The Basic Thought, The Basic Biscuit
2 cups unbleached white flour
2 cups whole wheat bread flour
1/3 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup melted butter
¼ cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 teaspoons pure almond extract
Preheat oven to 400˚.
In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly mix the dry ingredients. Combine all the wet ingredients, pour them into the dry ingredients, and stir until you have a soft dough, similar to biscuit dough.
Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface and roll or pat it to about ½ inch thickness. Cut the dough into rectangles about 2x4 inches.
Bake the rusks about 2 inches apart on buttered baking sheets for about 25 minutes until the tops are crisping and browning a little…
Loosely pile the rusks on a baking sheet and keep them in a 200˚ oven all day or all night (about 12 hours) to dry. The finished rusks should be very dry and hard. Cool and store in an airtight container. Rusks will keep for weeks.
Yields about 2 dozen.
In the dark, almost all I can see is the stars overhead. The deep black sky sinks heavy against the small pool of light sheltering us. On the edge of every breath is the chill humidity of the wetlands. Like the chameleons our guide, ‘Shaka’ Barker, pulled from branches during our haphazard drive through the reserve, I want to curl small and blend away into the South African night. The grass next to our jeep is high and, like everything and everyone else, seems almost colorless. I can’t help but wonder if we are fading from the drive or from our whirlwind tour that has taken us from Cape Town to Durban to Hluhluwe in just over a week.
We pile out of the vehicle, all nineteen of us, and cluster near the back. As loud as we are talking, the hush of the sleeping St. Lucia Wetland Park dampens the sound. Shaka Barker opens a hatch on the back of his mammoth jeep and pulls out a picnic basket stacked high with small metal mugs and a thermos of hot chocolate.
The hot chocolate is still hot even though we’ve been driving for well over an hour; steam curls up and away. The drink heats my breath so I can just barely see it in the sallow, yellow light. I clutch the mug and take small sips. It’s easy to imagine it’s an anchor holding me fast to the earth, keeping me from floating away in the night sky to space station that seems as close as it is far away. It strikes me as strange that I’m standing in an UNESCO World Heritage site, in the dark, trying to understanding the new South African identity through hot chocolate that’s been made from a mix.
But then Shaka Barker passes around a small tin. Inside are rusks, biscuits that resemble biscotti. I take a small nibble of one; it’s dry and hard. It’s only when I dip it in the hot chocolate that I can really taste it. It’s buttery and has layers that flake like shortbread. Hidden in a few bites are raisins. Surprisingly, they complement the hot chocolate.
I hover on the edges of conversations while we finish our snack. I am struck by how solid rusks are, simple ingredients, but welcoming. And how like South Africa.
In the early summer of 2008, I spent two and a half weeks in South Africa on a study abroad tour entitled “South Africa Then and Now: Exploring and Emerging Democracy in an Era of Globalization.” Areas of the country we focused on were Cape Town, Natal, and Johannesburg. While it was not possible to conduct a lengthy anthropological study in any one location, my research centered around the anthropology of food in South Africa, the creation of identity, and gender negotiations within communities through food preparation and consumption. Methods of research used consisted of participant observation, interviews, media sources – such as newspapers, and scholarly research. Within my field notes, I maintained a food diary and recorded meal information on a daily basis. Our group consisted of fifteen students (including myself); our professor, Dr. Matthew Durington; and our tour guide, Roddy Bray. At various intervals along the trip we were joined by other anthropologists and specialists who lectured on their fields of focus.
Perhaps greater than any other food, bread is the ultimate human food. A conscious step beyond simple hunt and gather foods, even in its beginning forms bread needed to be cultivated – the wheat pulverized and processed into a paste, the paste formed and fired into flat breads. Sourdoughs, a likely second incarnation, made use of the bits of dough from previous batches to leaven bread before yeast was fully cultivated and isolated.
We think of bread like this, too. We have “just bread and water” if we’re extreme purists or imprisoned. If we’re savvy, we "know what side our bread is buttered on” and “if it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” you know it’s pretty good. Bread is pure, but it can also be complex. We add fruits, nuts, chocolate, and spices to give it some punch. Wheat is no longer the tour de force in the bread kingdom – just think of cornbreads and alternative flours, like almond flour.
It’s no surprise that bread is here taking its many forms just as it does in bakeries throughout the world. After all, South Africa is home to Swartkrans and Sterkfontein, archeological sites that are part of UNESCO’s Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. If we all began here, it’s fitting that bread is here, too. A self-expressed bread-addict, I never hesitate to try a piece, not just because I like it, but because if bread is of the earth, than it reflects the land that helped create it. And, if humankind originated in this cradle of land, no matter who we are or where we’re from, when we taste South African bread, we’re tasting home.
*quote citations may be found on the critical citations page