Banting on a budget A rural health doctor lives on R300 for 14 days
14 DAYS, R300: A RURAL DOCTOR TAKES ON THE CHALLENGE AND, IN TURN, QUESTION HER ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT OBESITY AND NUTRITION SOUTH AFRICA
as I lift the lid of the pot the unmistakable stench of dog food hits my palate before it reaches my nostrils. I gag, take a step back and pinch-close the tip of my nose. Then, leaning forward to peer over the rim, I inspect my ‘dinner’. It’s day 11 of my Banting-on-a-budget challenge and pig trotters are on the menu tonight. I had to call my grandmother for advice on how to cook them. She suggested boiling them for at least six hours. Four hours in, they still resemble leathery human feet bathed in dirty grey water.The fatty, sinewy sediment has left a rim of grime around the edge of the pot, which I struggled to scrub clean afterwards. It’s not looking (or smelling) promising. Before taking my first bite, I try to remind myself of why I am putting myself through this.
I cast my mind back to the moment the idea was conceived. I spent one of my weekends off in Cape Town, and was genuinely surprised and intrigued by how Tim Noakes’s food ‘revolution’ had taken Cape Town by storm. Hordes of people were lining up outside bookstores to get their hands on a copy of The Real Meal Revolution. I was told that Woolies had a critical shortage of cauliflower. My overactive imagination couldn’t help but picture huddles of newly converted Banter revolutionaries meeting in secret, spreading the motto ‘liver-ty, me-quality, fat-ernity’ while somewhere in the Southern suburbs Professor Noakes hosted lavish dinner parties, with towers of cheese for starters, a succulent suckling pig for mains, and meatballs instead of macaroons for dessert. The hordes would march to his manor demanding answers (Where do I buy duck fat? Won’t I get a heart attack? What is psyllium husk anyway?). To one and all he would reply: ‘Let them eat STEAK!’
The upheaval of the French Revolution led to the abolition of the French monarchy but left the demands of the proletariat largely unaddressed. When I returned to the village in rural Mpumalanga where I live and work, I met a 19-year-old who was morbidly obese despite being impoverished. It dawned on me that the current culinary and nutritional upheaval in the Cape is a pastime for the bourgeoisie, while the nutritional needs of the majority of the population have largely
been ignored. A recent article in leading scientific journal The Lancet reported that 42 per cent of South African women are obese, and the combined rate of both overweight and obese women is 69,3 per cent. Food-insecure and low-income citizens are particularly vulnerable to obesity. While limited resources, access to affordable food, fewer opportunities for physical activity and greater exposure to obesity-promoting products are some of the many reasons cited to explain this phenomenon in the developed world, there are still many open-ended questions regarding the obesity epidemic in South Africa. This is where Tim and I agree: surely there must be something wrong with what we are eating, and not just how much we are eating?
This is how the idea was born. I decided to see if it is possible to Bant on a tight budget. Looking at the most recent census, I was able to calculate that the average person in my district spends a mere R150 per week on food. I set myself a target of two weeks, and then started preparing for the challenge. I gave away the contents of my pantry, fridge and freezer. I parted with my stash of Turkish delight and liquorice, and put the case of red wine under lock-and-key. I did a recce to the local Shoprite and planned what I could buy with my 150 Rand-elas. As it turns out, I couldn’t buy much. I worked and reworked my shopping list until finally settling on the following items: eggs, frozen chicken pieces, butter, milk, tea, cabbage, sweet potato, onion, chilli and garlic.
The first few days were relatively easy. I was able to come up with some genuinely tasty meals, and although the fear of running out of food before the week was up made me significantly decrease my average portion size, surprisingly, I didn’t feel hungry. The lack of variety was limiting, but limitations breed creativity and I was forced into finding ways of reinventing the same 10 ingredients to fool myself into believing that I wasn’t eating the same thing day in and day out. I also learnt to eat everything! And by that I mean absolutely everything. If I cooked chicken for dinner, I would keep the bones and boil them up to make a broth for lunch the next day. I used the skins of the sweet potatoes I peeled to make chips as a light
When you have so little, the thought of wasting anything becomes absurd, almost offensive
snack over the weekend. I even reused my tea bags. When you have so little, the thought of wasting anything becomes absurd, almost offensive.
