Art de braaivleis

2012-09-24 03:13

In 2007, Desmond Tutu put on an apron, grabbed a braai fork and accepted the title Patron of National Braai Day. He sealed his investiture by eating a boerewors roll.

As usual, Tutu was making perfect sense of our culture and traditions, unlike the stuffed boeps in charge of South Africa’s official “heritage”.

As Heritage Day comes round again there will be the usual empty, ear-aching speeches about how we should all “celebrate diversity” and “respect cultural traditions”.

These speeches will leave us as bewildered and bored as we were before about the meaning of heritage day, though still very happy to have Monday off.

South African authorities have a knack for turning our history into a history lesson. Why can’t they just get happy and realize that giving everyone a day off to have a braai with family and friends is a simple ritual that lets us express and our cultural customs and traditions?

“We light fires, prepare great feasts and celebrate,” say the National Braai Day campaigners, with appropriate dollops of patriotic delight.

For deeper significance, if needed, listen again to the sage Archbish, who reminds us that the braai is “a unifying force in a divided country”. Because let’s face it, loving the braai is one of the few things that all South Africans have in common, besides buying lottery tickets and trying to knock down pedestrians at intersections.

Shisa nyama is a burnt chop by any other name. It is an authentic and beloved part of our heritage. So let the big swinging suits speak – if they must – to our stomachs. It’ll be better than getting earache.

Heritage Day is not a religious holiday, so enjoying it is not a guilty pleasure like pigging out on turkey and toys at Christmas and forgetting about baby Jesus. But that’s how it can feel when the minister of this or the chairperson of that starts droning on about “our rich and varied past”: like being dragged to church in the middle of a game of Angry Birds.

In France, the daily act of eating is almost holy. Food – its purchase, preparation, presentation and consumption - is taken seriously and a French “gastronomical meal” is even listed by UNESCO as “intangible cultural heritage”.

Having seen it, smelled it and tasted it, I’d personally upgrade it to “tangible”.

A typical French meal in a modest home has at least three courses and on special occasions, five. 95% of French people believe a “gastronomical meal” (the five course version) to be part of their identity and culture.

They also spend, according to one report, an average of 2 hours a day sitting at a table, eating.

This explains why most French shops, banks and businesses close for two hours at lunchtime, just when you need them to be open. But after a year of begging to be let in the bank after noon and banging my head on the security grille of the hardware store before 2pm, I have learned, as expats must, that you can’t beat the sacred French lunch, so you might as well sit down and join it.

It also explains why going to a French dinner party is a treat and why holding a French dinner party is purest hell.

I had one this weekend. Hostess hell starts with the aperitif – snacks to you and me – that must be served as guests arrive, with the right kind of drink, possibly a glass of champagne or a whiskey, but not red wine, because that’s for later.

I’ve learned the hard way that you have to serve these snacks – a bowl of olives, wafers of sausage – to your guests by hand. Just plonking them down on a table, waving towards the alcohol and hoping they’ll get on with it won’t work, because helping yourself is considered rude.

So while my main course burns in the kitchen, I make the rounds of my guests, urging each one to try another olive, while holding out a second bowl for them to put their pips in. Throwing them (the pips not the guests) in the nearest bush would be considered rude.

By this time at a South African dinner party, my kind of guests would have hoovered up the snacks, made bold with the liquor and be well on their way to not minding that I’m in the kitchen trying to catch a duck that has sprung out of the oven and is sliding around on the floor in a puddle of plum sauce.

At a French dinner, salad is often eaten after the main course; cheese comes after the salad and before the dessert and every course demands the appropriate wine. Which must be served in a different glass and poured only by the host. Helping yourself to alcohol is considered rude, as is getting drunk.

Leaving out any of the above steps, which I always do, results in your French guests having their worst stereotypes about foreigners confirmed: you are a sweet but savage stranger to their land and, depending on how good the duck was, you may be forgiven or forgotten.

It is Heritage Day in South Africa and I am standing at the sink, still washing up wine glasses.

In my mind’s eye I imagine the unfolding scene in Johannesburg.

My mates will be laying in charcoal and chops. By lunchtime plumes of smoke from a thousand Webers will be drifting over suburban garden walls while pots of pap stiffen like wallpaper paste on the stove. Friends will arrive, and maybe some aunts and uncles, who will tell stories of the old days. There will be deep, teasing laughter as the men compete to burn the meat. Beer will be drunk straight from the can. Toddlers will fuss and fall off swings and be comforted by the aunties while the family dog dives for their mashed up boerewors rolls.

The French have a name for this getting together to “make a great feast and celebrate”. They call it l’art de vivre – the art of living.

Heritage can be a dry bone in the mouth of a state functionary. But it is a sweet, savage tradition when you put some meat on it. This is our story. This is l’art de braai.

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