On Wimpy, Eating with Cutlery, and Melancholic Chicken Sandwiches
Eating at real “sit-down” restaurants was something that I only first began tentatively exploring in my early twenties while I was a post-grad student at the then University of Durban-Westville. These restaurants were mostly located in Durban Central and the white neighbourhoods around it, and I was introduced to them by some of my more urbane varsity and writer friends.
Prior to that my dining experiences outside of my Chatsworth township home and the homes of family and friends was primarily restricted to occasional visits to bunny chow takeaways and fast food joints like KFC. The fanciest place my family would frequent was Wimpy, the hamburger franchise. I call it fancy because, unlike the other establishments we went to, it had comfortable booths, cutlery, paper napkins and wait-staff that would take your order at your table. These were all foreign concepts to me.
The Wimpy we would go to was located at the Chatsworth Centre, the shopping mall built in the late eighties to service the township’s more than 200,000 predominantly Indian residents. The Centre or Checkers as it’s more popularly known was one of the first mainstream retail spaces in Durban where Indian working-class money was treated seriously, and the Wimpy was its finest dining spot – though the Spur would later usurp this position.
When I say we would “frequent” the Wimpy at the Centre, I need to make clear that it was a pretty rare occurrence. My mother would take my brother and I there once a year as a reward at the end of the fourth school term.
As much as I liked these annual Wimpy visits I must admit that it also filled me with a bit of dread. This was mostly because the thought of ordering my food from the waiter or waitress absolutely terrified me. I somehow always managed to idiotically fumble over my words or forget something in a panic. I would often practise my order under my breath while we were riding over in the mini-bus taxi to the Centre. In the end, I would, most of the time, remain mute when the waiter approached, either pointing to the items I wanted on the glossy, laminated menu or asking my mother or brother to order on my behalf.
Another area of alarm was the issue of eating with a fork and knife. I had always eaten all my food with my hands or a spoon up until I went to Wimpy for the first time – whether it was curry with rice or roti, breyani, or even Western food like roast chicken and potatoes. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we had cutlery at home but they were just foreign artifacts – almost like cargo cult objects – that no-one ever really used.
I usually ordered a burger and chips at Wimpy and, even though I was aware from television that burgers were meant to be eaten with your hands, I always attempted to eat them with the cutlery provided. My reasoning: Why would they give us the utensils if we weren’t required to use them? It would have been uncouth to not use them.
So I would struggle with my fork and knife, both slipping in my hands, food falling off my plate as I attempted to be a civilised diner. All around me I would see many Indian families in a similar dilemma, battling with their cutlery. I often thought to myself: There are only Indians here at this Wimpy. What’s to stop us all from eating our food with our hands? And if we all kept it a secret there would be no way for Wimpy headquarters to find out about our barbarity, about our tiny cutlery rebellion in the heart of Chatsworth.
Once I eventually managed to negotiate my fork and knife I would dig in to my now cold food. The burgers and chips were decent, but even then I felt they were somewhat bland. Still, I thought that this was what fancy food should taste like, it was what classy people ate. Our suppers at home were spicy, oily and messy. This, on the contrary, was clean and wholesome.
One thing that made me a little sad about those visits to the Wimpy was the fact that while my brother and I would order cheeseburgers, chips, Cokes and even a dessert afterwards, my mother would pick a simple chicken sandwich with a cup of tea. We didn’t talk about it, but I knew that the sandwich was the least expensive option on the menu, and that my mother had chosen it so that we, her kids, could eat more. I would often try to convince her to order a burger too but she would always insist that she preferred a sandwich.
Wait-staff dread and slight melancholy aside, those times at Wimpy were honestly some of the best memories of my childhood. Each time we sat down at one of those soft, red booths I was filled with nervous excitement. It really felt like we were going places as a family, that, despite being a single parent and two children, we too were moving up in the world.
Pravasan Pillay has published two chapbooks of poetry, Glumlazi (2009) and 30 Poems (2015), as well as a collection of co-written comedic short stories, Shaggy (2013). Pillay’s short story collection, Crooks, is forthcoming. He is the editor of the micro press Tearoom Books.