Monday, April 12, 2004

Da Da Da Dumb!

All of my life, I have considered myself pretty much average. Intelligent, but not brilliant, amusing but not truly funny, and neither stunningly beautiful nor ugly enough to frighten little children. Just average.

There is some evidence that, in the abstract, I am incorrect in that consideration… embarrassingly high scores on IQ tests and a creepy ability to spell virtually any English (or French) word I have ever actually seen (and many I have not, actually), for example. But I have never considered those kinds of things to make me above average because they were overbalanced by a humiliating lack of facility with maths (I was an adult before I had the entire multiplication table memorized), a rather awkward relationship with things mechanical (machines…especially fax machines and copy machines…virulently hate me), and the humiliation of failing physics…not once, but twice…in high school and in university. Actually, I didn’t truly fail physics…I was asked by the instructors to transfer out of the class rather than take the inevitable failure and ruin my grade point average (which may mean nothing to South Africans, but is the Holy Grail of students in the US). For every attribute my family or friends or therapist could cite to “prove” how above-average I was, I had at least one (and often two or three or even more) humbling inabilities as counterpoint: I had perfect pitch, but I couldn’t read music or play an instrument; I had a great singing voice, but I sang in the tenor range (rather embarrassing for a short little blonde girl!); I could draw well but anything I tried to paint came out looking like I had used mud for my palette. For every attribute my champions could name, I could name a host of things that my most ardent efforts wrought no more than mediocre results. I was good at some things, but not enough to make me think I was anything more than average…I knew lots of people who were good at many more things than I was and I envied and admired them. And I never had the hubris to consider myself to be one of their exalted comrades (which was a good thing, because they would have laughed bookish little me right out their exalted presence!).

And so I grew up thinking myself as average and, as a result, thinking that my own tastes, attitudes and opinions were roughly representative of most working class Americans. I was an Average American, after all…why wouldn’t I be representative of the whole lot of us? The passage time and the rasp of hard-won experience smoothed out some of those sharp opinions from my callow youth, but I find myself still clinging to the notion that, intellectually, I am little different from the norm. I tend to think that if I understand it, everybody understands it. If it is obvious to me, it must be equally obvious to everyone else except, maybe, those who are truly intellectually challenged (surely a minority in all cultures) and those who wilfully and stubbornly refuse to accept the glaringly obvious.

Of course I am wrong and, intellectually, I recognize and admit and accept that this notion of mine is incorrect. But, despite my best efforts, I continue to not-so-secretly harbour this suspicion that if average little ol’ me can see and figure something out, then everybody else must be able to do the same…so what is their excuse for their idiocy?

A case in point: I do not pretend to know very much about South Africa’s political system yet, but I do have some knowledge of her history. So, driving down the road, I keep seeing signs put up by the DA (in English and Afrikaans…my lessons are working so I am beginning to be able to puzzle out the signs more accurately) promising 150,000 more police. I have pondered this promise several times and finally, yesterday, I discussed it with my husband. Now, you must take into account that my perception of race issues in this country are necessarily coloured by the country’s past and those news reports that made it to America (not a lot, by the way, because of your previous government’s policies on news), and that I am just learning about the various political parties and their positions. It seemed to me, based on what (admittedly little) I know about black people in this country, that a promise of more police would not exactly be something they would see as a promise they would like to see kept, the police having a less-than-sterling history in relation to black people here. And given that the vast majority of people in this country are black, it seemed like one of those duh! kind of obvious things…any idiot can tell you that if your campaign platform is based on something that offends or upsets the majority of the voters, you ain’t gonna win!

So my husband explained that the DA’s vision is one that appeals to the white middle class and that the DA expects to capture a swing of Indian and coloured voters because they, too, are very concerned with crime…the blacks are too busy trying to hold body and soul together for crime to be very visible on their collective radar yet. Now, I am the very first to admit to having rather poor math skills, but even I know that in order to win the upcoming election, the DA needs a significant black vote to put them over the top. Even my shaky math can calculate that if approximately 75% of the population is black, and even if the DA got every single white, Indian and coloured vote in the country, it wouldn’t be enough to give them the election. What kind of dimwit crafted a campaign promise that is guaranteed to alarm or offend more than half the electorate? Was he truly that stupid or self-absorbed that he couldn’t see the outstandingly obvious fact that he was shooting his party in the foot by alienating something like 75% of the voters with this kind of thing? I mean, for heaven’s sake, I’ve been here for less than two months and even I figured it out…and quickly, too! Mebbe he was a mole planted by the ANC…can you think of any more likely possibility (aside from being stupid as a stone)?

