(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
Food is an incredible gift. A source of energy, nourishment, and life, food has the ability to connect people across place, time, culture, religion, ethnicity, language, etc. Being a foodie, I look forward to immersing myself in the cuisine of new places I visit or live, whether it is Carolina Pulled Pork, Roman Gelato, Minnesota’s many hot dishes, or South Africa’s pap. So, upon learning of an upcoming release of a cookbook of Food and Memories from District Six, I knew I just had to find some way to get involved with the project. As the cookbook is essentially in post-production mode, Tina, the Museum’s Exhibit Coordinator and head of the project, and the former residents of the neighborhood who contributed to the final product did not need any more assistance. Disappointed, I tried to accept the reality that I would not be able to help finish the process.
However, last month, after Nate, Jennifer and I met with Mandy, our supervisor, to plan our time at the museum and how we would leave our footprint, an idea sprung out of my head hotter than an Indian curry: what if we organized a cooking workshop to accompany the few others the three of us had brainstormed? Students could help prepare dishes taken from the District Six cookbook, and in the process, they would not only learn about food traditions in the neighborhood, but also have a chance to interact with the women who submitted the recipes. Excited, we spent the next few weeks transforming the idea into a reality.
The workshop week came and I found myself scrambling to prepare three of the dishes, just in case the ones the students and former residents did not cook in enough time. Grateful to have a kitchen to use, thanks to Mark and the staff at a daycare center attached to the museum, I had to take liberty with the recipes, due to a lack of measuring tools. Setting a coffee cup as one cup, a small spoon as a teaspoon, and attempting to account for the non-American measurement system, I somehow managed to throw together three South African specialties: bobotie, lentil curry, and sago pudding. Going to bed that night, I worried if everything would be in place the next day: would we have enough pots and pans? Would there be enough ingredients and supplies? What would everyone think of my attempt at cooking their traditional cuisine? Would anything be accomplished?
After a short night’s rest, the day arrived. To make sure everything was prepared, I got to the Homecoming Center, the site of the workshop, at 8:15-about two hours before the event began. Still nervous as to whether or not everything would fall into place, I did my best to focus on the things I could control: I had to warm-up some pumpkin in the microwave, finish mixing the sago pudding, and bake the pudding once it was ready to go. At half past nine, my worries began to subside, as the former residents started to trickle in, bringing with pans, measuring tools, and their expertise. By ten minutes to ten, everything was in place, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Through the following three hours, the former residents and high school youth collaborated to transform a set of ingredients into pap, pumpkin fritters, bobotie, lentil curry, and sago pudding. Once everyone had a chance to taste each dish, including the ones I prepared the day before, participants shared reflections in an open-mic session. Reflecting on their experiences and sharing their critiques of my cooking (you’re bobotie was a bit too sweet, your lentils were too hard), I was relieved to know the hard work had paid off: some students found newfound culinary skills, many grasped the importance of inter-generational dialogue, especially in District Six, where the number of former residents decreases each year, and above all, people realized the ability food has to bring people together, regardless of age, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.
At the end of the day, I was exhausted, but also sad that the event had come to pass. Looking back on my two months in South Africa, the time I cooked foods from District Six and organized a workshop for the Cape Flats youth will stand out for years to come. Beyond teaching the students important lessons, I reaffirmed one of my own: it is arduous and somewhat awkward to impose on a different society in order to attempt to educate them from an outsider’s perspective on their own culture. I certainly didn’t know the nuances of South African cooking and often had to guess at ingredient amounts, as I was accustomed to a different measurement system. However, there also may be value in learning of one’s own culture from a foreigner’s perspective: my versions of the dishes, although slightly different, added a new perspective to the tradition. And if implemented and absorbed properly, outside influence may create a rich diversity in food, culture, and ideas that have the power to improve the world in which we live.