Wednesday 22 September 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

(Sonia Cabano's recipe book Easy Simple & Delicious. It delivers on all three counts)

(Now, hush you food stylists you. I am proud of this roast chicken. This is the most delicious roast chicken anyone has ever made. This roast chicken was made with love, and hope, and music and memories)

A couple of weeks ago I received a series of letters from celebrated chef and food writer, Sonia Cabano. I know of her, I know people who know her well, but I, myself, have never met her. And yet, she took the time and trouble to write to me; to tell me that she was thinking of me during a time of immense grief when my friend Nicci died. Her letters were caring and deeply personal. And I am enormously humbled by the fact that she reached out to me, took the time to write to someone she did not know. That she generously shared precious memories of those she loved, that despite not knowing me at all, she managed to take away some measure of my pain. That she told me grief was a long process.That I would find that 'rituals and deeply meaningful celebrations' would with time, ease my sadness. And then she asked me if I had read a book by Elisabeth Luard called Sacred Food, and in doing so led me back to my own bookshelf where I found two other, almost forgotten books by the same author; Family Life - Birth, Death, and The Whole Damn Thing and the follow up Still Life.Books which I had read (and loved) in 1998, but which I am now looking forward to rereading. Because the time is right. Because we are hoping to become parents, and because I worry that I won't be a good mom, and because I fear that my relationship with my husband will change in ways I would not like it to. And because I'm not good with change, and because that which I desire the most is also what frightens me the most.
And even for these unspoken fears, Sonia offered the words that could comfort me 'New souls incarnating bring with them immense courage, pure joy and hope. And absolutely complete and unconditional love. Not only for their parents, but for themselves, and for life.' she wrote.
Some gifts are overwhelming in their enormity. These letters fall into that category. I am by nature an emotional person. I cry easily. I laugh loudly. I share much. But yet, secretly, I am afraid of 'what people may say', of how I may be judged, of being rejected or having my intentions misconstrued, which is why I all too often fail to reach out, especially to those I don't know well.
I have always stated that I desire to live and love fearlessly. I have much to learn. Sonia's emotional generosity has taught me that.
And so while I was wondering how to respond and thank her properly, I remember Nicci telling me that she had learned that sometimes people do things without wanting something in return. That random acts of kindness are simply random acts of kindness and that occasionally it's ok to just say thank you. And perhaps pay it forward.
So thank you, Sonia Cabano, for your random acts of kindness towards me.
And while I'm thanking you, may I also tell you how much I like your book. That in the past week I have made the Sticky cashew chicken on page 26, the Asian noodles with ginger, sesame, honey and chilli on page 97 and your Baked sweet potatoes with honey, ginger and sesame-soy butter on page 156.
But last night I really did you proud. The roast chicken with tarragon and lemon on page 146 was the celebratory meal, the meal that Jacques and I ate with laughter and wine and promises. And I did so without sadness. Without guilt. I used a very good chenin blanc as well. And I did not count calories as I rubbed the butter into the chicken. And I used too many celery sticks and carrots. And as always I overdid the lemon. But not much, two, instead of the one you recommended. You told me about your mom's roast chicken. One day I'll tell my child about yours. And how I came to have it. How when I was very sad, a stranger offered me comfort.

Monday 20 September 2010

Let Us Eat Cake

(Of course this cake shop deserves first prize)

(Bakers Extraordinaire and Siblings Divine: Callie Maritz and Mari-Louis Guy)

(Street Decor)

(My Cake)

This is a completely, unashamedly biased review. I love love LOVE Cakebread. The owners/bakers/gloriously talented brother sister duo are friends of mine and I like them almost as much as I like what they bake. For the past few years I have received, given and eaten their fabulous cupcakes for celebrations and conciliatory occasions. I have publicly declared their Red Velvets to be way, way better than the iconic New York as-seen-on -Sex in The City Magnolia Bakery version and their freshly baked white chocolate cupcakes dressed with crushed raspberries and mascarpone are the stuff of dreams. Their cupcakes are miniature works of art, their large cakes sophisticated and elegant yet also deliciously wicked when the occasion calls for it - a divorce cake and a rude food party cake springs to mind!
But up until now, my cake cravings needed careful planning, I needed to order in advance, or at least give a couple of hours notice. But no more, because Callie en Mari-Louis have opened up a boutique cake shop - Cakebread, a place described as 'Tuisnywerheid meets High Fashion' on 71 Roeland Street, right next to my favourite book shop The Book Lounge. Now I can pop in anytime I like if my carb-cake addictions begins to get out of hand. But beware the Blue Mondays. Cakebread are closed on that dreadful day. I know. It happened to me and I left empty-handed and dikbek. Go in and but some beautiful, freshly baked goodies, buy some old-fashioned boere poedings, or some fabulously savoury pies to take home. And you have to take it home, because this is no sit-down and enjoy a cup of tea with your cupcake type of place - it's not a cafe, it's a shop. But you'll want to linger, and that's ok. Cake People are Nice People. And they'll let you drool over the rose petal-topped cakes, and the romantically old-fashioned iced cookies. And the swirled meringues . And the gorgeous tarts. And maybe you'll spy Mari-Louis or Callie there, and they're pretty easy on the eye as well.

