Diet: Not a First World problem

2014-04-22 14:00

My very first job was at McDonald’s. I was 16. ­McDonald’s was coming to town and East London was so excited, people camped outside in winter the night before it opened.

The “crew”, as we were called, went on a five-day “crew camp” in PE, where we spent days and nights being indoctrinated by graduates of the McDonald’s Hamburger University.

(Google it, it’s real.) I worked there after school on Fridays and on weekends. Unlike the rest of the staff, my cousin and I worked there for experience and jeans and CDs and pizza.

Everybody else was old and had responsibilities.

Every shift, we would get breaks and in those breaks we would get free McDonald’s.

I became addicted to McDonald’s.

It wasn’t the marketing that gave me the name McMili, but the mysterious and no doubt ­unhealthy chemical that makes all their food taste the same ­wherever you go in the world.

As a pseudointellectual post-hipster, it brings me great shame to be publishing this type of information about myself.

And equally, great pleasure to declare that I’ve finally thrown in the paper towel. I’m done with Murky Deeds.

It was after watching a 2008 American documentary called Food Inc that I was exposed to the vile practices of fast food chains, from how they produce their food, to how they treat the integrity of their mostly brown and black workers.

My parents grew up in rural Transkei eating samp and beans every day, and fruit and vegetables farmed by them.

My mother didn’t allow watermelon and cucumber in the house because she ate so much of it against her will as a child.

They also had a love for meat, especially my father.

They’d usually slaughter the animal themselves. Every time they came to “South Africa”, my father would take my mother out to Steers or Wimpy in East London.

There was no sweet cupboard at home. Sweets and chips were a treat, a reward for a school achievement or for doing our chores.

When we passed at the end of a school year, we would sometimes go to Spur as a family.

Nothing much has changed at home, but the more independent I have become, the less special eating out has become.

And I feel like that’s happened across the country.

Whether you sleep in a gated community or a vezinyawo*, the concept of buying food at a restaurant to eat at home has become so commonplace that previously common perishables like ­home-made bread and umleqwa** have become “organic”, even ­exotic to black people.

The “developed” world, led by the rich, is going “backwards” and I wonder if this is evolution or entropy.

Returning to the pastoral practices of our ancestors or the hip urban farming that has been trending in big cities like LA, New York and Sydney over the past few years.

Joburg has joined the list, with urban spaces that grow organic fruit and vegetables sold at urban markets.

Never mind the fact that hawkers and street vendors have been selling organic goods for years.

As with most things that attract the rich, it’s about packaging.

In my (internet) search for food that isn’t genetically modified and for hormone-free meat, I discovered a pair of Joburg-based organic fruit peddlers called The Urban Basket.

They sell fruit and veg in ecofriendly wooden boxes, brimming with trendy leaves like kale.

They deliver on foot to Maboneng because their business doesn’t have a car yet.

They post recipes on their Facebook page and I especially support them because they are young and black.

I was intrigued after seeing a post on how to peel a pricklypear, one of the fruits that were in their basket a few weeks ago.

I haven’t seen or heard of prickly pears, or itolofiya, since I was a child.

Visiting grandparents in the hilly Transkei, we would risk breaking our skin for the distinctive sweet taste.

It was in that moment that I decided to go backwards, or back to my food roots.

I didn’t plan to be a health-obsessed, label-checking, First World-problem person.

I sometimes feel guilty that I now have something in common with those middle-aged white women who occupy ­Melissa’s and Vida.

But the illusion that unhealthy eating is a First World problem is just that, an illusion.

* Vezinyawo: isiXhosa slang for an RDP house. The houses are so small that one can’t fit a normal-sized bed in the rooms so that when one sleeps, one’s feet are always exposed. Veza = exposed. Inyawo = feet

** Umleqwa: Traditional isiXhosa free-range farm chicken. The name comes from the action one has to do to catch the chicken, which is to chase it, suggesting its free-range nature

Find The Urban Basket at

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