A few years back, this blog began to turn into a grind: I felt obliged to post on a regular basis, and more often than not, I didn't really feel like I had much to say. Posts felt flat, I felt resentful. So I made a deal with myself: I would only post when I had Something To Say, i.e. some frippery trundling through my head like a wonky tractor wheel that I could only get rid of by writing it out. Which is why I only post a few times a year.
I know a lot of people think that writing is a 'craft' that requires 'discipline', but seriously fuck that. Just do what makes you happy. Forget the rest as far as possible. Forget all the 'shoulds' and 'supposed tos'. That's the secret to life, I'm convinced.
I'm only sharing this to say that, somewhat unusually, there are no tractor wheels involved in this post, just a life-changing (for me, anyway) recipe for sourdough bread.
Now, connoisseurs will probably say this is not real sourdough bread because it is made using regular supermarket yeast, as opposed to some wild, 150-year-old yeast/bacteria combo that has solved quantum physics and partied with Keith Richards at the Playboy mansion. But to folks like you and me, who might feel obliged to pretend we care about such things in certain circles (but really don't), THIS IS SOURDOUGH.
If it looks like sourdough, and tastes and feels like sourdough... See where I'm going?
It is so simple. Read the instructions twice, and you'll see they are really, really, REALLY easy.
The only snag I can see for most folks is either having a mental block to performing a stupidly easy task the day before (mixing the flour, water, salt and yeast in a bowl, which takes all of 5 minutes), or not owning a lidded cast-iron pot. I don't know what to suggest if you don't own a cast iron pot... Maybe Google an alternative?
If you're down with those two things, you're styling.
Okay, now for the easy part...
3 cups stone ground flour* (plus extra for dusting)
1 tsp yeast (boring, vanilla, never-left-its-home-town/married-its-highschool-sweetheart yeast)
2 tsp salt
1.5 cups water
1. All you do is, see, is put the flour, yeast, salt and water in a large bowl and mix it up real good, then cover with clingfilm, put it somewhere in your house and forget about it for 10 to 24 hours.
2. The next day (or, if you did the first step in the morning, later that afternoon), you flour a work surface and your hands, spatula the dough out and pat it flat till you've got a rough, largish square. Fold each flat side into the centre (so you've got a rectangle), then fold the rectangle ends into the centre, so you've got a square. (This helps to trap the air bubbles in the dough, says my Dad*.) Flatten the bread out again in a big square, and repeat once more.
3. Now pull the bottom layer up and around the dough and smoosh the ends together so you've got a smooth bottom bit and a wrinkly top bit (though this is really for aesthetic purposes as far as I can tell), and place the dough in a floured dishcloth, cover and leave to rise for 2 more hours.
4. After one hour, you'll want to put the oven onto its highest setting (220-250 C), with the cast iron pot inside, so it gets nice and toasty.
5. When the dough has risen for 2 hours, place it in the pot, crinkly side up, pop the lid on and bake for 25-30 minutes. Then remove the lid and bake for another 10 minutes, or until the top goes all golden and delicious. Hey presto, you've got your sourdough.
*Acknowledgement: My marvellous Dad gave me this recipe last week at an early Christmas family gathering in Pringle Bay. He's been tinkering with sourdough bread for years now, and when I tried one of his loaves recently and complimented him on how good it was, he told me he'd found The One Recipe to Rule Them All. And it was SO SIMPLE. Full disclosure, though: it's a riff on a recipe by Jim Lahey (from his book My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method, I think).
Also, the recipe on the back of the packet of Eureka Mills Stone Ground Flour is pretty similar — I highly recommend you use stone ground flour (you can find Eureka at Pick n Pay and most supermarkets). My Dad says you can use ordinary bread flour too but it won't be quite as good (but it'll still be good enough :). This recipe works with both wholewheat and white stone ground flour.
Caponata with dark chocolate
I am a big fan of Felicity Cloake’s ‘How to cook the perfect…’ series in the Guardian, in which she takes a classic recipe, makes several versions by respected chefs, and then formulates one uber-recipe at the end that amalgamates the best of each, leaving out what doesn’t work. It’s just a fun, interesting exercise, and her wit makes it a real treat.
She recently tackled the classic Sicilian aubergine dish caponata, which I’d read about but never been tempted to make because it usually contains raisins, to which I have a violent aversion. Also, I could just never quite grasp how a dish of fried aubergine with vinegar and raisins and olives (and sometimes anchovies) was supposed to taste good. It just didn’t compute.
That all changed when I dined at Pesce Azzuro in Woodstock a few months back, a fabulous little Italian restaurant run by two rather tasty Italian men (one's the chef and the other's more front-of-house). I ordered the caponata antipasti, working on the theory that if I was ever going to understand why it’s one of the world’s most iconic dishes, this was a good place to start.
