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A Culinary Massacre Of Epic Proportions

Ruby Marks remembers her mother: “...she ‘cooked’ me in love. Marinated me in tenderness. Poached me in self-belief. Fried and tempered me with the heat of a difficult life in poverty. Blanched me until I could survive anything, and watered me into who I am today.”


This photograph was taken by the talented Cape Town-based photographer Nicholas Eppel. It shows the dignity of a District Six mother in the tradition of the Dutch masters.


 It is time to own up to the truth, because not all of our cooking journeys ended in triumphs of culinary delight and taste. And although I adore my late mother, the truth is that this woman, although skilled in surviving her own life and rescuing me in the process from the many challenges of life on the Cape Flats, well... this woman couldn’t cook. Period.


Let me share my “surviving Mummy’s cooking” story with you.


As was the case in most households on the Cape Flats, certain days of the week was reserved for certain meals. The same unspoken rule applied to our little household of two. Mondays were therefore fish day. That was the day that the open-back white van would make its slow crawl down the street while the assistant blew his old fish horn in that forlorn way letting every housewife within earshot know that they can come out and buy “on the book”, with payment expected Friday night.


“... shamefacedly, Mum would appear, and taking a note from the mysterious, dark recesses of her bra under her long, shapeless check overall, would hand over the warm, crumpled note...”

The happy mood around the van would change to a more solemn one on the Friday night when collection was due, and many a housewife were caught out on a little white lie when their more innocent offspring (okay, that was me!) would answer the knock on the door and slowly and dutifully intone, “my mother says my mother is not home”. Upon hearing this, the designated collection guy would shout, “come out, Mrs Marks, I know that you are here!” And, shamefacedly, Mum would appear, and taking a note from the mysterious, dark recesses of her bra under her long, shapeless check overall, would hand over the warm, crumpled note, and say, “I don’t know where the child found that to say, but I will pay the rest next Friday, so see you Monday”.


And then both would say goodbye politely, satisfied that a compromise of sorts had been reached. But the moment the door was closed, you could hear the dull “whap” as I got a quick slap on the bottom amidst my loud protestations, “but Mummy, you told me to say that you are not here!”


Ah, life in the township! Alas, I have to tell the truth or shame the devil, as she would say. My mother could not cook. Period. Bless her well-intentioned heart, but the skills she were blessed with did not include cooking and baking and so I was raised mostly on “blikkies kos” (canned food).


Yes, she spent many years in domestic service as a sleep-in worker. First to an old Jewish woman in Sea Point called ‘Ou Merrem’, a querulous old battle-ax with an immaculately coiffed, stiff, lilac helmet-shaped head of hair and that eerily (for a young child), you could see right through. Not even the most brisk of Sea Point breezes could move that Pantene-sprayed lilac hair helmet!


Most of my childhood memories of her consisted of a game of hide and seek, because she couldn’t bear the sight of me and I got used to hearing her complain to my mother, “Katy, I don’t want to hear that brat of yours!”. I became a very silent child, playing or reading in the shadow of the backstairs that led up to the servant’s quarters in Sea Point.


My mother was lucky in one respect with this demanding tyrant - she was quite old, and so she preferred very basic meals. Marmalade on toast for breakfast, kippers for lunch, and some boiled kosher chicken for dinner.


After a few years there, my mother got fed-up about the constant complaints to keep her little brat quiet, and we moved to Kenilworth. And again my mother’s lack of cooking skill remained undetected. She was employed as a full-time nanny for three children all under the age of ten, and another maid saw to the cooking.


“They decided to immigrate to the US, and offered to take my mum with her if she agreed to leave me behind.”

She was a hard worker, but the family was worried about the many demonstrations and strikes protesting against apartheid at the time. They decided to immigrate to the US, and offered to take my mum with her if she agreed to leave me behind. Mummy refused, and they left.


The children continued to write to her for many years, and she kept the letters and their photos in a special photo album. After a while, the letters stopped. But still, I used to spend hours staring at the black and white pics of happy, fat white babies staring at me, and marvel at the different lives we were leading... they, raised on the rage of a black women’s pain, and me, raised by a mother’s absence.


