Last night I found myself saying to two women, a girlfriend and a wife of two musician friends of my boyfriend’s: “I’m obsessed with food” to incredulous looks and a somewhat unexpected remark by a woman whom I’d met for the first time: “you’re too thin for that to be true”…now, dear reader(as Charlotte Bronte, or was it her sister? would have said), I am not thin. Nor am I particularly overweight: just in my bum and thigh area; the kind of shape which is vaunted as “Healthy” for middle aged women. Pleasantly pear shaped. I decided to let that pass, although I did actually talk a bit more about food, asking the host for his recipe for a dressing for a coleslaw which he loves making. I’ve had it there before, and last night accompanying chicken roasted whole on a Weber, with shop bought garlic bread dripping with buttery garlicky juices which I greedily ate a couple of slices of, maybe trying to prove to the said woman that I indeed love eating… I am sure that I reek of garlic today.
My boyfriend proudly told the guests that I had started a food related blog, and maybe at least two of them will be new readers of this blog, and one of them asked how this interest in cooking started. I promised to write about it rather than go into a long diatribe there and then. Others have asked me too, and the answer was not immediately clear to me. How does it start, a love of cooking? Having women in my young life who cooked mostly to feed a family rather than for the sheer love of it did not really inspire me to cook. Nor did my dad’s encouraging remarks on Sunday lunches sometimes cooked by myself (taking a turn in the kitchen with my mom and sister’s help): “Now you can get married” after tasting competently cooked food: a meat dish or rice salad or just right sweet pumpkin. I felt a mix of pleasure and pride and irritation when he used to say that: inchoate stirrings of feminism conflicting with my innate wish to please(men; something which I have in my adult life struggled with too).
Anyway, pinpointing that moment when I knew for the first time the pleasure of cooking a particular meal for someone, a man as it turned out, was easier than I thought it would be. The man was my first husband, I was 23 years old, my first son was just over a year old, and I was living with in a geological camp in the Namib dessert. We lived at a base camp, with a central mess area, consisting of a huge kitchen, gas cookers and fridges and freezers a dining area and a lounge, and an outside veranda with a built in braai area. My husband, and intrepid almost geologist would mostly cook at night: generous portions of whole fillet steaks often, with his take on a tomato sauce on mealiemeal “pap”(thick stiff maize porridge), which in the early eighties were standard accompaniments to barbequed meat. We very seldom had salad, since only once a week the local grocery store in a tiny mining town about ten kilometres away, Rosh Pinah, would have any vegetables in stock. We had to put in an order a week in advance for anything other than potatoes and tomatoes which would be delivered to the store from Oranjemund in the then South West Africa, and sometimes Springbok in the Northern Cape.
Part of his duty as a geological assistant and camp manager included monthly trips to Windhoek, to take core samples to the lab there, and to take the workers who lived in an adjacent camp to spend weekends with their families. I have clear memories of those trips, through the back roads, mostly untarred, in the front of a Landcruiser with a baby discreetly at the breast, the back laden with eight grown men in blue overalls and overnight bags, all of them whom we offloaded at a given spot in Windhoek. And it was on one of these trips where I had my food epiphany, in an unlikely motel, the Safari Motel, outside of Windhoek one evening.
Choosing food from a very extensive menu, my eye caught : Carpetbagger Steak, the description of which intrigued me: fillet steak stuffed with oysters. I had to have it. I had only recently before that tasted my first fresh oyster ever, also at the same motel on a previous trip, very adventurous for a girl from a small town where the only oysters were smoked from tins, which my parents sometimes indulged in.
The steak turned out to be wonderful, and to my rather unsophisticated palate, extremely exotic in its combination of robust red meat oozing blood and salty, slippery, almost cooked oysters, in a pocket at the heart of a steak, on the plate in a creamy peppery sauce.
I decided that when back in the camp I was going to try and replicate that dish. Of course no fresh oysters were available, but I nevertheless bought a tin or two of the smoked variety, the next day in a Windhoek store. Proudly, one evening soon after, I presented my husband with my take on a carpetbagger steak: a thickly sliced fillet steak, stuffed with smoked oysters and a creamy cheesy sauce, with lightly cooked green beans and sweet carrots still a bit crunchy on the tooth. I felt triumphant and fiercely proud of myself when I sat down at the table, still flushed from pan-frying the steak to just the right done-ness, and felt deep pleasure when I saw how much my young husband, who grew up similarly unsophisticated as far as food was concerned, enjoyed every mouthful.
And even though a chef would cringe, and me too at this stage of my culinary journey to use smoked, tinned, oysters for this delicately flavoured dish (which I googled and see is still cooked although the eighties was probably it’s heyday), it marks the start of my lifelong adventure in food and cooking and loving men who love my food….