Well slap me sideways with a salami. It was just about one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. Salty olives, sweet raisins and tart vinegar all collide in an unctuous mess of silky fried aubergine… And the result is, improbably, sexy as all get out.
So when I saw Felicity had tackled caponata in her column, I was game. She pits some heavyweight cooks against each other: Anna del Conte, Giorgio Locatelli, Ruth Rogers & Rose Gray, Yotam Ottolenghi, and Jacob Kennedy (actually, full disclosure, I'd never heard of this last guy). She cooks her way through each of their caponata recipes — mulling over the River Cafe's excessive use of celery, whether to shallow or deep-fry the aubergine, the merits of red pepper and fennel — and I thought there'd been a typo when I read: 'Two unusual twists to note: Kenedy adds a little orange juice, Del Conte grated dark chocolate.'
Huh? I'd only been convinced to attempt this dish myself because I'd eaten the real deal — but dark chocolate? That's a bit on the wild side, surely?
I think if the suggestion had come from anyone other than Anna del Conte (or possibly Marcella Hazen), I would have balked — but since she's practically the fairy godmother of Italian cooking, I decided to trust her. And I am glad I did.
You only add a smidgen of good quality, bitter dark chocolate, so it doesn't dominate, but rather sort of hums in the background, which, in Felicity's words, 'adds yet another layer of delicious complexity'. A scattering of fresh mint lifts and brightens the dish, while toasted almond flakes add a rich, nutty crunch.
Anyways, if you love caponata, this recipe is a winner. And if you’re on the fence, like I was, really, do yourself a favour and just take the plunge — it’s so much more than the sum of its parts. (And by all means leave out the chocolate if that freaks you out, it's not essential.) I served it with good sourdough rye bread and a selection of cheeses, but you could also have it as a side dish to meat or fish. At Pesce Azzuro, it was presented on its own, with a fork, and that was just dandy.
Waterlogue This is an app that turns photos into watercolour paintings. The images in my previous blog post? That's a photo of me, in the bath — I used Waterlogue to turn it into 'art'. It seems somehow unjust that it is now so easy to turn photos into astonishingly authentic-looking watercolours, when real life artists might labour for years to reach that level of skill... But I'm addicted. Whatcha gonna do? Can't stop progress.
I am haunted by this woman's prose... She writes a food column for BusinessDay's Wanted magazine called 'Sharp Tongue', but you can also read it online (here). A sample:
Returning is a peculiar thing. It lacks the profundity of epiphany, yet buries itself in your skin, your hair; woodsmoke the week after a fire. There is fleeting familiarity on every London corner; uneasiness, gentle self-judgement. There I am: terrifyingly young and blithely confident; on the Tube reading Alexander McCall-Smith. There is the scent of stale Saturday nights, the imprint of crushed grass-blades on my belly. Purring bicycle chains, slow breaths of posh gardens wilting in the heat; twinges of annoyance at the tourists who never stand on the escalator-right. The Consolations of a Bath
I don't think I'll ever experience bathing in quite the same way after reading Alain de Botton's ode to one of the most basic human pleasures.
Georgia by Tiggs da Author
I can't get this song out of my head.
A Poem a Day
I've only recently begun to feel drawn to poetry, and this tumblr suits me perfectly, since I have no idea where to begin to find poems that appeal to me... Every day, a lovely new poem. Like this one:
Dust by Carl Sandburg Here is dust remembers it was a rose one time and lay in a woman’s hair. Here is dust remembers it was a woman one time and in her hair lay a rose. Oh things one time dust, what else now is it you dream and remember of old days?
It took me 34 years to make it to my first salon wax. Which is remarkable only in that most women either (quite sensibly) never feel the urge to wax at all, or commence the monthly ritual in their late teens/early 20s. My avoidance, though, till now, was mainly a result of PTSD resulting from self-inflicted trauma, starting in my teens. Let us travel back in time...
‘Twas the summer of ’95. I was 14, and I knew all the words to everything by Green Day, Oasis, Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos. School had broken for the summer holidays, and I had high hopes of making lots of sexy, furtive, heart-pounding eye contact with boys at the local public pool.
An expansive horizon of spare time and access to a teetering pile of outdated women’s magazines (pilfered from my school’s recycling programme) saw me embark on a grooming ritual that would have made Cleopatra blush: plucking, face-masking, blackhead-squeezing, bubble-bathing, shaving, shampooing, conditioning, flat-ironing, nail-painting, moisturising, SPFing, excessive hours of mirror-staring... When it came to ‘grooming’ the ‘bikini area’, I’d keenly deduced, thanks to hours of vigilant Verimark commercial-watching, that wax was the way to go; i.e. a whole lot sexier and more grown up than shaving with a Bic razor.
To this end, I’d managed to procure a Veet home wax kit from Clicks.