Visit them on 71 Roeland Street, Cape Town or contact them on or 072 7841226 to place orders in advance for large scale indulgences.

5 Good Reasons For Not Having Blogged

(Mating lions. Up close and very personal.)

( And yes, leopards never change their spots. But would you, if you looked this good?)

( Hmm, proof that a fat ass can be gorgeous! The rhinos that reminded me of the William Kentridge production of The Magic Flute)

(Wild Dogs. Taken pre-kill. We saw ten of them hunt and kill a buck...Horrific, but I still eat meat, so can't be too judgemental)

(Open Wide. The Hippo that reminded me of the old Chomp ad. Remember that one?)

A very special place in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve ( adjacent to the Kruger National Park) with some very special friends is where we went for a while. We ate amazingly well, (Jenny and Lovonne you inspire me!) Laughed way too much (as if there is such a thing as too much laughter), slept (as one only can when the temperatures are 37 degrees and still rising) and marveled at African sunsets (is there anything more humbling?) The only battles to be fought were against the mozzies, but we bravely fought off the threat of malaria with copious amounts of Tabbard. And a few large (purely medicinal) Bombay Sapphire G &T's. It was both healing and happy. The holiday, not the gin...

Remember these scenes from the movies?
White Mischief: 'Oh God, not another f*cking beautiful day.'
Out Of Africa: 'Perhaps he knew as I did not, that the earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.'

Wednesday 8 September 2010

What We Ate At The Wake (because the title would make her laugh)

(Karen and Nicci, taken a while back at The Kitchen)

Once, while working at a small, ever-so-slightly-dysfunctional company, the tea lady, Patricia, came around asking for donations of money towards a funeral. Cathy, Michelle and I expressed our concern, 'Oh dear. who died? Are you all ok?' But Patricia assured us that no one close to her had died. 'But who are you collecting for then?' Cathy enquired puzzled. 'The girl upstairs, she has a sister who knows someone who has died, this is for her funeral.' Patricia explained patiently. 'Hmm,' said Michelle, 'So you're collecting money for a funeral, a funeral of someone you don't know, on behalf of someone you barely know. How bizarre.' Exasperated Patricia turned on her, and said, 'Michelle! It's not a bazaar, it's a funeral!'

Well, Nicci's wake was more like a bazaar than a funeral. The way she would have wanted it. Of course there were tears and much sadness, but mostly it was a wonderful party where all her friends could gather and talk about her. And where we could listen to the Final Playlist that she had compiled with her friend Evert. Nicci was the ultimate social hostess. An invitation from her guaranteed great food, lots of wine, fabulous people from all walks of life, interesting conversations, and stylish table settings. Sometimes we ate in her garden, sometimes in her wide corridor, but always at a table with plenty of laughter. And so we gathered, kissed old friends hallo, consoled acquaintances, met friends that she had spoken of often, but who we never yet had the chance to meet because her life was cut short before we had the privilege. There was almost a strange sense of euphoria in the air. I think that we had grieved alongside Nicci while she was dealing with the prospect of death. And now, suddenly, here we were at this wake that she had planned for us, a wake perfectly executed by Cathy and Renee, and it almost felt as if she would arrive at any moment resplendent in clashing colours and prints and magenta satin heels, holding a glass of bubbly.
I wandered into the kitchen , because that's what you did at a Nicci-party, while she chatted and laughed and peered into her much-loved Le Creuset pots, you'd rest a hip against a counter and have a quick catch-up. And of course she wasn't there. But Karen Dudley was. Karen, the foodie friend, in whose cafe, The Kitchen, in Woodstock Nicci and I had spent such happy mornings. Karen had catered for Nicci's 39th birthday party (the one with the stripper and my chocolate mousse!) and it was only right that she would prepare the feast for Nicci's send-off. It was right that Karen, whom Nicci admired and held in such affection would, alongside her amazing team, of women in the kitchen and men at the bar, would make the food that Nicci wanted us to eat. For some reason, the tomato is the thing that I remember Nicci liking. She loved the sweet, slightly tangy bite of a tomato bredie, she made a divine panna cotta with a tomato confit. And for her wake Karen made what she calls a Moroccan bredie, all about melting tomatoey favours, with a lot of ginger and cardamom and coriander. She told me that while making the food, she and her team, who knew Nicci, were so conscious of her. The food we ate was prepared with love, and I think that is why it comforted us. As food is meant to do in times of grief.