I’m finding it rather difficult to believe that the election is just a couple of days away. While there are plenty ridiculous posters, like the one noted above, they are all so small! Goodness, no wall-sized billboards extolling the virtues of one party and smearing another? And where are all the smarmy, innuendo-loaded, even flat-out lying television adverts? Where are the cloven-hoofed spin doctors and their legion of dark media elves, spinning out the yarns of deception, turning the voters heads with insinuation and allusions to wickednesses never actually committed? I mean, if John McCain can be cost the Republican Party nomination in the US with the allegation that he sired a child out of wedlock on a Vietnamese woman (while locked up and being tortured as a prisoner of war, by the way) when the truth was that he and his wife had adopted a Bangladeshi girl…if the supposedly sophisticated American voter can be swayed with this kind of mindless twaddle, why aren’t the spin doctors hard at work here, slinging their mud and trying to turn the electorate like a herd of mindless sheep? Mercy, guys, you better get on the ball…the election is only days away and if you don’t hurry, you’re likely to start giving democracy a good name!

Thursday, April 01, 2004

All the eggs are brown!

Originally published March 31, 2004

While preparing breakfast for my husband this morning it suddenly struck me that I haven’t seen a white egg since I got here. Not that the color of the eggshell makes any difference to me…it doesn’t…but in America most of the eggs are white-shelled and brown-shelled eggs cost more because they are (inaccurately) perceived to somehow be healthier than white-shelled ones. This set me to pondering some of the differences between South Africans and their food and Americans and theirs.

I’ve been doing my grocery shopping here for several weeks now, and have, after trying various markets, settled on Checkers as my primary source of food. I go to Woolies for premium stuff, I try to get my produce at the open air markets at the Rylands and most of my meats at a couple of butcheries (I have a particular favorite for boerewors in Parklands), my “uh oh, we’re out of bread” supplies at the closest market, a Pick n Pay, and everything else at Checkers…cleaning and paper supplies, juice, milk, cheese, bread, etc. In my search for delectable things to please my husband’s palate, I have made quite a few discoveries about how South Africans eat, at least as perceived by the people who sell the food.

1) South Africans have a considerable sweet tooth! I was strolling down an aisle at the market the other day looking for a product and realized that there was an entire aisle devoted exclusively to sweets! The whole length of the aisle! I was amazed! Americans are perceived as being a sweet-loving people, but I’ve never seen anything like it in America! When you look for marshmallows in the US, for example, you have only three choices: minis, full-sized, and sometimes colored marshmallows; and there are generally only two brands to choose from: Camp Fire and the store’s generic brand (which was probably made by Camp Fire). The marshmallow selection here would just about take up the entire candy portion of an American supermarket! Multiple brands, shapes, colors, sizes, even flavors…you have more variety in marshmallows alone than Americans have in trendy coffees! And then there were the candy bars!! My goodness…such choices! I wandered the candy aisle wondering if I had died and gone to Chocoholic Heaven! But being a good little girl (who is nearly at the end of her household budget for the month) I resisted the urge to splurge and indulge my chocoholic tendencies. I get my budget account renewed tomorrow…who is kidding whom?...there is a reason I am putting off buying groceries until then!

2) South Africans are real carnivores! It is inconceivable in America to have shops that sell nothing but jerky (biltong). On my first visit here, a year ago, I was fascinated by the biltong shop in the local strip mall because something like that could never make enough profit to survive in America. Jerky, as biltong is known in America, is sold in little sealed plastic packets that are kept beside the till in convenience stores like 7-11. And it is never made from game meats, only beef, with various treatments to alter the taste (pepper, chili, teriyaki, etc.). And dried sausage? Never saw it before I came here (and I come from a family in which my father made his own venison jerky after a hunting trip, and my grandfather prided himself on his homemade sausages). The variety and quantities and quality of meats here is stunning! The beef is deliciously tender and flavorful (although I am having to relearn the names of cuts of meat because what they call a porterhouse here does not bear even a vague resemblance to a porterhouse in California), lamb is plentiful, and I have never, ever seen mutton in a market before, or game meats, for that matter. Some of the best boerewors (which is also unknown in America and a particular favorite of mine!) I have eaten here was made from game meat and purchased at a SuperSpar. South Africans seem inordinately proud of their braais, but because virtually every household in America has at least a kettle-type barbeque and cooks on it frequently, the braai, of course, was initially no big thing to me. But the meats that are to go onto those braais…what choices we have here and how wonderful they are! Marinated chickens already flattened to braai well, tasty pieces of meats already on skewers, boerewors...virtually all Americans have barbecues, but South Africans have elevated the concept almost to an artform! YUM!