The highlight of the first week was almost certainly breakfast. A previously mundane meal consisting largely of muesli and yoghurt, or perhaps some toast or cereal, was now an opportunity to stretch my creativity. The award for best breakfast would have to be shared between my poached egg on a sweet-potato rosti and my sweet potato porridge, which I made by peeling half a sweet potato, boiling it until soft and then mashing until smooth.To this I added some milk and butter.The result was a silky, sweet porridge that reminded me of baby food.
The challenge became significantly more difficult over the weekend, when I returned to my home in Johannesburg. I realised for the first time just how important it is to establish an eating plan that is socially acceptable. Looking back, I think this will be one of the greatest challenges that we’ll have to overcome when tackling the obesity problem in South Africa. It’s one thing to follow a strict diet when you live and eat alone, but when you are offered home-made rusks or mama’s lasagne, and have to sit down at the dinner table munching on a bowl of cabbage or yet another egg instead, the Banting lifestyle starts to feel more like a life sentence.
By the end of week one I was lusting after some new ingredients to work with and I enthusiastically drew up my next shopping list. I had been advised to venture into the awfully foreign world of offal, so I added a tub of chicken livers and two pig trotters to my miserly basket: two strangers sitting side by side with my closest foodie friends, baby marrow and avocado. Fortunately avos grow readily in Mpumalanga and are relatively cheap. I paired them with eggs, mashed them into a guacamole, baked them for lunch, and also just ate them neat. Avocados are such bountiful fruit – packed with all the fats, vitamins and minerals you need – and presented in the seductive pear shape of a Renaissance nude, with flesh just as pale and soft.
The eternally versatile baby marrow was a key ingredient in most of my favourite meals in week two. It has almost as many uses as it has names (zucchini,
courgette, marrow, squash). I steamed it, grilled it, noodled it and grated it; all to great effect. My favourite meal was a bowl of zucchini tagliatelle topped with a marinated and braaiied chicken thigh. Another highlight was when I discovered a recipe to make my own yoghurt. It was surprisingly easy and resulted, if I say so myself, in the most delicious yoghurt I’ve ever tasted.
As expected, the hardest part of the week was the offal. I managed to transform the livers into a rather scrumptious pâté, but the trotters were unsalvageable. Even after all that boiling, they remained chewy and flavourless. The main drawback, though, was not their horrendous odour or bland taste, but rather the lack of substantial meat. Most of the weight you pay for is made up in bones and sinew. That night I went to bed feeling utterly unsatisfied and very annoyed that I had thrown R21 down the drain.
But just a few days later, the challenge was over. In two weeks I had lost 1,7 kg, and gained innumerable life lessons. I learnt that even if you have very little, it’s possible to stretch your budget beyond the sea of starch. I learnt to be more conscious not only of what I consume but also of the challenges so many people in my community face. While I did this by choice, for many of my patients, putting food on the table (be it rice and pap or eggs and avocado) is an everyday struggle, and I was humbled by the experience.
I learnt that although we may not have all the answers when it comes to the carb question, or enough evidence to back up one theory over the next, as a nation we need to start addressing the obesity epidemic before it is too late.
We need political commitment from our leadership to create a food environment where healthy living becomes the default choice. This commitment starts with awareness and understanding, which I believe can only be gained by walking, for a day, a week, or two, in someone else’s shoes.
Munching on a bowl of cabbage or yet another egg, the Banting lifestyle starts to feel more like a life sentence
DAY 9 ZUCCHINI FRITTERS TOPPED WITH A PERFECTLY FRIED EGG, TOMATO AND BEEF SOUP AND CHILLI CHICKEN ON ZUCCHINI NOODLES.
DAY 12 BAKED EGG, AVOCADO, SWEET POTATO AND ONION FRITTATA.
DAY 10 SCRAMBLED EGGS WITH GUACAMOLE AND CHICKEN LIVER PÂTÉ SERVED WITH ZUCCHINI CIABATTA AND CABBAGE WRAPS.
DAY 8 AVOCADO WITH BOILED EGG AND BEEF STEW.
DAY 11 OMELETTE, CHICKEN LIVER PÂTÉ ON ZUCCHINI BITS AND OFFAL.
LEILA HARTFORD Doctor, public health enthusiast, amateur chef and blogger.
DAY 14 AVOCADO, EGG AND MAYO ON ZUCCHINI SLICES AND CHICKEN,TZATZIKI AND FRIED ZUCCHINI.
DAY 13 FRITTATA SLICES, BRAAIIED CHICKEN ON ZUCCHINI TAGLIATELLE AND HOME-MADE YOGHURT.