Nicci encouraged me to write this blog, told her friends to read it, and writing about her has helped me deal with my loss, I have been told that it has helped others as well. I am glad for that. I am also intensely aware that she has sent others my way, people who wanted to share their memories of her, and who generously and kindly offered me comfort. I also know while I may grieve, I may not wallow in my misery. Nicci would have called me on that.
So indulge me one last time and allow me share the toast I proposed to her:

The last time I spoke to Nicci, I told her that hers was a life that would not go unnoticed.
What I failed to tell her was that the way in which she lived shamed me.
That I realize that I have taken too much for granted. That I have been careless with my blessings. That I have not valued life in the way that it should be valued. Every single minute. Of every single day.
Because that's what she did. Nicci LOVED life. She was the most vibrantly ALIVE person I have ever known. When I think of her, I see colour, I hear laughter. I feel joy.
Nicci never lost her appetite for life, towards the end, she still craved the taste of limoncello, still wanted to see the spring flowers one more time. Still danced to 80s music. Still hooted with laughter. Still wore red. Still yearned to travel. Still loved the smell of citrus blossoms. Still delighted in the presence of her two children Nina and Andre.
Nicci chose to be happy. She fought bravely with her grief, battled her anger, but sadness was not an emotion she indulged. It seemed to me that she valued happiness above all else, and battled against anything that would rob her of her joy.
About a month ago, we were driving in the car, when Nicci told me she needed to be home by 2pm to see her shrink. 'Why?' I asked her, 'Because I need to figure out why I'm so sad', she said. In disbelief I screamed at her, 'I can bloody tell you why you are sad, it's because you have bloody leukemia, and you are bloody dying! And then, shocked, we began to laugh at the absurd cruelty of it all, and then the laughter turned to crying, and then we laughed again.
And when we'd calmed down, she turned to me and said, 'Ah today's going to be good day.'
And it was. Because Nicci could will a good day.

And I believe that that is her legacy to us, to those she loved, that we should live the way Nicci loved to live, with excitement, and generosity, and hope and joy. We need to breathe great big greedy gulps of air. To turn our faces towards the sun. And to embrace the life she so loved. Because after all the joy, and love, and colour and laughter she brought into our lives, we owe her that much.
L'chaim. To life. To Nicci.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Curbside Carbs

(The Real Pavement Special)

There are many things I love about my home town; the beach, the mountain, the forests, in other words: The Scenic Splendour. But at heart I'm a woman who loves The Smog. I adore urban spaces. Which is why when all the wholesome goodness of being back in Cape Town gets a bit too much, I talk a friend into having a relatively early breakfast at Jardine's bakery in Bree Street. Queueing on the pavement, waiting for a splendid latte, watching the manic bakers at work, being tempted by the smell of freshly-baked carbs and relishing the thought of eating the very best ham and cheese croissant is the perfect way to start the day. Jardine's pavement bakery is a Weekday Only Affair starting at 7am in the morning and closing shop at 3.30pm. Sadly on weekends you go cold turkey. So make the most of it during the week, and if you have the time, and the gossip is good , order a cranberry danish with your second cup of coffee. Ask for it to be slightly warmed. It's pure perfection.

Saturday 4 September 2010

Goodbye Nicci

(Nicci at the Bird Cafe in Bree Street. Pills and pain meds before coffee and cake.)
Nicci, love,
It's been two days since I saw you last. Jacques and I have spent the weekend at home. Cocooning. Being kind to one another. Maxi has made us laugh with his antics and constant demands to play. The sun is shining and I wish it wouldn't. But I'm wearing turquoise today. Jacques commented on it, he's so tired of my basic black. I'm trying to decide on what to wear for your funeral this week. You told me I had to wear colour and I warned you that you had to stay alive a little while longer, because I'm too fat for brights. Weirdly enough, I thought I'd be thinner by the time you died. As if it mattered, as if you wouldn't want my body with all it's flaws, with my round belly, and too-round thighs and cellulite-in the-bad-light-legs instead of your own leukemia-ridden, painful body. And I felt so guilty about my own issues, my own sadness at your dying. You had to live with it. I was only a witness.
I told you on Friday that your life would not go unnoticed. Did you hear me, my darling? I thought I saw you trying to focus on my face and your breath changed. But perhaps it was only the morphine...I hope you heard me. I hope you heard me tell you that during these last four years of your life, four years in which you battled adversity, and grief, and heartbreak, and pain with such style, you still brought me and those who loved you such joy. So much laughter. So much happiness.
Connie arrived at the hospital, but by then you had already gone. She was clutching orange blossoms from their garden because she wanted you to smell them one more time before you died. It was the saddest thing. I hope you caught their fragrance as your spirit left us. That this is the scent you will remember.
I know there will be a wake for you this week, with lots of flowers and alcohol. Because you've left strict instructions to do so. I hope you'll watch over us that you aren't too busy catching up with your dad, and your sister-in-law and the grandma into whose grave you poured a bottle of gin and a few cans of tonic. It will be a shame to miss a party dedicated to you. God, I'm being stupid, you'll be there, you liked the fuss and drama way too much to miss it. Remember the afternoon we laughingly planned your funeral, how you said that if you were going to die, you wanted it to be a Visi-affair. And then how we cried with laughter at the macabre thought of Sumien, and Cornelia and Tina-Marie hauling fabric swatches around trying to match your deathly pallor, and the manic styling of it all, and Johan penning beautiful words? You adored those creative people, loved working with them all.
A few of us got together on our roof on Friday night, one by one your friends arrived carrying bottles of wine. We ordered take-away pizza and we cried and we laughed and we spoke of you. Then Douw got out his phone to call you. Before we remembered. And then things got a bit quieter for a while. Sadder. Bianca and Sonja and Plush smoked a lot. Rather desperately. And Jacques drank too much. I felt disconnected. But we toasted you. And your life. And your laughter. And the colour that always surrounded you. And we realized that each and every one around the table had met one another through you. Thank you for that Flower Girl.
It was a gorgeous, warm spring night. And we stayed up there on the roof till the early hours of the morning. But the stars weren't out. There was a light cloud covering them. All night long. As if the heavens were grieving as well. As if the earth's loss was so profound that the stars dimmed their light out of respect for our sadness.
They were out again last night. I guess by then you'd arrived. And that they could no longer contain their joy at your presence. I remember how that felt...

Travel well, my brave and beautiful friend. We miss you.

Thursday 2 September 2010

The Sludgy Greys

(a nice take on the WW2 Keep Calm and Carry On poster)

It's been a while since I blogged. I missed a couple of days, then I missed a few days more. And before I knew it it had been more than two weeks since I'd checked into Cyberspace. Which is ok, I suppose. I'd gotten a bit freaked out when people asked me 'Where I was taking my blog?' And did I 'intend making money out of it?' And 'why wasn't I into breaking news'. I don't know the answers to any of those things. I suppose I just wanted to write. Without a deadline, and without the pressure of writing for print (which will always be my first love). And then I started to doubt myself...Because I can't work a Blackberry, and because I don't really get the whole Twitter thing, and because I'm not edgy or trendy enough for this whole blogging thing. And because I turned 41 last week. And I'm still not pregnant. And because my friend is dying and I'm not coping so well with that anymore. And because the sludgy greys have crept up on me, and I don't know how to keep them at bay. Because it's exhausting putting on a brave, happy face. And because saying that you want to make peace with your body is so much easier than doing so. And because its summer, and I wish that I was 20kg's lighter. Because maybe then I'd feel better about myself. And then I feel guilty because I am so blessed, and angry at myself because I can't shake the sadness.
But today, I'm going to be a bit kind to myself. I'm going to drink tea, eat 2-minute noodles, watch CSI reruns. I'm going to lie on the floor with Max and rub his silky black doggy ears.
And then tomorrow I will put on my Big Girl Panties. And do what must be done.

(See Peta, I do take your advice x)