I was giddy with excitement, perceiving myself to be at the brink of womanhood, about to immerse myself more deeply into the mysterious, hallowed practices reserved for adult ladies.
I locked the door to my bedroom and removed the little white strips from their packaging, laying them out neatly in front of me. I read the instructions twice. It seemed easy enough: remove the protective paper from the adhesive wax strip, apply firmly to the area from which you wish to remove hair, leave for a few seconds and then pull off with a swift, firm stroke.
It’s a testament to my commitment that I went through with it even though I was not entirely convinced I wouldn’t rip out a large chunk of flesh along with the hair.
Naked from the waist down, sitting on the floor, I smoothed a wax strip along the crevice where thigh meets abdomen, running my finger over it to make sure it was firmly stuck on. Then again just to be sure. Then again because I hadn’t quite psyched myself up enough yet.
Eventually, after some deep breathing and a pep talk, I grabbed the edge of the strip and yanked with all my might.
Cue a flock of birds errupting into flight. Church bells ringing. Babies spontaneously bursting into tears. A dog barking furiously, agitated by a sound not meant for human ears...
I.e. my silent scream.
When I returned to consciousness, having temporarily evacuated my body, and the pain having subsided to dull throb, I looked down — sure in the knowledge that there was no way on God’s green earth I was going to repeat the experience, but curious to see the results, nonetheless.
What I saw left me agog with horror: a geometrically precise 12 x 5cm rectangle of purple-black flesh, and within, an untouched garden of public hair.
Not only had the exercise failed to removed more than a handful of hairs, it had left me with a disfiguring bruise that would require me to wear either shorts or a sarong around my waist for the duration of the summer.
Waxing, I decided, was not for me.
Years later, I flirted briefly with a practice known as ‘threading’. When I worked at Fairlady magazine, once a month a torturess would come to our offices and we could pay R60 for the privillege of having her rip the hairs out of our faces — mysteriously, and with surgical accuracy — using only two strands of thread twisted together between her fingers.
When I was still a newbie, I’d never heard of threading. I was intrigued, especially considering the clamour and excitement this woman’s arrival elicited in the office, so I asked a colleague if it hurt. ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘I hardly feel it any more.’
The words ‘any more’ should have told me all I needed to know, but I naively paid the money and entered the small store room where the threader had set up shop. I passed the previous customer on the way out, and wanted to ask if she was okay, because she looked like she’d been crying quite violently.
I sat down, and the frankly rather grumpy threader asked me what I’d like done. ‘Just the eyebrows,’ I said, thinking I’d ease my way in, play it safe. She asked me to pull the skin around my eyes taught, which I did nervously, and then she commenced with the treatment.
Dear reader, I don’t know what it feels like to have acid thrown on one’s face, then dowsed, perhaps, with a handful of flesh-eating ants, but I am pretty sure it can’t be far-removed from my experience of threading, that first time. And the second, and the third time.
Yes, I went back for more.
Because although it was excruciatingly painful that first time (I only managed to get through it by gripping the arms of the chair as hard as I could and swearing, colourfully and loudly, for the duration), once she’d applied a soothing balm and sent me on my way, I had a look in the mirror. My eyebrows looked like they’d been shaped by Leonardo da Vinci. My entire face looked different. I felt like a new person; a more groomed, grown-up, gorgeous person. And with that, the pain of the ordeal was promptly forgotten (or, if not altogether forgotten, chained up in the basement of my consciousness because shut up I look amazing).
After about five or six rounds of eyebrow threading, I decided, what the hey, why not get my lip done as well, while I’m at it? Why not my whole face? The tiny, downy blonde hairs on my upper lip were getting courser and longer by the day, it seemed, and a thick, alien black hair had sprouted out of my cheek (even more alarming: my husband had taken to trying to pluck it out when he thought I’d fallen asleep at night).
I gave the instruction to the by-now quite chummy threader. She did my eyebrows first, and before my resolve could falter, I told her, ‘Do it! Quickly! Get it over with!’
And so I came as close as I ever have to punching a woman in the face. The threading of my lip was not only excoriatingly, obliteratingly painful — she might as well have flayed the skin right off my face — it was an affront. How could a person, in good conscience, inflict such agony on another human being? She must be a demon, a masochist, a sicko, an aberration of nature.
She moved in for the second stroke, at which point my hand shot out, of its own disembodied volition, and gripped her wrist. We stayed frozen like that for a few heartbeats, staring at each other — me in defiance, she in irritation — before I stood and left the room. She started saying something but I wasn’t listening. I never went back.
Not for eyebrow threading. Not for nobody.
Despite all this, I found myself, in my thirty-fourth year (a few weeks ago), sitting on a narrow cot, naked from the waist down, legs splayed like a dead frog floating in a pond, while a perfect stranger applied hot wax to my nether regions.