3) South Africans…or at least Capetonians…have a thing about calamari that I neither share nor understand. Even if the stuff wasn’t disgusting to even contemplate eating, once in the mouth…ick!! I am astonished at the quantities of calamari served here and the creative ways people have thought of to serve it. I ordered a paella at a restaurant recently, anticipating a bed of saffron rice studded with chicken, mussels, clams, prawns, and perhaps a piece of fish or two. I got a plate full of oversalted reddish-brown goo…I couldn’t tell the mushroom chunks from the chicken bits, but the little legs sticking up from the monochromatic mass like those of a dead spider were a dead giveaway as to the identity of those little buggers. I picked at least two dozen of the nasty little things out of the rice but missed one and it ended up in my mouth…oh, yuck, it was horrid…a gritty texture and dark musky flavor that put me off the entire rest of the plate. EW! as we say in America… eeeewwwwwwwwww! To be fair, I have to admit I am not a big fan of fish in general, and so far the only one I have found here that I like is Cape Salmon (yes, I’ve tried snoek, a local favorite…too oily, too boney, too fishy tasting for me), but that is no surprise, considering that in my entire life in America, I found only four fish that I like…and I am the daughter and granddaughter of avid sportsmen and grew up eating the stuff, courtesy of Dad’s or Grandpa’s latest fishing trip. I like tuna salad, shrimp, crab, lobster, abalone, scallops, salmon, halibut, trout, and catfish…that is, at present, my full range of seafoods that I consider fit for human consumption. Calamari is fish bait. Ick!

4) What fabulous restaurants we have to choose from! Maybe it is just Cape Town, but man, I could eat out every night here…and I like to cook. For my husband’s birthday I found an authentic sushi bar and we had dinner there (prawn and salmon sushi for me, thank you) and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the California rolls at Maz in Sea Point were better than the California rolls in California. Killer wasabe and delectable pickled ginger! I’ve been to a couple of Indian restaurants, some seafood restaurants (please, Ocean Basket, more offerings for those of us who are merely accompanying the fish-lovers), Italian, continental and quite a few others. I haven’t found a Mexican restaurant I want to try yet, though. I grew up eating Mexican food and the few so-called Mexican dishes I have had here were a grave disappointment. I’ve found a couple of Mexican restaurants but a quick perusal of the menus sent me scuttling away. Trust me on this…I have been eating Mexican food for decades…I lived in the Mexican part of town for years and frequented the local eateries where my rusty, halting Spanish was my only means of communication…Mexican cuisine does NOT include calamari! In the Gulf of California Mexican fishermen catch and sell calamari to the Japanese restaurant industry, but they do not eat it themselves! Any Mexican restaurant in South Africa that includes calamari in their offerings does not get my approval! (I brought a Mexican cookbook with me just in case.) All in all, however, I have found eating out here in Cape Town to be an unparalleled pleasure, from breakfast at a roadside farm stall to lunch at a local mall to dinner in town, it is one of the great pleasures of living here.

5) The produce is fantastic! I’m not too impressed with Fruit and Veg City…the veggies were limp, not crisp, and rubbery broccoli just doesn’t do it for me. But once I found the open air veg market at the Rylands, I’m a happy camper. My favorite food is fresh fruit, and there is a stall there that sells mangoes that must come straight from heaven. I have discovered litchis…never even heard of them before I came here and now they rank in my top ten favorite fruits. I bought the most gorgeous, red red red tomatoes this week, and beautiful crisp snap beans. The cauliflowers and cabbages are the biggest I have ever seen in my life, and my grandfather used to grow his own huge cabbages for making sauerkraut…South African cabbages dwarf anything I have ever seen in Grandpa’s garden! I’m wondering what the apparently national obsession with creamed spinach and yellow squash is, though…they show up as the standard veg with almost every restaurant meal and I gotta tell you, those two rank near the absolute bottom of my list of edible veggies…just above fried parsnips, I think. Hmmm…I think I have just come up with a way for me to whittle down a few of those extra kilos that cling to me like a frightened child…to heck with BioSlim and other quackeries, a diet of calamari, creamed spinach and mooshed up yellow squash should see me very thin in very short order!