Survivor’s appetite for life
John Zubrzycki delves into a fascinating new book on Nelson Mandela and the food that shaped his life
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).