By the time she left “service” to work first at I.L Back in Parow and then as a shift worker at Nylon Spinners, she was, like many other women, struggling to keep up with the demands of full-time assembly line jobs and trying to come up with creative meals. And so meals were a necessary chore for her, and I think the unwritten mantra in the life of her and many other working women simply became, “you eat to live, you don’t live to eat”.


And if you dared to complain, you were told about the poor starving children of Somalia, who would kill to have any plate of food in front of them! And so meals became fairly predictable... fried fish and potato mash on a Monday, Lucky Star pilchards in a tomato and onion sauce again with potato mash on a Tuesday (still one of my favourite meals today, even though I wasn’t crazy about it at the time because it showed up with boring monotony as did the rest of the week’s menu!).


Wednesday I would be sent to buy 20 cents worth of mince at the butcher and a small can of Koo tomato paste for a quick meal of tomato mince and potato with rice; Thursday would be my mother’s version of Irish Stew, with a can of Koo mixed vegetables, potatoes and meat with rice.... often alternated with Koo baked beans, and daringly, a bit of Rajah curry powder added to the pot for her version of curry.


Friday nights were reserved for a polony smoortjie with mash, Saturdays (if it was end of the month) there would be fried sausages and maybe a pink snowball or a cream doughnut (yummy!).


And then Sunday... roast chicken, rice, potatoes, Koo sousboontjies and beetroot that seeped into the food like a scene from a terrible murder committed by a serial killer. My mother would be the first one to tell you that she couldn’t cook, and as much as I adored her, I have to agree.


There were redeeming moments even though Koo cans was such a regular feature in our home. Later, her lovely brown stews of meat and potatoes - she could brown a pot, even if it meant that I had to sit scouring that Hart pot where the meat burned in patches for a long time afterwards to get it clean and shiny again. By the end, that pot had an enviably thin bottom the likes of which I never had! And her leg of lamb pot roast!


All this cooking prowess showed up later, after her retirement, when she could really devote time to look after the pot. Always the same recipe. Onions, bay leaf, peppercorns, one or two carrots, the leg of lamb, stock made with a Maggi cube, and then about two hours of slow cooking, and once most of the water had evaporated, a slow fry-up to brown the meat on all sides. Yum! I still make it from time to time and it always brings a rush of happy food-memory back to me today.


Her desserts were also mostly of the jelly and Ideal Milk kind, but sometimes she would daringly pop in a few slices of banana. Lord knows, she tried under trying circumstances. And she could make a lovely apple pudding, which was basically some vanilla cake mix that she added slices of cooked green apple to, and poured Ideal Milk on top of the cooked warm pudding so that it seeped into it’s nooks and crannies. I still love that! And her pumpkin fritters were amazing!


So there you have it - the peak of my mother’s culinary masterpieces:pumpkin fritters, leg of lamb and apple pudding.


This is what calls me home to her, a hard working woman who made the best of what life threw at her.


Still, she “cooked” me in love. Marinated me in tenderness. Poached me in self-belief. Fried and tempered me with the heat of a difficult life in poverty. Blanched me until I could survive anything, and watered me into who I am today.


“I walked through a quiet guard of honour of sorts formed by the neighbours up the stairs to our front door.”

And another memory still after I was released from solitary confinement at Pollsmoor Prison... She waited nervously for me at home, because my lawyer, Essa Moosa, had arranged with one of his staff to pick me up at prison and bring me home to Bellville South. I arrived home, and she was standing in the kitchen of our cramped Bellville South flat in Hendrick Crescent, after I walked through a quiet guard of honour of sorts formed by the neighbours up the stairs to our front door. The smell of burning meat hung heavy in the air.


We were not huggers, but this time she held me, and said, “I’m sorry, I wanted to make you a special meal, but I burned the chops”. I told her it was ok, that it didn’t matter. As long as I was home. Inside I was fuming unreasonably at her, but it was an anger fuelled by rage at the helplessness I felt when I was locked up. And I ate the burnt remains of those chops. It was the best meal I had in a long time.


Today, all those culinary massacres are forgiven, even loved, although some from a very great distance. And only the sweetness of love and memory remain.


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