How did I get here? Not only just getting a bikini wax for the first time — but the full monty?
I’m afraid there’s nothing more to my rationale than temporary memory loss and curiosity, combined, perhaps, with the unwholesome, subconscious influence of advertising and pornography. I did it on a whim. If you’ve read my previous blog post, you’ll know I have been trying new things, and that extends to body image and matters erotic.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a fine pelt of pubic hair (Rob Delaney makes and excellent case for it here, at 4:30 minutes), or finger combing your ‘wookie’, as Caitlyn Moran calls it, but in the interests of experimentation, and curiosity, and new experiences, I decided to give ‘baldness’ a whirl, and booked an appointment at a salon recommended by a friend.
I arrived early, and waited nervously in the seating area. It was early evening, in winter, so it was nearly dark out, bloody chilly, and there was no else about except one other client and the owner of the salon, who were mutually engaged in one of the echoey rooms down the hall.
Finally it was my turn. Shelley, the therapist, was bright, friendly and chatty, which went some way towards easing my nerves. She asked me to undress from the waist down and wait for her to return. I sat, on that small cot, feeling deeply uncomfortable — my legs looked pale and anaemic in the too-bright light, and I felt exposed.
When she returned, though, my concerns were soon forgotten. Shelley chatted away as though we were long lost friends standing in a queue at a nightclub after several tequilas. We talked about our pets, about the ups and downs of owning a business, about our favourite TV shows — all while I lay there, one leg unceremoniously flung out at a right angle.
The pain wasn’t too bad — look, it WAS painful, but somehow bearable. Perhaps because I was expecting it. Shelley was brusque and businesslike, smearing delightfully hot wax over my pink bits with a dainty pallet, then yanking it off before I had a chance to think.
But, of course, because this is me, the course of hairlessness was never going to run smooth.
About 20 minutes in, the lights went out, and everything went black. Pitch black.
Thank you Eskom.
‘Uh,’ said she.
‘Um,’ said I, stricken.
‘Wait, just stay like that, I’ll be right back,’ said Shelley, after apologising for not checking the load-shedding schedule.
A minute later she returned bearing one of those blue LED light Consol jars, and handed it to me.
‘We’re nearly done. Okay, can you just hold this here...’
I obliged, and she proceeded as though it were the most natural thing in the world to hold illuminated glassware over one’s naked crotch while a stranger wearing reading glasses attempts to remove every last shred of pubic hair.
And I mean: Every. Shred.
All credit to Shelley, she handled my nerves with kid gloves, and my labia with nimble, professional care. I felt pathetically grateful to her.
Well, they were pretty much what you’d expect. I am rather smitten. I have an appointment to return next week. During daylight hours. And who knows? Perhaps I’ll try a lip wax too, just for kicks. (Do you think she might be alarmed if I ask her to handcuff me to the chair?)
It’s a beautiful Sunday: a rare day this time of year. The air feels freshly scrubbed. It’s sunny, but not like summer, with its bleaching, hammering blaze; rather, there's a soft, crystalline light that beautifies everything it touches, as though god’s finger slipped on the saturation dial.
I have nothing to do, nowhere to be, so I just lie on the couch, looking out at the mountain, the garden, my toes... Letting my thoughts drift and meander, occasionally turning my attention back to my book. But mostly just staring.
Then it happens, unbidden — a silent, soaring burst of inner joy; an eruption of euphoric freedom that begins in my chest and expands, carrying me skyward on a current of wild, vertiginous rapture.
I stay still, choosing not to hang on to it, but just be in it… It passes.
This is how I know I’ve changed.
These moments, these gifts (‘joy bombs’, as I like to think of them) are completely unpredictable, and as elusive as quicksilver.
Before, I would feel compelled to act. I thought the feeling was a resource to be plundered, something I was meant to harness and put to work. I’d ruffle through all the projects banging around in my head — should I write? Cook? Blog? Make a dress? Paint the mirror in the bathroom? Sketch?
While I’m in it, anything seems possible.
But then anything would begin to feel like too much, feel overwhelming. No sooner had the feeling registered than I’d feel cement walls rise up and surround me, as though set off by some invisible hair trigger. The message was clear: There is no point. It's too hard. Too much. You can't. You're not one of those people.
Joy would turn to frustrated impotence in the space of minutes.
But not today.
Today, I simply lie there and marvel that such a feeling exists, that millions of years of evolution can culminate in this arrangement of molecules, experiencing this exquisite moment… Why look further than that?
The bomb mushrooms and then evaporates, but instead of despair, this time I’m left with a little afterglow. Then I carry on reading my book.
This is how I know I’ve changed.
There are other signs, too.
Life feels quieter, less frenetic.
