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Cooking and Cultural Adventures Jun. 14th, 2009 @ 02:21 am
So, I made my exploratory samp dish tonight. Because I can't help but overthink things, it also started me thinking about my own cultural background (having read stuff lately about Third Culture Kids lately), but first, let's see how I did.

Rough recipe format: Used some samp, soaked over night, then rinsed and with water added again. To this I added diced potatoes, then a chopped onion (lightly sauteed in olive oil first), and some diced beef (lightly browned first). Also a couple pinches of mixed herbs, and a small amount of salt. This I let simmer until the potatoes were cooked through, then added snow peas.


1) I didn't add enough salt. This was probably a major factor in:

2) It was kind of bland; when I ate it, I had a bit, then decided that while it was inoffensive, I dislike bland, overall, so I stirred in some soy sauce and honey. I think it would have been a lot less bland had I put in enough salt, though.

3) Or stock powder.

4) And maybe more different kinds of vegetable, or some turmeric.

The texture of the samp reminded me of barley, which was kind of nice; I quite like barley, in soup and stew-type things, except that I haven't been able to eat it in years because of the gluten factor.

I can make this work. Tonight's result was not great, but that's not a failure on my part - I'd never cooked samp on my own before, hadn't eaten it in many years. This is just a chance to learn.

It did get me thinking about my own culture, and how I might define it.

See, samp, the way I know to cook it, is a Xhosa dish. Except I amended it somewhat... I added snow peas, which I think of as a vaguely Chinese vegetable.
Digression: At the supermarket, I looked for snow peas, and saw them in boxes - $5 for 150g. This was far more expensive than I was happy with, and then I saw, too, that they were marked Product of China. Oh hell no, I thought. For ecological reasons, if nothing else, I try to avoid buying fresh fruit or vegetables that grew in other countries; even setting aside the other problems with overseas produce, of which there are quite a few, the sheer environmental lunacy of shipping fresh produce from other continents is unsupportable. So I was going to skip snow peas, until, a little way down the shelf, I found loose snow peas - for a substantially cheaper price, and tagged "Product of Western Australia". (Hooray for the movement a while ago demanding supermarkets label produce for geographical origin.) So I did buy a bunch of those. What I can't quite work out is why someone would by Chinese-import snow peas when locally grown are cheaper.
And the herbs I used weren't African.

And then I thought about my general cooking tendencies, and realised just how many influences there are.

See, I first learned to cook from my mother, which means I started with a mixture of English, Scottish, and South African influences. Durban, in particular, which means Indian, Afrikaaner, Zulu, Xhosa, for the most part. (I couldn't tell you how much of this culinary mixing would qualify as some kind of appropriation; cuisines tend to spread and overlap just in general, it seems. Is it cultural appropriation to make mieliepap? But it's such a simple thing, and could be invented in several different cultures, and then just the name spreads because people talk to each other and need to communicate... so probably not, with mieliepap. But what about bobotie? Umngqushu? Biltong?)

I think, ultimately, the answer to that may lie in taking refuge in hierarchies. A bit of recipe sharing is nothing, on the scale of problems in race relations in South Africa. (Note: Not for amateurs. If you intend to make comments about South Africa and race therein, please be aware that if you show ignorance, make assumptions, etc, you will get the Sami Smackdown of Righteous Fury, because unless you are, in fact, from southern Africa, you probably Do Not Get It. It is more complicated than you think. The only people who do not, in fact, come out of a realistic appraisal of the history of South African race relations looking like complete douchebags now live in the Kalahari Desert. And they've been screwed over so much there is no collective term to refer to them that is not at least somewhat insulting. "Bushmen" is considered by many to be pejorative, but even they use that to refer to the collective group.)

I know that some of the native influences on my own cultural upbringing come from the influence of people who were very important in my family's lives. For example, a woman named Trifena was incredibly important to my mother's learning to take care of babies - Mum had had very little experience with babies at all, and Trifena, who had a number of children of her own as well as the extended family my daughter-of-immigrants mother had no real experience of herself, taught Mum a lot about how to take care of babies, and kept Mum from panicking at various times when something seemed to go wrong - if Trifena was there, she would tell Mum it was no big deal and explain how to handle it.

I don't know if Trifena is still alive. (Possibly not, as I think she'd have to be about eighty now, and South Africa isn't a very healthy country these days.) I don't know what she looked like. I know my parents loved her.

I know she was their part-time maid. (Trifena also worked for my grandparents, and I think possibly for a friend of my mother's.)

