Eating My Words
Simon and Garfunkel harmonise ‘El Condor Pasa’ in my ears as I sit back as far as my plush, padded Michelin-star seat will allow me, while the server’s practised tongue trips over the breakdown of the food that has appeared on our table, for this course number five of eight.
“I’d rather have a gravy than a jus – yes I would. If I could. I really would…mmm… mmm”
Irony nibbled away at my appetite. It wasn’t lost on me that here I – a committed linguist – was sitting, in South Africa’s mostly highly rated restaurant, for a gastronomic experience that I had craved since the first episode of Masterchef, longing for a simpler explanation of what was on my plate. The velouté was no more than a skilful white sauce with a beef stock. I knew that. The chef did too. And no doubt he had prepared the dish knowing – like me – that the word didn’t matter as much as the sensation of the hinted-at saltiness that caught the edges of my tongue a moment after the sweet Springbok; and a short, delighted, gasp before the rustic thyme.
We’ve complicated one of life’s simplest pleasures with words. And our egos.
Yep. Our vanity gets vicariously tossed onto our plates, as we segue our way from bouillabaisse to aioli, smiling smugly at the parmesan tuile along the way.
When did phutu become polenta? When did little salad greens become mesclun and ice cream mutate into gelato and namelaka? (Yes, of course I know that there’s a fractionally infinitesimally minute difference), and home-made become ‘artisanal’?
Money, money, money.
As our perceived social standing increases, so does our need for ‘better’ words. How can one drive a Beemer and still be eating meatballs when polpette pops so powerfully off the lips? Or toss some macerated fruit onto your Carol Boyes serving platter, without turning it into a coulis to turn your well-heeled guest’s “Oohs” into knowing “Aahs”?
Our colonised palates imagine that Italian and French add a je ne sais quoi to our plates; but our hearts know better. Deep inside – but never for long – lies the longing for the simplicity and honesty of childhood unknowing. Food that is simple and understandable. Food that with the mouthing of the words, fills our appetite for soothed souls.
Steaming bowls of Maltabella, butter oozing into the folds formed by the cooling layer at the top of the bowl, the layer of sugar reflecting the morning sun.
Tomato-ey stew. The winter hug made just the way that only your mom knows how. Isidudu and sweet lamb chops; spicy family-uniting umngqusho.
The ballet-pink Ideal-milk jelly fluff dessert that Ouma beats up with ice and her hand-held windpump of a beater, to foamy perfection. Seven colour Sundays: a rainbow that fills each fibre of our being with a simple welcome.
The mushrooms aren’t foraged, the greens aren’t micro and nothing’s ‘deconstructed’ or in trio’s.
Culinary perfection is when we sit alone with our thoughts or enveloped by the laughter of friends in uncomplicated surroundings: phones tossed aside, credit cards left in the cubby hole, barefoot around a fire or sitting slip-slopped on the floor. Here we are at peace with our simple selves. This is where we don’t need to know the terroir of the wine, we just know that mulberries made their home in the merlot; that the perfectly tempered, bitter chocolate couldn’t wait to let the orange explode from its hold; that the basil and oregano never had to fight for first place.
True emotional complexity in food needs respect, but a simple vocabulary.
Karin Panaino Petersen is out to lunch.