... and don't expect a 10% tip, waiter

Saturday, 22 March 1997

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou ... South African style

Food is in the news these days. The Johannesburg Zoo held its annual Bug Braai. Madiba hosted a R250 000 per person celebrity dinner at Robben Island.

And a white family in the Gauteng town of Nigel received a letter from the Department of Home Affairs informing them they were lucky winners -- of long term dinner guests.

The letter, on the department's official letterhead in the department's official envelope, informed the white family (let's call them WF) that they had been chosen to host a black family (BF) for several months as part of the "Lend a Helping Hand Household Scheme".

The letter congratulated WF on being granted "special host status". BF, it said, was from the former Transkei, poor, had suffered social upheaval and would take some time to adapt to the new South African way of life.

"During the 1996 census survey, we came to the conclusion that you have plenty of extra space, so there should be no problem in accommodating them.

"For your benefit, we shall include in our next letter some traditional recipes from Transkei so that you can, if you want to, prepare their favourite dishes. What a welcome that will be. We will also provide adequate supplies of mealie meal, chicken, maize, and bread on request."

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I could have told them the letter was a fake. The president comes from a poor family in the former Transkei. The president's dinner -- which raised R5-million in donations for the Robben Island museum -- definitely did not serve mielie meal.

So, what was on the menu? We shadowed a typical guest...

First course arrives and the maitre'd is summonsed. "My fish is not cooked enough."

"It's not cooked at all, sir. It's a tartare of marinated salmon trout, with cucumber salad."

"NOT COOKED? FOR A QUARTER OF A MILLION RAND?"

Over to the left, Chelsea Clinton nudges Hillary. "Pssst! Mom! The fish is not cooked!"

Shortly after. "Waiter! Someone's knocked a glass of water into my food!"

"It's not a glass of water, sir. It's a clear beef consomme with tarragon chicken dumplings and julienne vegetables."

"CON WHAT?"

"Consomme, sir. It's made from boiling well seasoned stock. (sotto voce) Made from bones, sir."

Over to the right, a deadpan Bill Cosby nudges Chelsea. "Tell your mother she's eating boiled bones."

The rest of the meal was typically South African, too. Mixed green leaf salad with raspberry vinaigrette. Baby chicken stuffed with wild rice and pistachio nuts placed on a duo of capsicum and rosemary sauces, with a fresh bouquet of vegetables. A trio of fruit sorbet with a bouquet of fresh fruit. Cheese plate with fresh figs and water biscuits. Coffee and friandes...

"Coffee, sir?"

"No, I'm Bill. Kofi is over there..."

Meanwhile, back at the zoo, guests have arrived for the Bug Braai.

"Waiter, this dip is crunchy."

"It's not a dip, sir. It's Pureéd Parktown Prawn. It's prepared the traditional way."

"Well, why is it so uneven if it's pureéd?"

"Different shoe sizes, sir."

And later on. "Waiter, this pasta is cold."

"It's not pasta, sir. They're chilled Mopani Worms, delicately spiced."

"Why are they chilled?"

"It calms them down, sir."

It's enough to make me a vegetarian. Except I'm reminded of someone who said: "I'm not a vegetarian because I love animals. I'm a vegetarian because I hate plants."