Most of the time, I am able to identify the beginning stages of neurosis, when my thoughts begin to spiral, dancing to the tune of unidentified, unconscious fears, and I can corral them in a different direction before I turn into a gibbering wreck.
I am writing with a greater sense of purpose, too. Drinking less compulsively. Exercising more. Spending less money. Staying home. Trying new things.
One of those new things, which I think has contributed immeasurably to the profound, tectonic shift that’s occurred in my life recently, is answering an invitation from a former colleague on Facebook to form a group to work through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
I’d previously been skeptical about the book, which seemed, to my cynical mind, to have about it an air of touchy-feely woo and feeble-mindedness. But, in the spirit of trying new things, at the last minute I decided to join.
The experience has been life-changing — on all levels, not just creatively. Being able to discuss our lives and our creative challenges (which bear a remarkable resemblense to garden variety life challenges) in an intimate group of like-minded individuals helped keep me motivated to stay the course, which was invaluable. But two practices have been completely revelatory*: morning pages, and the ‘artist’s date’. (*Yes, I know I hardly have the monopoly on this front.)
You can read about the morning pages here if you like, but briefly, it’s the practice of handwriting three foolscap pages first thing in the morning. Every morning. You can write about anything under the sun, stream of consciousness, fiction or your shopping list, just fill three pages. (Turns out, as Oliver Burkman puts it, it’s really hard to write about nothing for three pages — eventually you start writing about something.)
The practice isn’t always easy, in fact it can be bloody difficult, but once I committed (and one really does have to commit), I started to wake up: to my inner world, to destructive behaviours, to the excuses I make for not doing better, being kinder to myself, doing things that nourish me... The morning pages allow me to nail down all those half-thoughts that flit around my head, evading proper examination, because I’m too lazy, or distracted, or afraid to look closer. When you’ve got to fill those pages, catching a thread of half-thought, and yanking on it, tends to fray a lot of the illusions we’re so comfortable with, but which may be stunting us.
Then there are the artist’s dates. The title is cheesy, but I think there isn’t a single person alive who wouldn’t benefit from incorporating the basic principal into their lives: once a week, set aside time to do something (on your own) for no reason other than that it will delight you. Preferably something you don’t do regularly, or, even better, have never done at all; preferably something whimsical; preferably something that has no point beyond an experience; preferably something that has nothing to do with 'work'.
We deny ourselves so much pleasure in the name of practicality: 'Where’s it going to get me? What's it for?' But step outside this idea, and there’s a whole other world out there: a world of child-like wonder and playful learning and creativity. For its own sake and nothing more.
Some of my artist’s dates — and they may not sound novel to you, but they were to me — have included making time to go online and find new and interesting music; buying a cheap jigsaw puzzle at a Chinese store, and spending an afternoon completing it (okay, I got halfway); getting a Hollywood wax (that’s a blog post for another time); surfing; knitting; learning to appreciate whisky; making outlandish collages out of old magazines (move over Pinterest, ha!); doodling in a sketchpad, blindfolded, while listening to Jeff Bridges’ sleep tapes; guided meditations... Future ones I’d like to try are singing lessons, pole dancing, ice skating — just for kicks.
Today, for my artist’s date, I made a wreath out of lavender from my garden, which gave me inordinate satisfaction — it was something I’d done as a kid and completely forgotten about.
Last week, I made chocolate chip cookies.
I know, right? How on earth is making cookies supposed to expand your mind? Well, I’d never made any before — of any description. I’m not much of a baker, see. But suddenly I seized upon the idea of making cookies (chocolate chip, no less) because there was just something so wholesome and guileless about it... It was almost certainly something I would have dismissed out of hand a year ago for not being sophisticated or interesting enough.
Chocolate chip cookies? Booooring.
I did my research, and I finally settled on this recipe from Orangette, and it did not disappoint. I ate about eight in one sitting, with a glass of milk, once they’d cooled, and they were everything I’d hoped they’d be — nutty, crunchy, studded with dark chocolate and as big as my palm. I felt preposterously chuffed with myself.
Here I share the recipe — but if you’re a dab hand at making cookies, I hope you’ll try something else instead (although these are delicious cookies). Something ‘silly’, ‘pointless’, and a touch eccentric.
Wholewheat chocolate chip cookies
Makes about 20 cookies
3 cups whole wheat flour (see note above)
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
About 220g unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
About 230g bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped into ¼- and ½-inch pieces, or bittersweet chips
1. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven, and preheat to 180°C. Line two baking sheets with baking paper. (If you have no baking paper, you can butter the sheets.)
2. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, and whisk to blend.
3. Put the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, mix just until the butter and sugars are blended, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the bowl, and blend on low speed until the flour is just incorporated. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the chocolate, and mix on low speed until evenly combined. (If you have no stand mixer, you can do all of this with handheld electric beaters and/or a large, sturdy spoon.) Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, and then use your hands to turn and gently massage the dough, making sure all the flour is absorbed.
