Simpler times.

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It’s been a dark couple of weeks for South Africa, what with one thing and another.

In fact, adding last year’s Marikana tragedy into the mix and continual crises in education and our frustrating inability to uplift the poorest and most disadvantaged of our country, it clearly brings into focus the size and range of massive and fundamental moral, social, emotional and existential questions we’re confronting on a daily basis at the moment.

I’m not arguing that we’re the only ones to be facing these questions, in fact most of the Middle East in particular has been doing so in a pressure-cooker of religion and civil war for decades, but South Africans of every colour and socio-economic background, have recently been forced to look at some very nasty sides of life and ourselves. And it’s shaken us, I think – it’s almost as though a dark tar or taint has soaked itself into even the most everyday and mundane of the thousands of little things we do to create this big thing we call “our lives”.

It’s hard not to feel adrift, cut loose from the things you felt you were certain about, or thought were reliable – and conversations become inevitably defined by the prefix of “Did you hear…” – as nuggets, scraps and sound-bite trophies are traded for an odd kind of internal group supremacy. But all we’re really doing is rebounding our own echoes back on ourselves – the same details and pieces, some made-up or invented – who knows? – but because the innumerable social-media platforms we have available to us constantly throw them back at us over and over and over again – we can’t help but be drawn into repeating them.

I think the reality at the moment is the extent to which life can suddenly insert chaos into the bits of yourself that you thought were safe, impenetrable – throwing them uncomfortably wide open. And I in particular don’t deal very well with this feeling of being adrift, of being at the mercy of tides bigger and more sinister than you thought would ever become a part of your day-to-day. I don’t know anyone who does, really…

It’s in these moments that the familiar and simple become the most important possible things that one can hold on to. And for me, those simple things are best found in the kitchen and around the table, with conversations about the stuff that make us smile and laugh. It’s a candle against the darkness.

So this week, get some mates around, make something you really like that’s rich and comforting. Get some wine on the table, and let the rest take its course.

I’ve often talked on this blog about the extent to which I’ve always appreciated the Italian approach to cooking (and life really, except maybe for all that mafia and Mussolini stuff…), which focuses of fewer ingredients, of as good a quality as can possibly be sourced, and letting those flavours just simmer and enrich themselves without to much fuss or faff.

One of my favourite comfort meals in this regard is a wet, cheesy polenta, with spicy salami, sautéed with San Marzano tomatoes and a dash of balsamic. Do your best to get imported ingredients from an Italian deli, it really will make all the difference. Also this dish is wheat and gluten free which means it’s great for a lot of people who have problems with that stuff. Like me.

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Polenta with tomatoes

Ingredients

1 good cup of good quality Italian polenta.
a handful of freshly-grated Parmesan cheese.
salt and pepper

A handful of thinly-sliced spicy salami, preferably handmade Italian.
A 400g tin of San Marzano tomatoes.
1 medium red onion, finely chopped.
1 large clove of garlic, crushed with the flat of a butter knife with some salt and combined to make a paste.
Half a dried red chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped.
1 tbsp of good quality balsamic vinegar.
A handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped.
A slick of truffle-infused oil (if you can)

What to do

In a wide, flat-bottomed saucepan add a slick of olive oil and bring to a medium-high heat. Toss in the chopped onions, the garlic salt paste and the chopped chilli, stirring until the onions have softened and started to become translucent. Turn up the heat a notch, and add the chopped salami and keep stirring as it sizzles and pops. Just as the salami has started to crisp and release its fat, throw in the tin of tomatoes, crush them with the back of your stirring spoon, add the tablespoon of vinegar, a dash of salt and pepper to taste, turn the heat down, and let this rich, wonderful sauce blip away for about 20 minutes or so. Add a little bit of truffle oil, five minutes before taking off the heat.

Just as the sauce is ready, bring two and a half cups of salted water to the boil, in a pot on the stove-top. Get the polenta and the Parmesan close at hand, and as the water is boiling – start to froth it with a whisk. Add the polenta in a steady stream, carrying on whisking as you go. Immediately get the pot off the heat, keep whisking the polenta as it thickens, and add the Parmesan, stirring it in.

Spoon the lovely thick polenta into a bowl, add a ladle of sauce and also a sprinkle of chopped basil leaves.

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Horse: friend or feast.

Anyone who lived through what I like to call the “Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett!?!” era of the early 90s – will know, quite viscerally, the extent to which the world is a very, very peculiar place sometimes.

Now, I have nothing against Lyle Lovett – as far as fringe alt-country crooners go, he’s great. Okay, so his hair is pretty stupid and he sometimes looks like a crocodile trying to get something out of his teeth, but his real problem is that he’s part of a group of men who I firmly believe should, for the good of society, be banned from ever actually being involved with any women, purely to spare us all from ever accidentally having a mental image of them having sex.

