Sunday, 20 July 2008

Braaiing? Give me a grill anyday

When I was growing up, Sunday was traditionally braai day.

In fact, so steadfastly did our family stick to this weekly routine that my sister, at about age 11, declared herself no longer willing to partake of our Sunday meals: she’d been studying the causes of malnutrition at school, and had learnt that eating too much of the same thing can starve the body of vital nutrients, and had thus decided that the relentless Sunday braai was taking a terrible toll of her physical health. (Her reasoning may have been off, but I can’t fault her for disliking braais.)

Ostensibly, my father braaied once a week to give my mother a break from domestic drudgery, although, of course, the real reason for braaiing is not to allow women a day off (far from it); it’s so that men can connect with their primeval selves – they may not have hunted down this woolly mammoth, killed and skinned it, but by god are they going to cook it.

My mother (bless her sainted soul) never once uttered a word of complaint about: preparing the meat for the braai (including buying it, making various marinades, and organising raw-meat plates and cooked-meat plates – which had to be hot and brought to my father the second the meat was ready); making endless accompaniments (salads, breads, baked potatoes, pickled beetroot, etc); ferrying it all through the house and down a long flight of stairs to our berserkly inappropriately-sited verandah, on the far side of a huge house from the kitchen; setting outside tables with gay cloths, forks and knives, salt and pepper and various other condiments and niceties (all ferried ditto); cleaning up everything afterwards (all ferried ditto); and, finally, scrubbing nasty greasy charcoal-besmirched braai tools and paraphernalia and Jikking about 10 dishcloths (used liberally by my father while braaiing). (These days, I don’t have as far to ferry stuff when we have braais in my home, but boy do I resent the extra work.)

I well remember the look of near-sublime happiness on my father’s face as he prepared the fire – kindling, newspaper, wood set just so – and then nurtured it – charcoal, carefully measured, added at a very specific time; then a mysterious waiting period for the coals to be exactly right, during which time my father, brother and all male visitors gathered around the braai and just looked at it, while drinking wine or beer and talking sport and women.

In the meantime, inside, upstairs in the kitchen, there was a whirlwind of female activity: salads being prepared, boards of bread and butter laid out, plates gathered, napkins folded, knives and forks marshalled, glasses washed and dried, etc etc etc.

It wasn’t, however, until I had a braai of my own that I finally realised just how much careful manipulation by women is required to forge a successful braai meal prepared by men. (I wouldn’t even have a braai if my various lovers and male friends weren’t so damned keen. Myself, I’d just grill the stuff in the oven – quick, controllable, clean and easy.)

Because men have no idea about timing and coordination. I have to wonder: when their (non-braaied) meal arrives on the table, cooked to perfection, piping hot and ready to eat, how do they imagine this happened? How did the meat and various vegetables all get ready at the same time? By coincidence? Clearly, yes. Because, with the rare exception of my friend Ronaldo, not one man I know understands that a little thinking ahead is required when preparing a meal.

Men cook like this: when the coals are ready (and this is mystifiably movable, not to be questioned by women), they will cook the chicken. At a certain other time (equally movable and mysterious), they will cook the boerewors. At yet another time, they will cook the steak. And so on.

And all these meat products will be ready for eating at different times – ie, when they’re ready. Not when everything else is ready, no. Because it is not for men to wonder why (or how) all things end up on the table together, ready for eating; theirs is just to do or braai.

Thus: the warming drawer. (By the way – do you know that ovens these days don’t come with warming drawers? My Defy is almost 20 years old and has a lovely warming drawer that I use all the time, to keep food hot and prove bread dough and warm plates. But modern ovens don’t have them. Why?)

So the men just cook the stuff however they see fit, and the women quietly squirrel it away into the warming drawer (where, I wonder, do the men actually think this meat goes while they’re paying attention to the next round of chicken wings or pork bangers or whatever?) and, finally, when the last bit of meat comes off the braai, the women magically spirit an entire, complete meal onto the table. And this to cries of, ‘Oh, well cooked, John! You’re a bloody hero!’ and ‘All hail John! Look what he’s produced for us!’ and ‘Wow, John, how did you manage to do all of this when all you appeared to be doing was staring into the fire and drinking beer and talking about the Springboks?’

Of course, by the time the meal actually lands on the table, all the guests are so pie-eyed you could feed them raw dog and freshly dug-up earthworms, and they wouldn’t know the difference – because another thing about braaiing is it takes so bluddy long. And the only thing that’s been keeping people going while waiting for their food is drinking.

When women prepare a (non-braaied) lunch for serving at, oh, 2pm, they start at 11am. They peel spuds, clean and chop other veggies, put beef roasts into the oven, etc. They do other things at noon, to make sure all will be ready by eating time – make a cheese sauce for the cauliflower, for instance. At 1, they start preparing, oh, gravy and the like; and they probably also set the table. And at 2, voila, lunch is served.

When men braai for lunch, they start the fire at 1pm, when the guests start arriving. (‘Oh, people are here. Well, better get the fire on, then.’) Then there’s that whole process – kindling, newspaper, wood, charcoal, staring, drinking beer, talking sport and sex, etc. And only then, finally, does the meat go on – and, as discussed, in some arcane, amazingly time-consuming, horribly irrational order understood only by men.

So by the time the food is ready, at 4pm, at least one guest has already insulted another; someone’s made a pass at someone else’s wife; two have shed their clothes and gone skinny-dipping; several others have found the ’70s CD stash and are dancing; and all have eaten so many chips, peanuts, olives and hummus-on-crackers that they’re not hungry any more.

And, as a last complaint, braaied meat is seldom cooked right. Maybe it’s because these men only cook once a week (if that), and thus don’t get enough practice to know better; maybe it’s because I’m just not that much of a carnivore. But bits of chicken burnt to buggery on the outside and still pink around the bone, lamb chops brittle with the leavings of the grid, pork rashers so dry they make your tongue shrivel to bite into them, rump steaks of boot-leather consistency? Sorry, not for me.

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MzHartz said...

It's nice to see the tradition of grilling seems to be the same across borders and seas.

Juno said...

A wonderful post Mur... I laughed (okay, hollow laughs) at your observations about how much work actually goes into a big meal, and how little credit the donkey in the kitchen gets. You must remember those Eighties dinner parties ('Come over! Richard is making His Famous Curry!). Richard would do a bit of ostentatious chopping of coriander and shredding of chilli at the kitchen bar counter, in front of a rapt audience, but when you stepped into the actual kitchen, you'd find a hundred filthy pots, and a very cross donkey-wife wiping counters, mopping the floor and plunging the coffee. And when you said, 'Er, Richard, why's the kitchen such a mess?' his answer would be:
'I do the creative bit. She does the clean-up. That's the deal'.

settledowndude said...

I married into a family of boneheads who all think that they are the best braaimeister ever. They are not. First on goes the wors, so its crisp and black, and last on goes the steak when the fire is tepid and you get steamed grey mystery meat .And they need to listen to me, I owned a steakhouse for years. They dont however and get sensitive. Its like you questioned their parentage/heritage/intellect, and not in a flattering way. . You have to suffer this every alternate weekend, its the law. And the secret recipe marinade, which includes lots of scary chemical things with E numbers.ANd three of my 4 inlaws are dominees. Telling them off is, well, humourless. Oh and it ends with peppermint crisp tart, to put you into suger orbit for a fortnight. And does anyone actually like royco salad dressing/acid?

Juno said...

I want the recipe for that peppermint crisp tart.

Tart, her her....

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