hartford House and Margot Janse from The Tasting Room, the only female chefs in the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards list. A number of reasons were postulated, including bullying male chefs not wanting to work with temperamental females, that we still live in a patriarchal society, and that it is not seen as a suitable career option by women themselves, especially when they get married and have children. Donnelly fed back with concern that two of three interns New Media Publishing has employed from chefs schools do not really seem to care about their career.
Whilst cookbooks were the intended focus of this Franschhoek Literary Festival session, food blogging emerged as the growing trend, despite the recognition that documenting our food culture and heritage is important too. Surprising then is that the Franschhoek Literary Festival still does not acknowledge blogging as a writing form in its programs.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage