Women legends in the SA food industry
Archive > Issues > Issue #6: Matriarchy > Legends: Cass Abrahams, Dorah Sitole and Annette Kesler In Conversation

Legends: Cass Abrahams, Dorah Sitole and Annette Kesler In Conversation

We approached three women who are seen as mother figures in our food industry, though they are more inclined to use the word ‘mentor’. What have they always wanted to know from each other? Here they pose the questions and offer some honest answers.

Cass Abrahams: Cass dedicated her food career to educating South Africa about Cape Malay cooking and culture and the art of using spices. Her book The Culture and Cuisine of the Cape Malays was rereleased as Cass Abrahams cooks Cape Malay – food from Africa and Cass continues to cook, consult, teach classes in her home and lecture at cookery schools.

Dorah Sitole: Mama Dorah or Mam’D to her fans, Dorah established herself as an expert on African cooking as food editor at True Love magazine for 22 years, followed by three years as the editor, and as author of Recipes with a Touch of Africa and Cooking from Cape to Cairo. Her mission is to create ‘an awareness of how awesome African food is’.

Annette Kesler: During her 31-year tenure as food editor of Fairlady magazine, Annette inspired generations of readers and taught them how to cook. Together with her business partner, Chania Morritt-Smith, Annette created Showcook and runs the One&Only Reaching for Young Stars competition and Distell Inter Hotel Challenge, which encourage upliftment and excellence in the hospitality industry.

Dorah asks Annette and Cass

For Annette especially, I’m just amazed that she keeps going. She’s still working! And that gives me hope. I cannot imagine myself not working, so when I think: Will I be able to last? I look at Annette. She’s still going strong and she’s still elegant. How does she do it?

Annette: Like Dorah, I believe in eating nutritiously. I think that’s tremendously important. I’ve always preferred eating in a way that is good for you – In other words, knowing your own body and understanding your needs. That simple, old-fashioned saying ‘you are what you eat’ is so true. If you learn what you should eat and what different foods do to your body, you will just become far healthier. I don’t think I’ve ever had a take-out in my life, not once. I’ve never had a Coca Cola. And I’ve made pizza, but I’ve certainly never had it out. Once I think I bought ice cream, once. The rest of the time, I make it. So I am very disciplined because I have to be – your body tells you what you have to do.

I’d like to know from Cass, what ideas can she share about running a restaurant. It’s something that I’ve always dreaded and I don’t know why.

Cass: Dorah, don’t even go there… You’ve got to solve problems all the time, you’ve got to be on your toes, and I don’t know if it’s worth it. I suppose it makes you grow up as a person but it takes nerves of steel.

Women legends in the SA food industry

Annette asks Dorah and Cass

How did you so successfully bridge cultures through food?

Dorah: Working for a magazine gave me the platform. I think if I had been a chef working in a private kitchen or a hotel, I would have struggled. Cape to Cairo got a lot of coverage through the magazine so I think it’s really about exposure, it’s not some magical thing that I did. I’m just glad I had the presence of mind to do African food and not shy away from it.

Cass: I had a very good opportunity when I worked with Tastic Rice. We had to go out and demonstrate to people and speak about rice. And I had to compete with young girls who qualified at Stellenbosch University and had this wonderful French vocabularly, words like julienne and sauté. I worked as a teacher for 17 years and had a BA and a B.Sc degree but didn’t know anything about those words so I was looked down on. I had to work very hard. I thought the only way I can do this is, instead of showing the same techniques as other home economists, I will speak about the food of the Cape Malays. We were separated by apartheid, so if I went to a Vroue-Landbouvereniging they didn’t even know what a Cape Malay was! I started telling them about the culture and cooking at the same time, showing them how to use spices. I shared funny stories and I was tolerant. And that’s how I broke down barriers, so much so that most of the people who follow me or ask for my autograph are old Afrikaner people. I went from being not accepted by the white community to being accepted by Afrikaners in particular.

Cass asks Annette and Dorah

Annette was known as the best stylist in South Africa, not only in South Africa, the world some people said, because she was such a perfectionist. And I want to know how she kept that up all the time, even as she grew older?

Annette: It’s not something that I consciously thought about, it’s just innate – one just can’t help it! Even to this day, if I see that a cushion isn’t right, or whatever is around me is not in harmony, I simply have to do something about it! One of the joys of entertaining for me is to style a table and that’s very enjoyable because it’s creative. So I think it’s a creative force that just doesn’t falter.

Dorah’s is a more political question that I think Dorah will understand. When working in the corporate world, did she also find she was discriminated against and had to work doubly hard to prove herself?

Dorah: When I worked in corporate life, there was a senior home economist and I was made a cooking demonstrator. When she left I wasn’t considered for the position, even though we did exactly the same type of work. I couldn’t even get the title of junior home economist. That was what was happening in those days, we felt it very strongly. In fact, just recently I was looking at a book that we worked on during that time. I worked so hard, I cooked almost every dish in that book but I didn’t get any credit at all. I started in 1980 and left in 1987, so that was still in the thick of apartheid but the strange thing is, I always thought Cass was lucky because there was a feeling that coloured people were better treated. I didn’t even realise she was feeling the same thing. From there I went straight to True Love where I was the food editor. I owned my role, it was my department and my editor was a black woman – It was a complete transformation.

Funa by Renata Coetzee

At the time of writing this story we lost a legend in the local food industry: Renata Coetzee. Renata applied her training as a  nutritionist and food scientist, documenting how lifestyles and rituals inform food in South Africa. Renata passed away in June just after the launch of the second impression of her self-published final book A Feast From Nature – !GAROB ≠ŪN, which explores the food culture of early humans and the Khoi-Khoin.

Dorah: I just loved Renata, she had such a warm, welcoming spirit. And her books are so informative. I still refer to Funa – Food from Africa, which I found fascinating. It’s one of the books I’ve used a lot and it’s probably falling to pieces now.

Cass: Renata was my very first inspiration when it came to food. Through her books she brought me closer to all the different people in our country. She was always available, she had all these rade (tips), and she was always willing to teach. I think she also had the teaching spirit within her.

Annette: She was a brilliant woman, and a great academic and everyone owes her a debt of gratitude for the research that she did. Renata was the first to write about everything pertaining to African food and everyone else had the benefit of her research. I certainly admire what she accomplished.

Nikki Werner is co-author of cook. better. and shares an understanding of food through writing and cooking, workshops and classes.

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