Sur­vivor’s ap­petite for life

John Zubrzy­cki delves into a fas­ci­nat­ing new book on Nel­son Man­dela and the food that shaped his life

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

THE term gas­tro-po­lit­i­cal con­jures hard-to-swal­low im­ages of Mor­gan Spur­lock tak­ing on the fast-food in­dus­try in Su­perSizeMe or UN bu­reau­crats pon­tif­i­cat­ing on what to do about world hunger.

Writer, chef and part-time farmer Anna Trapido has coined a new use for the term, blend­ing the culi­nary, the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal to pro­duce an in­ti­mate por­trait of the hero of South Africa’s strug­gle against apartheid. Hunger­forFree­dom:TheS­to­ry­ofFoodin theLife­ofNel­sonMan­dela takes the reader on a jour­ney through prison ra­tions to the first meal he ate af­ter be­ing freed in 1990: Lil­lian Nosipho Ngob­oza’s chicken curry.

There’s a recipe for pig’s head stew that re­quires an axe and a story about how as a teenager Man­dela’s at­tempts to im­press a girl were sab­o­taged when his lack of dex­ter­ity with a knife and fork caused a chicken wing to fly off the plate.

But there’s noth­ing triv­ial in Trapido’s ap­proach to her sub­ject. She spent months in­ter­view­ing, eat­ing, cook­ing and col­lect­ing recipes with Man­dela, his fam­ily, friends, fel­low in­mates and even for­mer prison guards.

Trapido, who lives on a small farm at the base of the Hart­beespoort moun­tain range out­side Pre­to­ria, came up with the idea for the book while read­ing prison let­ters from Robben Is­land. ‘‘ I re­alised that the pris­on­ers in gen­eral — and Man­dela in par­tic­u­lar — were us­ing food me­taphors to talk about love, long­ing and in­ti­mate de­tails of their lives,’’ she says.

Dozens of books have been writ­ten about Man­dela, who turned 90 this year, but none re­veal this very hu­man side of a man once vil­i­fied by the apartheid gov­ern­ment and now de­i­fied by the world.

‘‘ To look at an epic life through food cuts past the God mirage into the daily ex­is­tence of a very real man: a man who has nour­ished South Africa and the world with his un­stint­ing ap­petite for free­dom,’’ Trapido writes in her in­tro­duc­tion.

Ev­ery­where she went and with ev­ery in­ter­view, Trapido found ‘‘ food-prints’’ that added an­other in­sight into Man­dela’s charis­matic per­son­al­ity. ‘‘ I roamed the hills of Qunu tracking down school­boy con­tem­po­raries. I met his first love. I sat in the lime quarry on Robben Is­land and con­sid­ered the (enor­mous­ness) of the sac­ri­fice that Madiba (Man­dela) and oth­ers made for us all.’’ Food is a fun­da­men­tal thing, Trapido says. ‘‘ We all use food to say ‘ I love you’, ‘ I hate you’. We pass on cul­tural, eco­nomic and emo­tional mes­sages about who we are in the way we eat. Prison takes all that away from you.’’

Man­dela spent 18 years at Robben Is­land off Cape Town, ini­tially sur­viv­ing on mea­gre ra­tions of maize meal. Later prison au­thor­i­ties al­lowed in­mates to trap guinea fowl, par­tridges and rab­bits in ex­change for a cut of their hunt.

Trapido de­scribes how a sea lion ended up on a bar­be­cue (it tasted like lamb) and how pris­on­ers grew veg­eta­bles on an is­land with no fresh wa­ter and lit­tle

Nour­ish­ment to a na­tion: Nel­son Man­dela soil. Man­dela be­came a pas­sion­ate gar­dener, col­lect­ing ostrich dung for fer­tiliser and sav­ing wa­ter from bathing.

But there were set­backs too. Trapido found an an­guished let­ter from Man­dela to his then wife Win­nie de­scrib­ing how a tomato plant he had tended from a seedling withered and died. ‘‘ One can per­haps read the ac­count of how he even­tu­ally dug it up and buried the plant ‘ think­ing of the life that might have been’ as a metaphor for his own pow­er­less­ness to nur­ture his own mar­riage,’’ Trapido says.

Other let­ters ex­pressed his long­ing for meals Win­nie used to pre­pare, such as ox tongue and tail, and his favourite birth­day treat: four tea­spoons Nesquik, three tea­spoons Milo and two tea­spoons brown su­gar mixed in 150ml boil­ing wa­ter. It was, Man­dela wrote, ‘‘ a mag­nif­i­cent brew, fit for a monarch’’.

Food also be­came a gas­tro-po­lit­i­cal weapon when in­mates went on a hunger strike de­mand­ing their rights un­der the con­sti­tu­tion. Po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers used cook­ing pots to smug­gle mes­sages to other in­mates on the is­land. ‘‘ They were an as­ton­ish­ing group of men,’’ Trapido says of the po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers on Robben Is­land. ‘‘ Their story is of the tri­umph of the hu­man spirit over ad­ver­sity and op­pres­sion.’’

Trapido was a keen ob­server of the strug­gle against apartheid. Her fam­ily were white po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists who went into ex­ile in Ox­ford in 1964. Her mother, Bar­bara Trapido, be­came a full-time writer, pub­lish­ing six nov­els. Trapido grad­u­ated in med­i­cal an­thro­pol­ogy from King’s Col­lege in Cam­bridge. She re­turned to South Africa in 1990, to work on oc­cu­pa­tional health is­sues with black coalmin­ers in East­ern Cape Prov­ince (‘‘I be­came the lo­cal ex­pert on phlegm’’).

Trapido then trained as a chef and ran kitchens from South Africa to Switzer­land be­fore turn­ing her skills to writ­ing about food.

With recipes rang­ing from the spaghetti casse­role that Win­nie used to take to her hus­band in jail, to lamb on the spit as pre­pared by Ge­orge Bi­zos, a GreekSouth African lawyer who de­fended anti-apartheid ac­tivists, this book could sit com­fort­ably along­side any culi­nary clas­sic. But its real value is in its use of food, tastes and smells to add flavour to the lives of Man­dela and those around him.

‘‘ Food is such a good way to bring out a range of mem­o­ries and emo­tions that peo­ple would not nor­mally share with a bi­og­ra­pher,’’ she says.

For Trapido, that opens up end­less pos­si­bil­i­ties, though she would pre­fer her next sub­ject not to be as saintly. In a con­ti­nent full of despots who have used food as a weapon, the gas­tro-po­lit­i­cal bi­og­ra­phy has plenty of po­ten­tial. Hunger­forFree­dom:TheS­to­ry­ofFoodin theLife­ofNel­sonMan­dela by Anna Trapido (East Street, $49.95).

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