Dining with Madiba

2008-08-11 00:00

A BOOK about food in the life of Nelson Mandela? It sounds like jumping on a bandwagon. But a couple of pages into Anna Trapido’s Hunger for Freedom and you are hooked into a delightfully palatable history lesson.

So where did the idea come from? “Well, it’s sort of the way my head works,” says Trapido. “To me, ‘what did you have for lunch’ seems like a thoughtful question. Sometimes people may look at me as if I am trivialising the issue, but food tells you about who people are — socially, culturally and economically.”

Hunger for Freedom, which tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s life in what Trapido describes as “a gastro-political history with recipes”, is more than just a cookbook. Although it is a gentler, “foodie” view of history, that history is still brutal and disturbing, and Trapido’s idiosyncratic telling of it adds a new and moving dimension.

“About a year ago, I was supposed to be reviewing a not very good Mandela biography for the Sunday Independent,” explains Trapido. “I began to realise how often there were foodie references that the author probably hadn’t even noticed. So I didn’t write the review, but wrote a piece on how I thought food was an interesting way of looking at Mandela’s life. And then I realised that the idea was worth more than a thousand words on a Sunday.”

Trapido put her proposal to the Mandela Foundation and with their full approval and backing set to work. All the people she approached — members of the Mandela family, including Madiba’s son by his first marriage, Makaziwe Mandela, who never gives interviews; high-ranking politicians and associates of the former president — opened their doors and their kitchens to her. Zinzi Mandela took Trapido to Maputo and showed her how to make the stuffed crab her father loves; Winnie Mandela invited Trapido to Sunday lunch to demonstrate a recipe she was struggling to get right; Farida Omar (Dullah Omar’s widow) demonstrated her chicken curry, and so it went on.

She has tried all the recipes out — often with the person who originally made them, and then again at home in her own kitchen. She has eaten with Mandela himself, having the stuffed crab in Maputo, and what she describes as “silly eating” — tea and cake — with him when discussing the book.

“He is so profoundly gregarious, and likes eating with the people he loves,” says Trapido when I ask if Mandela is a fellow foodie. “He likes to explore people through their food — an example would be the Greekness of George Bizos through his lamb on a spit. He is interested in food as a cultural mechanism and a way of finding common ground; food as a social tool. It’s what interests me as well.”

This way of seeing food comes through when we talk about Winnie Mandela’s spaghetti and curried mince — which Mandela mentioned in his letters to her from Robben Island for many years. “It’s really pretty good — comfort food,” says Trapido. “Their marriage was such a great, tragic love story. They lived in the same house for less than 18 months, and when he wrote to her from prison and remembered the spaghetti and mince, he was remembering the first flush of domesticity. He was still thinking like that when he came out of jail because they had never had the rest of their lives together.

“She was a very young woman when she made that dish. Her husband kept bringing all his buddies home for a meal — food had to be filling, something everyone could eat and that could be kept in the fridge and shoved in the oven. Someone had taught her to make curried mince and she combined it with a fifties, pre-Jamie Oliver view of Italian food — spaghetti Bolognese. Both of them deserved a lot more spaghetti and mince in their lives.”

The book has many previously unseen photographs which Trapido’s husband Richard found when doing the picture research for the book. And while she was doing her research, she heard many previously unrecorded stories. Trapido thinks that, because her approach was via the food route, people were not being asked questions they had been asked before. If she asked them what they had for lunch during the six years of the Treason Trial, it would trigger new memories. “Taste and smell memories come from a different part of the brain, where subconscious experience is located — so I was getting memories that weren’t part of the conscious memory process.

“I hope that what the book does is give a sense of a real man who did extraordinary things — not the deified myth. I wanted it to be a proper history for people who don’t read history.” It is certainly a proper history, whether or not you read history. And, as Trapido says, it is a truly South African cookbook — a food history of almost 100 years of South Africa, from Umphokoqo (soured milk and mealie porridge) to Graça Machel’s crab and prawn curry via Elize Botha’s malva pudding.

• Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela by Anna Trapido is published by Jacana.

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