Who we are. What we eat.
There is a meme I saw recently with the caption “When you take her out for dinner and she refers to olives as di grapes tsa salad (salad grapes)”. The meme, whether intended or not, shames the person who has the audacity to refer to olives as salad grapes. There is a clear power dynamic at play here. The individual who has the privilege of being offended by another’s lack of knowledge about olives probably considers themselves to be more worldly and perhaps of a higher class position – they’re ‘educated’ enough to know the difference between olives and grapes.
That meme is a representation of how the food we eat is not merely sustenance but a microcosm on a plate, if you like, of our social reality. It speaks to our broader politics, namely, who has regular access to olives and the language by which they are called; who takes who out for a meal; who is fortunate enough to afford a meal out and understands the culture of eating out, and so on.
You also see this in the jokes that often do the rounds making fun of Black people who don’t know how or what to order on a menu. Another popular one is the beauty contestant who, when asked what her favourite dish is, responded with “Tupperware”. The common thread with these jokes is the shame associated with not having access to a particular culture around food.
According to Oxfam’s 2014 report , more than half of our population is in danger of going hungry. I would imagine that, for those who fall within this group, shame is far more associated with not having food rather than the “nice-life-problem” of not knowing how to pronounce ‘croissant’.
Ours is a country of contrasts. There are those for whom eating is more a question of “where will I eat today”? rather than “will I eat today?”. There are those for whom not eating is not a choice driven by the desire for a “summer body” but rather because the sun often sets without one’s tongue having touched a morsel of food due to lack.
How can we ever forget the Mmupele siblings ranging between two and nine years old, who starved to death in 2011 in the North West while looking for food?
This tragic journey ending in children dying because they didn’t have enough to eat is the shameful reality of our country.
While food speaks to bigger politics, it is also a private and intimate matter. For those of us whose quality of life has improved due to access to education and opportunities, the food we ate growing up can be a source of nostalgia. As a child, I picked wild berries whenever we walked to another village and held the feet of nervous chickens while older siblings slaughtered them. I cleaned intestines and stole far too many unripe peaches from my grandfather’s garden. As one of the many grandchildren, I had the privilege of tasting the first cream from a cow’s udder and learned how to crack a good bone against a stoep to reach all the marrow in it. Growing up, I thought this was the reality for all children and it was only later that I realised that what I ate and didn’t eat was very much about who I was as a Black girl, growing up in a particular geographical space, within a family of certain means.
What is your journey with food? What does what we eat and how we eat say about us as a community, a culture, a country?
Join John Perlman on Thursday 12 November from 18:05 – 19:00 as he talks food, politics and culture with Leonie Jourbert, author of The Hungry Season and Ngwato Mashilwane owner of Mash Braai House.