David Copperfield is the President-For-Life of this club, just in case you were wondering…

I want this to be clear, this is less a comment on the sexual desirability of Lyle Lovett or the appalling taste of Julia Roberts, and more a comment on the general peculiarity of life. I mean let’s not forget, this ‘life’ thing has given us drop-crotch pants for guys, dubstep and aspic (for anyone who doesn’t know what aspic is, go ask your granny; it’s essentially a salad preserved in jelly that for some inexplicable reason is usually moulded into the shape of a fish).

You’d think that by now we’d be used to oddities, general weirdness and the tenacious existence of ‘mom jeans’.

And yet we’re not. In fact it’s almost as though we’re comforted by our ability to be discomforted. The unexpectedness of, say, seeing Nicki Minaj becoming an Olympic lawn bowls gold medallist feeds the hardwired sense of righteous indignation we have that encourages us to throw our hands up in the air and go, “See!? Just like I’ve always said – lawn bowls/the Olympics/gold medals have never been the same since that Minaj woman got involved.” We’re deeply suspicious of the universe, and will go to great lengths to preserve our right to that suspicion.

I think this is why everyone is so gripped by the fact that apparently half of Europe has had a higher-than-expected quotient of pony in their cheeseburgers than they were previously led to believe (i.e. none). Outrage, disgust, disbelief and varying degrees of horror have gripped Britain for starters, and is slowly spreading as more and more countries realise that they too could have been dining on a bit of Daisy rather than the moo-cow that was advertised on the packet. Vast quantities of horse are turning up in lasagnes, burgers, bangers and pies – so much of it in fact, that I can’t help but be struck by one simple thought.

Until the labs got involved, how come no one noticed?

Seriously. It’s not like anyone, upon getting their Whopper at Burger King, took one bite and said, “Ooh, that tastes a bit horsey, don’t think I’ll have any more of those!” Nope, these horse-filled meals have apparently been selling just fine – which is why whoever made them carried on nefariously stuffing them full of pony. This surely means means one of two things; either that most ready-made meals and fast food is so terrible, that your burger could be made of parrot, monkey or sea-louse – and you probably wouldn’t be able to tell. Or, that horse is actually quite nice to eat.

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I know this is a horrific thought for some (or indeed most) people. Anecdotally, it seems to be the major theme of the distaste around the practice: “But we ride them, they’re more friends than animals.”

But I do wonder if what we really mean is, “They’re not ugly like cows, sheep or pigs,” which is alas the unfortunate trait that makes it easier for us to eat cows, sheep and pigs. I myself was taught to ride horses by my aunt, and have spent enough time around them to not just view them purely as great big things that sometimes try and kick you to death. Anyone who’s ever ridden, owned, had a poster of horse on their wall as a kid, or been a fan of My Little Pony (original or remake), will no doubt think I’m worse than a Nazi or someone who swindles people out of pensions for suggesting that horse-meat might actually have some culinary value, but I’m serious. How come no-one raised the alarm based on taste? (I also just want to say that I understand that this scandal is equal part ‘ew horsey’ and equal part ‘jeez how unregulated is our food industry that we don’t know what what’s going into it half the time?’: this episode happened to be pony, next time it’s radioactive waste)

I was at a party about a week ago, where the hostess had magnificent, angry bruising over most of her upper arm. It turns out one of her horses had tried to bite her, which is where she got the bruise. This, to me, made total sense, considering that it turns out we’ve been taking bites out of them for so long, that it’s only fair that the horses take whatever chances they get to return the favour.

Of course there are cultures who eat horse-meat all the time. The Japanese, Chinese, Russians, the Mexicans and to a lesser extent Italians, have no problems with it. And although we like to scoff at most of those cultures (especially the Chinese) for enjoying a good bit of poached cat or a yummy beetle on a stick (which we eagerly jump onto as a sign of cultural inferiority), they in turn look at things like the western mania for cow-milk as being just as disgusting. In Japan you are considered to smell like a horrid baby with your ‘milk breath’ and it greatly lowers their general estimation of you if that happens to be the case.

Now, what I want to know is what happens when all the new guaranteed ‘pony-free’ Whoppers start being served up to a chastened-but-hesitantly-returning public, and everyone who likes their Whoppers has this nagging and uncomfortable thought after the second or third bite; “hang on, this isn’t as delicious as it used to be.”

We should all be prepared to face the prospect that the horse was maybe the best bit. Like any of the times we discovered that the secret ingredient to those delicious minty peas we love so much was actually toothpaste (this happened on a scientific trip to the Antarctic an academic friend of my father once took), or that those artisanal rolls from the market you wolf down every weekend are actually kneaded in the armpit of the baker. It seems to me that generally we’re none the wiser to the less-than-savoury aspects of some of the food we consume, often in-between lip-smacking declarations of how good it is. Which suggests to me that most of us are comically insensitive to the food we eat. We can’t tell if the expired raw chicken has been taken off the shelves, given a chlorine bath and then re-packaged (as happened in SA two years ago), we can’t tell if the shepherd’s pie is not made of shepherd but in fact weasel, and apparently in a triumphant metaphoric vindication for the writers of Sweeney Todd, we didn’t detect a disturbance in the force when our eating was more equine than bovine, porcine or sheepine.

