In the early 1990s, at the start of my career as a journalist, I was a reporter on The Argus when it was still a respectable afternoon paper peopled by clever, characterful journos. Those were the days! My desk was on the cusp of the newsroom, adjacent to the colourful Tonight section run by the legendary Derek Wilson. On that illustrious staff was Tony Jackman. I’d see him walking the length of the newsroom towards me, knowing that at some point, without fail, he’d glance up, say a shy hello, and move on. Today he’s not only a celebrated foodie, former restaurateur, playwright, writer and the Daily Maverick‘s copy editor, his first cookbook, foodSTUFF – Reflections & recipes from a celebrated foodie (Human & Rousseau) has been published. The wonderful array of recipes are punctuated with poignant, honest essays on his life’s journey. They are beautifully written and considered, and here is my favourite:
In the Big, Beige Baking Bowl
In the big, beige baking bowl, life is beaten, whisked and stirred, as you try to turn disparate ingredients into something that makes sense. In your mom’s kitchen there is vanilla and butter and flour, eggs and castor sugar, and a metal whisk to combine them all and turn them into something else in the big, steaming oven.
In that kitchen, the little boy, now long grown up, sees himself at age six or seven. And he sees Simeon. Simeon is a man who seems very thin and very, very tall to that little boy. Simeon is the houseboy. You know now how wrong it is to call this man a boy, but that was what everyone did; everyone who was white in the town anyway – which was everyone except the houseboys, the only black people in this town of diamond-seeking whiteness, Owambo men hired on six-month contracts and bussed all the way down through what we then called South West Africa to work in the houses of the white families, whose fathers worked on the alluvial diamond mines and whose mothers raised the kids and worked in The Store or the hairdresser’s.
Everybody had one. A houseboy. One who did the washing and ironing, nursed the kids, peeled the vegetables, mowed the lawn.
They wore white aprons that exaggerated their ebony skin. They lived in a compound on the edge of town. Each evening around six o’ clock you’d see Owambo men in white aprons traipsing out of town to the compound, where there were no women, no children, just the company of other migrant men far from home.
Near the big hospital in town, which was for the employees of The Company rather than for the men who worked for the families, was another compound where sick Owambo men would sit on chairs outside dormitories. This was the TB clinic, and the white kids were warned never to go too near lest they catch it.
I had known Simeon for as long as I could remember. I loved him and looked up to him. He was my first mentor, and though he seemed to me to be a quite mature man then, now I see that he must have been only in his twenties. It seemed he had family in Owamboland and, young as I was, I saw that that must have been hard for him.
Simeon had been with us for as many years as I could remember and over time I started taking him for granted. I gave him lip. I snapped at him. And finally I swore at him, and told him to do things rather than asking him politely. That was until one afternoon when my parents were at work I had a screaming fit and lashed out at him. He was stoic, turned his back on me and carried on peeling carrots and potatoes, responding to my insult with dignified silence. My tantrum spent, I eventually fled to my room, crying and bewildered, and sobbed into my pillow, angry at myself and hating myself. I didn’t understand why I had done it. I loved Simeon. All he had done in return was look at me with a face that combined sternness and kindness, eyes that held understanding and a little sadness. And then turned to his work.
The following week, he was due to go back to Owamboland at the end of his current contract. I hugged him and told him I would miss him. He squeezed my shoulder, boarded the bus and left. He’d see me in six months, he said. He never came back.
I have carried my guilt over Simeon ever since. It was the one thing that made me start to think like the adult me would think. When we moved to Cape Town, the sixties behind us, I was in my mid-teens and found myself in just the right place for a formative kid to think about life around him.
Unlike the paleness of Oranjemund, Cape Town was a vibrant mix of brown and white and, to a lesser extent in those days, black. In the supermarkets, the tills were manned by coloured women. When my mom, who had been a cashier at the general store in Oranjemund, said she was going to apply for a job as a cashier at the OK Bazaars, my sister told her it wasn’t done. It wasn’t for white women, she said. My mother, coming from modest working-class stock, was puzzled, and signed up for a shop-girl job regardless.
Life was ever colourful in Cape Town. On the green-and-cream double-decker City Tramways buses, the Whites-Only signs would have the white people sit downstairs and the black and coloured people upstairs. If it was a single-decker bus, a few rows at the back were reserved for those other than white.