4. Scoop mounds of dough about 3 tablespoons in size onto the baking sheets, leaving about 3 inches between each cookie. (I was able to fit about 8 cookies on each sheet, staggering them in three rows.)
5. Bake the cookies for 16 to 20 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through, until the cookies are evenly browned. Transfer the cookies, still on parchment, to a rack to cool. Repeat with remaining dough.
It was a pretty typical night for me at that age: 19, I think.
I didn’t have a car, but I found my way to Melville, without a clue how I’d
get home. I did this often — sometimes I'd manage to get a lift, sometimes I'd
walk the two hours it took to get to Greymont. It takes my breath away when I
think of how reckless I was with my safety back then.
I can’t remember if I was with anyone that night, but I remember trundling
down 7th Steet and almost tripping over what looked like a pile of rags. Then I
saw two soft brown eyes peering out from a pair of spindly wire glasses. It was
a man. A very odd-looking man.
He had a thick beard and a mop of dark dreadlocks, piled high and fastened
with an elastic to create a kind of teepee. The tarot cards laid out in front
of him on the sidewalk piqued my curiosity, but I was more fascinated by the
ice hockey stick strapped to his back like a samurai sword.
‘Read your cards?’ he said, ‘no charge. Only what you feel it’s worth.’
His name, he said, was Babylon Don.
I had nowhere else to be, I was thirsty for novelty, for fresh distraction.
Also, mainly, for attention. So I sat down opposite him.
He was younger, I noticed, than I initially supposed — late 20s, early 30s,
and although his fingernails were blackened, he smelled fresh, like tea and
soap, with something earthy beneath; tilled soil, perhaps, as though he’d slept
in the ground, like a vampire.
It soon became apparent that Babylon Don inhabited a very different reality
to mine. As he read the cards, his eyes were distant, looking inward, and his
interpretations veered into a sermon on the coming of the Dark Guards; that a
Great Battle was imminent.
I was amused. Entertained. Intrigued.
I listened to him ramble for a while. Asked questions. I felt at ease in his
company, and something passed between us, a fine thread of understanding, and
we hugged before I went on my way. I felt that for all his oddness,
Babylon Don was one of the world’s lambs, a gentle soul.
I saw him again over the months, and greeted him as a friend, though he
didn’t always recognise me, and often seemed confused. He was never without his
ice hockey stick, strapped to his back, or his tarot cards.
One night — it was late, around 12pm — I was in Melville, casting about for
somewhere to go, something to do. I’d spent the evening at Stones, where they
knew me, flirting and playing pool, and the barman had called last rounds.
I spied Babylon Don on the balcony, drinking a beer. I went and sat with
him, bought him and myself another beer. He offered to draw up my star chart.
‘Great,’ said I, delighted that I would be able to delay going home for a
‘Not here though. I need my books. We could go back to my place,’ he said,
‘it’s just up the road.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But nothing’s going to happen. I’m not sleeping with you.’
He nodded, shrugged.
On the walk, I quizzed him about his life. He spoke gently and distractedly,
and kept looping back to the Great Battle. His answers were vague and surreal,
and I got the impression his synapses had been trained along a path less
travelled; perhaps hallucinogenics were to blame, or some kind of
schizophrenia. I'll never know.
I was amused and gormless and not really listening, to be honest — it felt
like freedom to me, ambling through the dark, deserted streets of Melville with
this unlikely soothsayer.
After a few blocks, he stopped in front of a little face-brick house. His
aunt’s, he said, as he unlocked the front door. This explained the floral
scatter cushions, the pink velour lounge suite a la Morkels, the side table
covered in little ceramic animals.
I got comfortable while he made us tea, then set to asking me questions
about my birth, scribbling furiously on a notepad. I’ve since forgotten his predictions, except for the denouement: ‘You will rise to fame before or around your 30th birthday.' Right.
I didn’t want to go home just yet though.
‘We could have sex,’ he said, not particularly hopefully.
‘We’re not having sex.’
‘Hey, what’s in there?’ I pointed to a small school case next to the door,
the kind I had as a kid: brown cardboard trunk, clunky clasps and a plastic
He opened the case and set it flat on front of me.
‘This is the army of the White Priestess. These are the Dark Guards,’ he
The case was empty, apart from the white paper that lined the inside, with
circles and lines traced onto it to resemble an ice hockey rink. Little paper
figures had been cut out and glued down on each side, then folded at right
angles to form neat rows. They'd been meticulously decorated with helmets and
little ice hockey sticks; the figures on the right were coloured in with black
cokie, the ones on the right had been left pale. Two ice hockey teams.
‘The White Priestess will triumph,' he said, launching
into a description of the Great Battle, peppered with hockey terminology
and Lord of the Rings-style combat scenarios. I didn't understand most of it.