The answer? Easy. Stop buying cheap ready-meals from supermarkets and going to fast-food chains, ya dummies.

What’s hot.

The chair in which I spend most of my… let’s call it “work time” (mainly because
“staring-at-the-ceiling-wondering-who’d-win-in-a-death-match-between-Silvio-Berlusconi-and-a-sentient-banana time” isn’t quite as concise, even if it has the benefit of being more accurate) is made of wicker.

It’s a fairly odd thing to have as one’s office chair, I know this. Especially because the design of this ‘chair’, makes it look like someone once saw a crumpled picture of one back in their early childhood and then decided to make a chair from that memory, out of not very bendy bits of twig – 65 years later when they were beginning to struggle with early-onset dementia.

It makes alarming noises when you sit down or get up from it – and I have it on good authority from really skinny, small people that the experience of sitting in it is mostly an exercise in controlling the anxiety created by feeling like the thing you’re on is less a chair and, more simply, a device designed to drop you on your ass at a random moment of its choosing. Now, I weigh pretty much double your average small skinny person, and so you can imagine how having to be on this thing for about six hours a day is an experience utterly devoid of tranquility, dignity or comfort. As I write this, there is an inexplicably rusty nail that’s sort of prized loose from the wood in which it’s meant to be buried, doing its best to rid me of one (or possibly both) of my testicles, and the four legs are of such dissimilar lengths that it means that you constantly feel like you’re at one of those restaurant tables that needs a crumbled up bit of paper jammed under it to keep it from spilling your vodka tonic all the time.

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I like this chair though, which is why I haven’t replaced it. I keep it around to remind me that life isn’t always meant to be easy, pleasant or enjoyable – my version of Catholic Guilt or supporting the Lions or West Ham I guess. It makes it easier to deal with things like cars breaking down, or cats vomiting on my brand-new Adidas – because from an emotional point of view, the chair has already prepped me. I am sufficiently soaked in an expectation that somehow things are not meant to go smoothly, that life has very few unpleasant surprises left that I can’t shrug off – if the chair hasn’t irreparably ruined my posture by then. I’d imagine that it’s quite similar to the day-to-day experience of being Russian.

This is a fairly long and unnecessary way of saying that somehow chaos creeps into all of our lives – and not necessarily in ways that we’d like. And we all need our little ways of dealing with it, either practically or in less productive but more fun ways, like drinking two bottles of Pinot Grigio and deciding that this meeting is ‘pants optional’.

Which is how I was able to cope with arriving at House and Leisure’s wonderful, pretty and refreshing Trends Evening up on the beach rooftop above Juta street in Braamfontein, after having spent the previous 5 hours in un-air-conditioned meetings held in small, hot rooms with lots of people in them, and as a result had sweated just about the body-weight of a sea-elephant into my denim shirt and stupid black pants (I know, in summer – I’m a moron) over the course of an afternoon. I was honestly no better off than a character from the Walking Dead or a Michael Bay movie (where the primary performance directive to any of the actors always just seems to be to sweat a lot). I suppose we can all agree, that these are not ideal conditions under which to arrive at a dinner hosted by a magazine dictated to identifying and highlighting all things cutting-edge, fashionable and generally awesome, where there are likely to be people who write on the Internet for a living and swarms of other people taking photographs.

And of course I was late by about 2 hours.

On a sliding scale of Grand Entrances, I was less Louis XIV entering the court of the Sun King flanked by trumpeters and simpering, cleavagy maidens, and more the Homeless Guy who’d accidentally stumbled into the party while trying to find a place to have a quiet pee. It is a testament to the excellent and sophisticated people at H&L that, under these circumstances, I was welcomed to their party without so much as a bat of an eyelid. Upon which I proceeded to eat about seven chicken kebabs in a row, just to settle the nerves, which is when they probably started to silently question their judgement.

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The key to being around people when you were sweating heavily on train about 20 minutes before-hand, is to find that sweet-spot of positioning oneself juuust far enough away from them that they can’t tell you were just in the equivalent of a 40-degree Mumbai marketplace, but then not so far away that they think you’re being bizarrely disinterested in their recent charitable trip to Kenya. It also helps if you’ve got an anecdote about almost being gored to death by a semi-professional racing ostrich to distract people from the giant damp-patches under your arms. The problem is, that at a well-populated party, your ‘sweet-spot’ for one person, is always going to compromise you in terms of all of the other people around you trying to get to the bar or discussing artisanal boerie rolls or whatnot. It essentially means that you’ve got to keep on the move, the cocktail party equivalent of an agitated molecule in a beaker being used to demonstrate Brownian Motion for a high school science class. This is why a lot of people think I have enviable amounts of energy and dynamism, when in reality I’m just trying to stay backlit and downwind.

Luckily the party ended before I could declare it ‘pants-free’.

Thanks to House and Leisure for inviting me back after last year’s debacle where I dropped pudding into a glass of hand-crafted tequila.

Also, I really do promise to write about food next time. Or at the very least have a picture of some food, even if the blog is about Armenian sock design.