DISTRICT SIX HUIS KOMBUIS: Food & Memory Cookbook. Published by Quivertree Publications , Cape Town, 2016.
It is surely the ultimate District Six title, in terms of lifestyle, tradition, recollection and restoration.
From the feel of the linen-like cover, through endpapers filled with fragments of crockery - willow-pattern plates and cups with no ears – to Cloete Breytenbach’s heart-wrenching photographs of before and after demolition, this hardback has been designed not only to inspire memories but to celebrate an indomitable spirit of survival while recording the vital role that the table played – and still plays – in family lives. As Shaun Viljoen comments in his introduction, “...the rituals of making and eating food... did not die or disappear when people were forced to move to far-flung areas but instead took root in these new locations on the Cape Flats.”
Some 10 years ago the District Six Museum started the Huis Kombuis project: Memories and stories – centred around taste, texture and aromas in the District - were collected to form the heart of this unique book. The museum had started its project with craft and textile design workshops which developed into an interdiscliplinary base for reflection, remembrance and innovation. Name-cloths that are inscribed with embroidered messages, recipes and signatures stimulated links between craft and culinary heritage , which in turn led to the concept of this book.
The rituals of cooking, eating, the place of the table in the kitchen, are all central to the collective memory of District Six, part of the spirit of place and sense of belonging. Not always inside: “The excitement of camping out on the pavement with “salmon slaai and boiled eggs in anticipation of the klopse passing by” is a new year tradition, still maintained by those who trek into the city from their windswept dormitories on the Flats .
A gallery of quite formal portraits of former residents introduces us to the contributors of memories and recipes. Two foldout maps of the area help readers with a sense of place: The 1940 map indicates where each family lived, along with landmark schools and churches. The second street map marks the shops, produce markets, cafes, butchers and bakers, herb and spice suppliers, with the Grand Parade just visible on the district edge.
The meat, as it were, of the book follows, starting with Monday which saw Sunday leftovers or fresh fish on the table. It may have been bought on tick – to be paid for on Friday – but what a wealth of seafood was on offer – snoek, stockfish [hake], crayfish, harders, maasbankers, hottentot, red roman, white stumpnose, geelbek and kabeljou.
We meet Marion Abrahams-Welsh, Linda Fortune, Ruth Jeftha: a contemporary photograph accompanies their stories of childhood in the district, and memories of Monday meals reveals traditions of cottage pie from Marion, followed by sago pudding, while Linda’s family Monday favourites were brawn and her father’s crayfish curry, well spiced . The recipes are easy to follow, the food photographs appetising. Ruth’s family relished her mother’s fish cakes and fish smoortjies, made with canned pilchards for supper.
Her mother was one of the last to leave her home in Bloemhof flats, a landmark in District Six. She lived without electricity and water towards the end and died a few days after being moved to Mitchells Plain.
Subsequent chapters follow a similar pattern, with titles like ‘Stretching the pot’, ‘Niks het geflop nie’,’ We ate soup’, ‘Nothing went wasted’, ‘Friday the pans were screaming’... Along with savoury suppers, which often featured bredies, sweeter fare starred, proven with recipes for date and walnut loaf and tameletjie from a male baker. The women set jelly outside to set, to be served with custard or baked melktert as Sunday lunch finales, then went to to rustle up scones with apricot jam for afternoon tea. This well-balanced treasury of Kaapse kos sees substantial input from Cape Malay, Afrikaner, British and Jewish cuisines. Plus a soup¢on of Portuguese, and foraging influence from the San and Khoe who criss-crossed the slopes and shores above and below in previous centuries. The illustrated recipes take their place as an integral segment of an infamous period of Cape history, but are not its raison d’ȇtre.
Other images add to the culinary nostalgia: Black and white family photographs, plus streetscapes , people and markets, double decker buses and handcarts. Buildings lining Hanover street with balconies and washing lines and those distinctive splayed corners. Below, Morris minors and Volksie beetles...
The painfully slow re-creation of District Six seems synonomous with the fact that traditional values are being replaced by a greedy capitalism, as the gap between the wealthy and destitute in the Mother City gets ever wider.
Last word goes to the late Vincent Kolbe, one of the Museum founders and a former colleague of mine at City Libraries . When he wasn’t telling stories, he was making music (which included a party trick of playing the piano with his back to the instrument and his arms stretched back over his shoulders) or encouraging small children to read and revere books. Of the Huis Kombuis project he said “We created an arena which enables us to reaffirm our identity, celebrate our heritage and confront the complexities of our history.” A fitting tribute to an impressive example of teamwork.
Hanover Street, heart of District Six.