I let myself out a short while later. Babylon Don never even looked up, so absorbed
was he in his bizarre diorama. I walked home.
Time passed. I graduated. I mooched off my parents and messed around (and up) and
eventually got a job. I met my future husband and moved to Cape Town.
I forgot all about Babylon Don until a few years ago, when I was driving
down Main Road in Woodstock, and saw a man with dreadlocks and a beard, wearing
what appeared to be an ice hockey stick strapped to his back. I could have
sworn it was him, but I don't know for sure. Traffic was moving swiftly and I
only caught a glimpse.
It jolted me though, in the way that sudden, long-forgotten memories do. They open a kind of wormhole in your identity, a tunnel that
takes you back to a person you used to be, to a parallel universe; an entity
from the past that exists inside you, just not in this time or place... The emotional terrain that separated my 19-year-old self from my 31-year-old self was
thrown into stark relief.
Are any of us in touch with the person we were in our teens? If, rather than finding fame
before 30, Babylon Don had told me I'd be living in Cape Town, in a lovely home, married
to a man who is kind and clever and gorgeous and nuts about me, earning a
living as a writer... I would have been just as skeptical.
When I was 19, I didn’t believe my future held anything good. But it did.
All this culminated in a kind of explosive gratitude: for the peace I've found, for the love in my life, for hard-won self-belief (though there's still work to be done on that front!).
I still think about Babylon Don. I wonder if it really was him I saw that
day on Main Road. I wonder if the
Great Battle ever came to pass, if only in his mind, and
whether the White Priestess prevailed.
I hope so. Because we're all fighting our own Great Battle, aren't we?
So, I ended 2014 and began 2015 sicker than I've ever been in my life.
I have two working theories as to why: 1)
God has seen fit to afflict me with The Plague in order to purify me
spiritually, because I am Chosen and Blessed and destined to be a Great
Prophet. 2) My immune system is shot to pieces, like a tin can at an NRA rally.
I'm making light of it, but it's been terrifying.
Precis version: It started with a small pink welt on my forehead, which I dismissed as a kind of unusual mosquito bite. Or perhaps I’d scratched myself without realising.
A few days later I came down with a sinus infection. This was about a week before Christmas. At the same time, the welt turned into an open wound, began to grow, and then another appeared on my temple. A blister. All kinds of dreadful possibilities (leprosy, flesh-eating bacteria) hacked my equilibrium to pieces before I went to see a doctor, who promptly misdiagnosed me with shingles, told me to buy some hideously expensive anti-viral medication and give it about a week or two to clear up. So there went my summer holiday.
Except it didn’t clear up. It got much, much worse, until I looked like an extra on The Walking Dead. All this underpinned by the kind of fatigue that makes it difficult to walk from room to room, that makes you feel desperate and weepy and scarily helpless.
Two days ago I went back to the surgery, and was seen by another doctor who diagnosed impetigo. A bacterial infection.
I'm on antibiotics now, but have yet to see an improvement.
Naturally, when this kind of thing happens, you look for reasons. What did I do wrong?
I didn't have to look far. I'd been doing too much, of course — too many commitments,
too little self-care, no R&R to speak of — and my health had paid the price.
I’ve had a lot of
time to think. I’ve been forced to slow down, to do nothing but sit in a
chair with a cup of tea and stare at Table Mountain, wreathed in wispy
clouds and slanting shadows.
One day, the 30th, I think, I was seized by an intense desire to escape to the woods, to
lay down on a bed of pine needles and stare at the gently swaying
tree-tops. So that’s what I did, walking slowly, deliberately, cautiously.
I found a secluded spot, slumped onto my back, arms and legs splayed. Gazed up, exhaled.
the black silhouette of reaching pines, curling white whorls of cloud
passed by, both fast and slow; a bird of prey glided, silent and
stealthy, between the two. The wind whispered through the high branches,
offering their secrets to the sky.
It’s time for a radical shift, they told me. And just like that, I had my New Year’s resolution: Radical selfishness; radical self-interest; radical self-love.
Maybe I’ve lost the plot. Maybe I’ve found it. Only time will tell.
My usual reaction to health snafus is to drastically constrain the
paramenters of my diet to only the ‘healthiest’ foods (a grey area at
best). I’m sure it probably doesn’t do any good, considering I eat
pretty healthily in general, but it does at least offer the illusion of
control. A mild form of orthorexia, if you will.
I made this salad just after Christmas, when I wasn’t yet
a sleep-deprived, facially disfigured zombie. It ticks all the right
boxes: virtuously healthy, tons of flavour, just plain yummy. We had it on its own,
but it would be great as a side to lamb or roast chicken.