The 14-year-old me took this all in and worried about it. I learned about apartheid, the Group Areas Act, about petty separation and exclusion. I learned what a vote was and that some people did not have one. I looked at benches in the Company’s Garden with ‘Slegs Blankes’ (Whites only) emblazoned on them, and seethed. On another bench was ‘Nie-Blankes’. Non-Whites. One day I was sitting on a Whites-Only bench. I got up and looked around to see if anyone was watching and then tentatively sat down on a Nie-Blankes bench. It felt just the same as the Whites-Only one. This was just stupid. How could so many adults be so stupid?
Most of the movie houses – all the ones in town, anyway – were for whites only. There were cinemas for the coloured people, but those were out of town, far from where white people would want to go. Again, I seethed. And so I started to trot upstairs on the double-deckers to sit with the black people. They looked at me suspiciously as I walked, self-consciously, all the way to the back row, as if to make a point. It was a childish protest, yes, but hey, I was a child.
I committed my thinking about these things to Simeon. Decided to remember him whenever racism reared its head. I sometimes have a whispered word with Simeon in the hope that he can hear me through the ether, for he must be long dead. Maybe the wind carries our deepest aches to places where ears wait for healing words.
Now, whenever I smell or taste cake batter, I’m back in the kitchen with Simeon, wishing that I could go back and fix it. I am little again, with Simeon at the sink, washing the dishes in his white apron and my mom at the kitchen table with the big, beige baking bowl, beating and whisking and letting me swipe a thumbful of the cake batter once it’s been poured into the cake tin.
And I wonder, when is it you become the individual you’re on your way to becoming? Is it as early as that, watching your mother bake a cake or make a pie, watching the methods and techniques and understanding that just one wrong step – leave out one of the eggs , add too much flour – and your recipe for success is messed up?
And then I wonder, when or where was it that you decided to try to do things differently, to turn off the main drag and head down a side street and search for the less-than-bleeding obvious? Was it the Sunday morning when your dad took you to the field round the corner from your house and said, we’re getting breakfast here? And dotted around the soccer field were plump, white button mushrooms, and we each had a small knife and we picked them all and took them home, where he sliced them and cooked onions and added them and then added cream and, after it had bubbled away to thicken up, seasoned it, poured it onto crisp, buttered toast and it was so yummy. And that feeling of all of this having come from the thought, just the spark of the idea that there might be mushrooms on the field today. And there were.
When you cast your mind all the way back to where you began, at your parents’ knees, you wonder whether you appreciated them enough, and you think back to the last time you saw her, and the last time you saw him.
The last time I saw my dad was in the early eighties, in Durban, in that little rented room, in a nondescript building in Point Road, with his bedside drawer full of the odd little tools that had been with him all his life. Such a small world his has come down to, the man who had once sailed the world with the Royal Navy, his life truncated.
Somewhere in a drawer lay his medals, including the one for his valour in saving the lives of many of his shipmates when the frigate went down in the Easter Mediterranean, where my own future might have drowned with him. You never know where life is going to take you, although his always had to be under the sun so it was no surprise that he ended up in Durban. And he died, suddenly, in 1983, and that was that.
I last saw my mom in the dining room of the awful old-age home where she spent her last days, and it pains me still to picture her there. I could have done better for her, and we have to carry those burdens with us through our own lives. And her asking, ‘Just answer me one thing, Tony, will I ever go back to England?’ And you saying, ‘Mom, I don’t know, I hope so, I’ll try my best …’ And her having that sad look in her eyes and you walking away. And then … never again the big, beige baking bowl.
WIN a copy of foodSTUFF!
Send me a comment in the section below on why you’d like to win, leave your contact details and like the Sharon & Co. Facebook page and this beautiful book could be yours. The competition is only open to people living in South Africa and closes on 15 December 2017.
You can read my interview with Tony here and, for the perfect supper with friends, here is a typical Jackman menu selection: Roasted Parsnip Soup, followed by Roast Sirloin of Beef With a Fatty Crust and closing off with Lemon Fridge Tart.
My grateful thanks to Tony and Jean and her colleagues at NB Publishers.