The Meat of the Matter
Bobotie (Beef Pie)
2 ounces butter
1 cup onions, thinly sliced
1 apple, peeled, diced
2 pounds chopped cooked beef
2 bread slices soaked in milk
2 tablespoons curry powder
½ cup raisins
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon turmeric
6 bay leaves
½ cup whole milk
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the onions and sauté for 5 minutes, then add the apple dice and cook for another minute. Add the chopped beef and combine. Squeeze out the excess milk from the bread slices, then tear up and add to pot. Add the curry powder, raisins, almonds, lemon juice, egg, and turmeric, and stir well.
Place mixture in a greased 9 x 13" baking dish. Place bay leaves vertically in the casserole. Bake at 325˚ F for 40 minutes, then remove from the oven. Mix together the egg and milk, then pour it over the Bobotie. Bake for 15 more minutes. Remove bay leaves before serving.
Standing on the roots of the Kamberg Valley, I am ready for the burned earth to swallow me. It’s freezing; I’m wearing layer upon layer upon layer and I’m still trying not to shiver. We eat lunch at the visitor’s center, half of our group sheltering in the gift shop, the rest of us roughing it on the narrow patio. My avocado/hummus/cucumber sandwich is a smooth delight; thick and gentle like the mist and both so simultaneously amazing and overpowering.
The trek up the mountainside is exhausting and invigorating. Exhausting because it requires so much more physical effort than we’ve needed to extend the past week and half. Invigorating because, as we climb, we warm up. Every so often, a burned protea tree sports a brilliant flash of color; the occasional blossoms contradict the tree’s blackened exterior. It makes absolute sense the protea is South Africa’s national flower as it exemplifies new life emerging from destruction. The mist hovers below us and clouds drape across the long mountain ranges. We pass under a rock outcrop with a small waterfall. Shortly after the pass twists down and we cross over a small bridge before we begin to ascend once more.
When we get near the top, our group is split in half. Only ten people, including the guide, are allowed to view the rock art at the top at a time. I hang back with the second group. While we wait our turn, I sit on the steep, cold earth and watch clouds roll slowly down the a neighboring mountaintop and lap at the valley below. The chill from earlier returns. I’m relieved when it’s finally our turn and we climb the last bit to the rock overhang at the top.
The reddish-brown pigments of the elands, men, and shamans, hundreds of thousands of years old, speak of blood and ritual and tradition. Some are barely smudges on the rock, others highly stylized. Underscoring it all is a sense of masculinity that ripples through the flanks of the elands and looming shoulders of the shamans. The images of the hunt remind me of the grazing animals we viewed on safari and braais.
We climb back down and return to the bus, a storm clawing down the mountains on our heels. We are supposed to meet the Dumas, a family who traces their ancestral roots back to the Bushmen of the valley, but with the angry sky overhead and the daunting thought that bringing fourteen girls into a men’s hut would be taboo, we forgo the meeting. As we continue driving down the narrow road, I can’t help but wonder what the experience is of the missing experience.
Taboos, rituals, and food are prevalent in most – if not all – cultures, and many of those community morals are expressed through mythology. Often taboos have to do with specific food types or food handling. Whether keeping kosher, fasting for Ramadan, or practicing vegan-ism, these defining choices are present on a day-to-day basis.
In the rendition of a Zulu folktale, The Story of Untombi-yaphansi (Girl–of–the–Below), the three children of a chief exemplify Zulu cultural taboos. In the tale, the chief’s son, Usilwane (Beast-Man), brings home a leopard cub as a pet, calling it a dog. Fearing he will become a witch, one of the sisters, Usilwanekazana (Little–Beast–Woman) kills the leopard. In revenge, Usilwane kills Usilwanekazana, puts her blood in a pot, and cooks it together with a sheep’s blood and entrails. When Untombi-yaphansi, the third child returns, her brother urges her to eat from the pot, but she is saved by a fly that tells her the truth of what happened. Her brother chases her from the hut and, to escape him, Untombi-yaphansi cries out to the earth to open up and save her (Hammond-Tooke 1977:77).
Besides emphasizing several different cultural morals and taboos – namely, don’t bring home a leopard as a pet, don’t become a witch, don’t kill your sister and then try to serve her to your other sister, don’t let your brother try to kill you – this story also exposes underlying gender differences and defining traits. Usilwane exemplifies masculinity; he is a hunter and acts violently out of revenge. When his crime is exposed, his instinct is to try to kill Untombi-yaphansi. In contrast, both Usilwanekazana and Untombi-yaphansi are considerably more passive. While not weak – Usilwanekazana does kill the leopard – neither girl openly confronts their brother or is able to physically hold their own against him. In order to escape Usilwane, Untombi-yaphansi is forced to call upon the natural world for help. All this suggests an acceptance that dominating masculine soci-cultural norm, which, in turn forces a female dependency on external help to cope with dangerous situations.
Meat, particularly human meat, is taboo is many cultures and lifestyle choices. While not directly pointed out as the ultimate wrong-doing in this tale, notably because there are many wrongs in this fable, there are hints of further meat taboos that cross culture lines. Usilwanekazana blood, not her actual body, is put in the pot with sheep’s entrails. Organ meat often has a lowly table status in our culture. Reading this tale with foreigner’s eyes, it is easy to lose track of what foods are acceptable and what foods are not. How often do we think offal is awful? If a plate of cow’s tongue or liver or, perhaps worse, heart were placed in front of you, would you make your excuses? Our timidity in the face of our own food taboos blind us to the real wrong-doings of the tale and hinder us from learning the intended Zulu moral. If the tale is as food- and taboo-centric as it might seem, we must take a taste of something we might not otherwise in order to understand its real flavor.
Celebrations and rites of passage also have centered on food, such as those honoring Nomkhubulwane, a Zulu good-luck goddess. “According to Ndebele, girls would collect, from the whole community, foods for a feast to be held in the mountains” (Adams 1999:102). The food is then taken up the mountain. After it has been eaten, the girls go and wash in a river and cover their bodies in clay before returning home. Once home, her grandmothers check each girl to make sure she is still a virgin. The family of each girl who passes the test then slaughters a goat–thereby continuing the celebration (Adams 1999:102). The emerging revitalization of this ritual suggests a refocusing of female priorities. Identity and community acceptance is linked to sexuality. The nourishment of the community is instigated and provided women. Failure to pass the test – i.e. meet the community’s standards – halts the celebration, whereas passing continues it.
Traditional rituals and folklore provide the basis for individual identity, as the mores and morals expressed both in the practice and the retelling serve as defining characteristics. Just as these tools can define members of a community, they can also limit. From these few threads and the complexity of intentions and gender roles expressed, we can see the modern South African diet and ideals emerge. At the heart of it lies an emphasis on female piety and resolve. In both tales, the meat of the slaughtered agrarian animals takes on mixed symbology. In times of crisis or trial, meat can take on a dark, illicit meaning. But once those trials are passed, it can once more be the foundation of a diet, a cultural staple, and the basis for a celebration.
*quote citations may be found on the critical citations page