If I may,
let my woes serve as a cautionary tale: look after yourself please. You
just never know what utterly detestable nasties are waiting in
the wings, poised to slip through a crack in your immune system when it lags. Get lots of sleep, don’t drink too much, exercise,
eat well, make room in your life for pockets of idleness.
It’s pretty simple really. I don’t know why I was such a dolt.
Roast aubergine & rice salad with fior di latte
2 large aubergines, sliced
3 large tomatoes, sliced, or 1 punnet baby tomatoes, halved
1½ tsp salt
1 large handful each basil and flatleaf parsley
½ handful mint
1 cup good quality black olives, stones removed and roughly chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
1 cup red, brown or wild rice, cooked
½ cup orzo pasta, cooked
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ball fiore di latte, torn
1. Brush the aubergine slices with a little olive oil and place on a baking
sheet. Roast at 180C until golden and tender, about 20 minutes, turning halfway.
2. Place the tomatoes in a large salad bowl and sprinkle with the
salt. Mix well and set aside for at least 10 minutes. (This really
intensifies the flavour of tomatoes, imo.)
3. Add the remaining
salad ingredients to the bowl, along with the aubergine and salad
dressing, and mix well to combine. Top with the fior di latte and serve.
My loathing of mince pies is surpassed only by my aversion to Christmas cake. There's something cloying about the taste of candied or dried fruit — raisins in particular — that yanks on my epiglottis and makes my stomach lurch. Perhaps its the concentration of sickly sweet sugar with a faint undertone of rotten fruit, delivered in a mouthful of dense, leathery stodge...
Anyway, the result is that I struggle to swallow anything that contains raisins, and balk at the profusion of mince pies and Christmas cake this time of year. Bah humbug.
I am wincing as I type this, because it feels a cold-blooded betrayal of my maternal grandmother's beloved festive tradition: Christmas cake.
She'd make one every year, somewhere between September and October, and douse it, regularly and liberally, in brandy. By the time 25 December rolled around, the thing would have absorbed so much alcohol that it developed a boozy halo: the air around it would shimmer and wobble, like a heat haze.
After stuffing ourselves silly on the main course, the lights would be dimmed, the pudding would be given a final brandy shower in the kitchen, and then Dan would take a match to it* and carry it through to the table, enveloped in rippling, ghostly blue flame. We'd all clap.
(*I'd often imagine far-off Christmas carolers staring, slack-jawed, at the nuclear mushroom cloud that resulted from the pudding's first encounter with a naked flame.)
It was a beautiful tradition, marred only by the minor inconvenience of me absolutely detesting Christmas pudding. But to reject the pudding would have been to reject Dan, so there was no question that we would eat it as a show of appreciation for her care and effort. Usually, I'd get it down by smothering it in enough brandy butter and whipped cream to kill a reindeer.
Now, take my feelings for dessicated fruit and traditional Christmas confectionery, and invert them, and that's exactly how I feel about this carrot salad.
Crazy, I know!
Because no matter how you say it...
... it sounds as dull as ditchwater, and about as tasty.
And I'm right with you. I mean, carrots. They are just deeply unsexy. (Unless you're Uncle Monty.) No one's idea of a dream meal stars carrots as the main act. A dish dominated by 'carotyness' is a dish that is unlikely to pique my interest.
But there's magic in this salad — that's the only way to account for it. And by 'it' I mean 'deliciousness'; 'moreishness'; 'I'll have a third helping of that please-ness'.
I first had it at a housewarming. Friends Cristal and Andrew recently bought a lush, charming property in Noordhoek, complete with resident pig (her name is Rosie). They served this salad as a side to beautifully braaied yellowtail.
Well, the salad completely stole the show. Everyone had second and third helpings. It just disappeared. No one could quite believe that a carrot salad could taste so good. It was like some kind of magic trick. I've replicated it at home with complete success, so the recipe works (there wasn't some additive — like smack — Cristal and Andrew forgot to tell me about). Nope, it's just ginger, mint, cumin, lemon, garlic and craploads of carrot. I think if there's any magic trick involved at all, it's to give the salad enough downtime to let the flavours praat mekaar.
Mint & ginger carrot salad
[Serves 6] (Adapted from Organic Farm & Garden Magazine, Volume 1, 2nd Edition)
5 large carrots, grated or julienned
1 Tbsp fresh grated ginger
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 small garlic clove, minced
Pinch cayenne pepper
Pinch ground cumin
1 heaped Tbsp fresh chopped mint
1. In a large bowl, combine carrots and grated ginger. Cover and refrigerate for about half an hour so the flavours can combine.
2. In a jar with a lid, mix lemon juice, olive oil, salt, garlic, cayenne, cumin and mint. Shake to combine.
3. Add dressing to carrots and mix well. If time permits, allow the salad to sit on the counter for about half an hour before serving so the flavours can combine. The salad should be served at room temperature.