In Australia, my family was quite poor, for a lot of my childhood. Not in poverty, just... poorish. The idea of having a maid was alien to me, so I always found it odd to think about it. I got to experience it somewhat when we went to visit South Africa when I was twelve. I became aware of the way house staff are part of the social contract, in South Africa; both my parents and my uncle's family had retained maids who were deeply, deeply terrible at their jobs, because these women had families, and needed the money. My aunt's maid Alice kept breaking things; my parents had one called Mary who couldn't wash dishes. Most of the dishes came out dirtier than they went in.

(My paternal grandfather was working-class, and also not overburdened with cash, and he loved gardening; and yet, he hired a succession of young black boys to be his gardener. He would teach them how to be gardeners, which they did not know, and would pay them money to live on, and try to persuade them to stay in school, and get educations, so they could, in fact, be more than just gardeners one day. Many of them didn't, and broke his heart - but they were broken by the entrenched, overt racism of the Old South Africa. Everybody loses.)

Visiting South Africa, I met my uncle's maids (several part-timers, you understand), and his gardener. The gardener was a lovely man, but could not, on any account, ever be persuaded to enter the house, no matter how sincerely he was invited. It was entrenched in his view that it would be inappropriate to go inside, as he was outside staff; when we gave him tea, we had to give it to him outside. Even when it was raining. Sometimes the monkeys stole his biscuits. (My uncle's house was surrounded by many, many trees, and the trees housed many, many monkeys, and the monkeys were incorrigible thieves. Not just of food - one managed to get away with a full-sized blanket.)

I discovered my bed-making skills were inadequate. Every day I made my bed, and every day the maid remade it because I hadn't done it neatly enough for her to feel like she could leave it that way.

Having grown up in Australia, I found all of this deeply unnerving. Australia isn't like that - living in an entrenched, race-based class system was very weird and uncomfortable for me. At twelve, I couldn't have ever explained it, I don't think, because it requires explanations like this:

I, had not yet really learned much about racism and race relations. There were kids of different races at my school, but it wasn't a thing. No-one had told us we were supposed to think they were Different because of skin colour in any meaningful way. The only time I can remember it ever being a point that we consciously noticed was in around year one, when we marvelled that Donna's skin was brown on the backs of her hands, but pink on her palms. We thought this was cool.

The rest of the time, she was just Donna. I suspect Sharif might have had a harder time these days than he did then, but at the time, nobody thought twice about him either.

Which means two factors in Young Me were at play here:

1) I was not used to viewing race as something that defined someone's role in life. Racial background meant some cultural differences - in some cases more than others - but not social status differences. Coming from 1992 Perth, where I don't know I'd ever even seen a homeless person, and walking down streets lined with beggars, all but one or two of whom were black, and driving past shanty towns where hundreds of black people lived in "houses" made from cardboard and scraps, was a profound culture shock. I knew how to be polite - always hand things over with both hands, never say "no" outright, etc - but I didn't know how to talk to someone who seemed to think themselves to be of a lower class than I was, because society said very firmly that they were.

2) Having grown up in Australia, which has its own systemic racism, but in a sort of bubble where racism was not perceptible to a child, where overt racism was not so much disapproved of but unheard-of, I was used to my white privilege being invisible.

Having people who weren't white around was normal. There were the kids at school, and there were our next-door neighbours; their mother was Fijian, and the kids identified as Fijian too. (Their father was a white Australian, but spent most of his time on a minesite, so the degree to which they might also have identified as Australian, other than due to living here, was less than it might be.) (Also, their father was kind of a jerk.) So the ways in which I experienced privilege for being white never occurred to me; after all, there were kids of various races in my life, and their lives were just like mine.

In South Africa, I couldn't pass a day without it being glaringly obvious that I was massively, profoundly privileged by the colour of my skin, and I hated it. I didn't like it, I didn't want it, I didn't know how to deal with people acting like being white made me somehow better than the black people who were all around me.

I only stayed at my uncle's house a week, before I moved to the city, where my grandmother, just released from hospital, lived (now with my mother there to take care of her). At Grandmother's flat I got to be with Grandmother, and with my mother, and not with my sister, so I liked it, but it was also less stressful, because at Grandmother's flat there were no servants.

At that, I was aware that the flat under Grandmother's was occupied by a daughter of Chief Buthelezi. A Zulu princess couldn't be beneath me (socially; obviously she was frequently beneath me spacially), quite the reverse, so I found it much less stressful to be around the black people who lived in the building.

I was twelve, okay?

I think I've lost track of my point, here. It's just that there's this weird discomfort in knowing that, while cultural crossover from geographical mingling is a part of it, of course, some of your cultural influences come from people being in servitude to your family.

My cooking also has South-east Asian influences, but that's a lot easier to handle: there are a lot of Asian people here, therefore there are Asian restaurants, and I have Asian friends, and it's not that complicated at all, on the surface. (Stipulating that I still go to uni, which skews the racial balance of People I See massively towards Asians, of course.)
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