What’s for Dinner? Recipe Keeper—Memories of Meals Shared Years AgoNov 23, 2020 05:00PM ● By TANYA HOCHSCHILD
Growing up in South Africa exposed us to a cosmopolitan array of food cultures. Nothing was off the table—from exotic European fare to local tribal dishes. We spent much of our early years sitting in the garden with our nanny and the other African staff, sharing their meals of putu pap (also known as mieliepap), a stiff white polenta-type cornmeal. We would break off a piece, swirl it around the plate to absorb gravy from the meat stew and suck the delicious food off our fingers.
Neighborhood gardens filled with mulberry, apricot, fig trees and granadilla vines were our orchards when we played at friends’ houses. We raided the fruit trees.
Many nationalities lived in South Africa and we enjoyed each other’s food, be it curry in KwaZulu-Natal, where there is an Indian population, or Malay food in the Cape. The beautiful Cape beaches, where we spent our annual holidays, are bordered on the east coast by the warm Indian Ocean and on the west coast by the cold Atlantic, offering many different types of fish. Johannesburg, “our New York City,” boasts restaurants and shops representing every culture—French, Greek, Lebanese, Asian, American fast food, Jewish, Italian, English, Dutch, Scandinavian, German, Portuguese (prawns peri-peri from Mozambique are a favorite) and Russian. Even today, when we visit South Africa, I travel with a “comfort” suitcase so we can bring back familiar tastes to our home in Florida. The sniffer dogs have somewhat diminished the joy, as has my husband—who is reluctant to smuggle nutty wheat flour, biltong, Peppermint Crisps and Cadbury chocolate bars, anchovy paste or Marmite.
I loved paging through back copies of 1950s Gourmet magazines at my grandmother’s home. Every issue featured an elegant Miss Rheingold on the inside back cover. When I turned 21, an aunt gave me a subscription for a year. I subscribed to Gourmet for many years and was shocked and disappointed when it suddenly closed in 2009.
I met Japhet Jhanje the same day I met Michael, my husband-to-be. Japhet was the Hochschilds’ chef, an illiterate man from Zimbabwe, who remembered hundreds of recipes, many of which are in my recipe keeper.
Japhet taught me so much about cooking—and much else outside the kitchen. He visited us three or four times in the U.S. and considered our children “his grandchildren.” Japhet’s cooking skills were legendary and many of his recipes have been handed down to family and friends. Mike wrote a book about Japhet’s life. It was a privilege to know him.
During the pandemic, I have turned to recipe books and my own “bursting at the seams” recipe keeper. As always, it is a joy to reread. Most of the recipes recall people and places when those dishes were shared. Some are in my beloved grandmother’s handwriting. Many in my mother’s writing still bring tears to my eyes, when recalling she sent the recipes from South Africa to us in the United States.
Some are my children’s recipes shared from faraway places. I even have a bread recipe from a grandson! Friends all over the world are in the recipe keeper—memories of meals shared years ago on beaches, verandahs, farms, hotels and around countless dining room tables. During this time of isolation, those long-ago salad days are vividly recalled.
I paged through appetizers, soups, salads and entrées to the miscellaneous section. Along the way, I reread Maudie’s recipe for panna cotta and remembered visiting their sheep farm in the beautiful Caledon Valley. I found a pho recipe given by a street vendor in Kuala Lumpur, read Dr. Weil’s miso soup recipe, Charlene’s salad ingredients, Robyn’s raspberry ricotta cake recipe, and many from “Barefoot Contessa” Ina Garten and Martha Stewart.
I decided to make “breakfast meal-in-a-muffin” muffins from Jane Touwen’s master class in a 1991 magazine. Some recipes are printed, others written on scraps of paper, some torn from now-yellowing newspapers, many in friends’ handwriting with short messages: “great picnic—here’s the potato salad recipe you asked for.”
A gefilte fish recipe is from my Aunt Babs, via my other aunt, Ann; some loose papers, many recipes held in the three-ring binder, all bulging, all favorites. Some I have never tried; nevertheless, they hold a place in the folder.
The folder offers such fond memories of special people and places in my life. I cannot discard one recipe nor organize it into some sort of order. One summer in the 1970s, in London with Adrienne, we spent days traipsing through museums and gardens, arriving home flattened by unusual heat. Waiting for us was her home-baked bread. It always revived us—and I took to calling it “Wonderloaf.” All those memories come back every time I read the recipe.
Days on safari in the African bush, waking to a cup of “bush coffee”—better than anything from Starbucks—a cup that would “pop your eyes open,” all the better to see the game. I recall huge mugs of mostly chicory with lashings of sweetened condensed milk. Accompanied by teeth-breaking rusks (recipe from Louise, now in Sydney) to dunk in the coffee.
South Africans know and love “bush coffee.” There are favorite dishes from favorite camps, written out by the cooks. (Ingredients must be reduced because the cooks cater to so many people.) Makalali cold curried apple soup remains a soothing, cool pick-me-up after a long, dusty morning tracking game. Londolozi’s popular granola squares are served before afternoon drives. Tommy, when visiting his lodge, uses beer instead of yeast for bush bread. Oh, the fun of it all!
I recall fondly the months when we went off meat and had a virtual “veggie-palooza” of meals, much of it straight from our garden, into the kitchen and into our mouths. When umami became a buzz word, we jumped onboard to create dishes with that indescribable flavor.
A recipe for roasted leg of lamb is from my husband’s colleague “Mr. Gin and Whiskey.” The kids called him that because they couldn’t pronounce his Slavic name—Jinzwyvski. One day, Michael’s boss arrived from Peru with a gift bottle of pisco and taught us how to make “pisco sour,” a popular cocktail in his home city of Lima. We all ended up laughing in the kitchen. From then on, a friendship was forged.
Another time, a leading industrialist hosted us at his favorite Manhattan restaurant, the now-closed Coach House that had “the best black bean soup.” We naturally all ordered that dish! Months later, when he came to our home for dinner, the first course we served was the exact recipe from the restaurant. He was delighted!
In the warm climates where we lived, cold summer soups have always been favorites. We enjoy vichyssoise, gazpacho, borscht, cucumber and avocado. We had an avocado tree in Johannesburg and making soup was the only way to keep ahead of its prodigious offerings.
Time spent reading through the recipes is a homecoming of a sort—a time warp. I enjoy taking a big bite out of the afternoon to revisit friends and food found within the pages, and then am inspired to start peeling, chopping and stirring.
It is not the overflowing, messy binder that is the recipe keeper; I am the recipe keeper and have far too many varied life experiences to ever want to contain in neat, labeled packages. In this instance, I am not in favor of the “Marie Kondo way of life” that chooses diminished orderliness over messy abundance.
A more pressing question arises: “What’s for dinner?”
Tanya Hochschild has been a freelance writer in South Africa, where she grew up, and in the U.S., her home since 1981. She is the author of a historical novel, a memoir, an anthology of poetry, and biographies of nonagenarian residents of Fort Myers-based Shell Point Retirement Community.