Notes from a gastronomic blasphemer

I’ve just returned from a few days in the horrible, big city (not soap opera) they call Egoli. Yes, Johannesburg has “vibe”. It’s got “buzz”. And if legend is anything to go by, it’s full of people who are much friendly than in Cape Town (we’re all inglorious basterds here). But it’s also a vast, sprawling, mass of ugliness and traffic and tension and really bad malls.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a lovely time. I got to hang out with my mother, and we stayed with a couple who we see too rarely, but with whom my family shares the kind of history that makes arriving at their house feel like coming to some kind of home. Their kitchen table stands where it has for my entire working memory (that’s something in the region of a quarter of a century), and it’s the best kind of kitchen table, where everything happens. It’s where you sit at the end of the day for a cup of coffee and feel the day morph into evening, and coffee into wine as someone gets busy at a nearby chopping board for dinner. It’s where you have morning coffee and a slice of toast before everyone goes their separate way. It’s where you park in the middle of the afternoon with a magazine and a slice of carrot cake.

For our final night my mother and I wanted to provide for a change. So we came back from afternoon mall expeditions armed with wine, snacks and a dinner plan. Snacks were simple: chips and a dip, a bit of biltong. That went well enough, until Monday’s snack of some avo-and-salmon terrine + crackers were added to the table. Then we were joined by a film maker who spends half his time in France, and once we got a bit of chardonnay into his veins, the talk turned to the foie gras he had recently brought to the very same table, and we all sang the virtues of having travelling friends who bring us exotic and delicious, and sometimes very strange, table delights. That led to the pulling out of the wasabi peanuts (which I had brought for my mother from Cape Town), and they were tasted with due caution by the film maker, and enjoyed with abandon by the rest of us.

It soon emerged that he still had a tin of foie gras mousse in his room, which he proceeded to fetch. Now, I have never eaten foie gras, partly because of my circumstance (why would I have eaten it? I grew up in Swaziland and live in South Africa), and partly because it’s never really interested me much. I anticipate something very creamy, rich, and slightly bilious because it will turn out that it’s not ice cream, and in fact doesn’t taste of much at all, but just coats your mouth in a layer of something you wish wasn’t there.

As soon as the can was opened I knew I was right. As the rest of the table salivated and drooled with their crackers at the ready, I tried to ignore my angst about having to get excited about this stuff, but I got my cracker and followed the pack. I wouldn’t say it’s nasty. But it’s not very nice. And the tin gives off the same smell you get when you open a tin of dogfood.

There. It may just have been mousse, and therefore not the “real thing”, but I had my first taste of foie gras and it was not very nice. And I don’t believe it ever will be, just as I don’t think I will ever develop a love for oysters. And while I did hate aubergines and celery as a child, and now love them after having “developed” a taste for them, oysters and foie gras are not the same because they are some of the few things in the gastronomic world which have this strange status as fetish. Anyone who loves food must love them for the simple reason that they are “delicacies”, which they are because they are hard to come by, expensive, produced by dubious methods, on the verge of extinction, etc (any or all of the above).

Well gold and diamonds are hard to come by and expensive too, but I don’t like them either. In fact I can’t think of anything worse than being given a diamond encrusted gold ring. I would pawn it instantly, and spend the money on scooters for the Philosophe and I to navigate our inglorious basterd city during the World Cup, and with the last R20 I would buy some chicken livers from Pick & Pay and make my mother’s delicious chunky, well-done (indeed crusty!) chicken liver pate.

(Anyone with diamond-encrusted gold rings you’re looking to get rid of, feel free to send them here, under my name.)

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