Americans have many great things. Ok, a lot of them don’t really belong to them… like Ohio, or Michigan, for example, and half of what should be Mexico (what’s it called now – New Mexico? California? Oh, both?)… although thanks to the need for cheap labour and the resultant immigration, this injustice is gradually being reversed. But stop feeling smug, because this makes them no different to people anywhere in the world. All land has, at some point, been stolen. Yes, Shaka Zulu, I’m talking to you. It’s the top stolen item of choice worldwide, and how much you can fight about it only really correlates directly with how far back in humanity’s sordid history of violence you’re prepared to go. Doesn’t make it right, but who’s going to stop first? Not you, right?
One of the first T-Shirts I saw in the USA - at Atlanta Airport featured this poster. We're all immigrants. As one poster commented on Amyoops.com, "I freaking love this! Give this country back to the natives, and forget the whole 1492 thing ever happened."
America has many great things. Great education. Great land. Great money. Great patriotic unity. A pretty cool flag. Amazing films and music. Even very beautiful places. Cheeseburgers. And a persona that’s made them the most popular kid in the world – even if they can be a mean girl sometimes.
But one great thing they do not have is the braai. Why no braai? Well it’s because the wild, wild, west is in truth just nowhere near as wild as the quietest suburban cul-de-sac in Cape Town. John Wayne has nothing on the average cop in Hillbrow. Africa is not for sissies, like Syd Kitchen sings. And braais are primal things. As I said on twitter today, I never thought for a second I’d wind up being one of those people that arrived in a foreign country and immediately started trying to find the biltong stand. But I am one of those people. In Atlanta airport, I was stuck waiting for hours, with no idea what to eat. I remember arriving in Madagascar and meeting a South African on an island. I knew he was one even before I saw him cutting bits of biltong off a stick with his knife. Turns out he couldn’t get cow there, so he’d been making it biltong with the local water buffalo. South Africans make biltong out of fish, Chicken, ostrich, crocodile, wildebees, buck, and ja, boet. Keep an eye on your pets, cause they’re next.
The American equivalent – beef jerky – is nothing like biltong, and despite some well-targeted Gorilla Advertising (the spelling is deliberate) on cool sites like theonion.com, beef jerky will always taste like biltong that’s already been through a couple of guys, then just been glued together with corn starch.
All the way across the USA, my sister from another mother @lihle_z, who also recently moved to the states, replied to my mournful Sunday biltong tweet: “Same here! Lol!” Ah, how we lolled.
And then I started organising Braai Day USA. It’s a slightly smaller affair than South Africa’s #braaiday – an event so important that everyone from Helen Zille to AZAPO has to weigh in on whether it’s a bastion of racism or a unifying force, while 99% of South Africans don’t give a fuck provided there’s plenty of beer, boerewors, seshebo, and krummel/putupap to keep their mouths full.
So here’s a quick rundown of what separates the braai from the barbecue.
Braais are made on fires: This most important characteristic of the braai is what sets it apart. Wood fires smell different, generate human-seeking smoke that it takes a real South African to survive, and can go out or burn down your house. Gas barbecues are controlled heat sources, childfriendly, and for wimps.
Braais taste better: Food cooked on gas tastes completely different from food cooked on port jackson, under the shade of your rapidly blackening indigenous yellow-wood shrub.
Braais are macho: Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean they’re for men… although men are more easily suckered into doing the cooking at a braai than at any other occasion. At a braai, fighting for your place at the fire, and the placement of your bring-and-braai meat, is completely acceptable, and transcends social boundaries. It’s quite acceptable to tell your boss to fuck off and move up at a Braai, or to leave your potjie alone.
In some South African cultures, specially in the small Afrikaans towns, the braaiplek is the only place that men are permitted to decorate. Their wives tend to cover all other available space in doilies, and pink stuff, including the marital bed. Tuisnyverheid (hand craft) shops in areas behind what's known as the "boerewors curtain" (like the iron curtain) cater to male decorating urges as best they can with signs like these.
Braais are for sharing: Van-confusus say: Everyone who brung to braai must brung enough for everyone. There will always be way too much meat at a braai – for there shalt always be sufficient to sacrifice half to the gods of beer, and half to the fridge clean out next week – and although you fight for cooking space, you never, ever fight over cooked food. “Help yourself”. Unlike at BBQs where guests may contribute cash, cookies, salad, or booze – but rarely meat.
Braais take hours, even days: Braais are not about the food. Nobody has ever complained that a braai sucked because all the meat was blackened to death. Braais are about the primal experience of hanging around around a fire. This can and should involve food, but it’s not the point. I have been to braais that began only once the alcohol ran out. Barbecues are tragically efficient. No sooner have they turned the gas on than it’s lit itself. Then the meat is cooked. And within less than an hour, it’s all over.
Braais are for the whole farm: Meaning it will involve the death and marination of every animal in every isle of the supermarket except the dogs, cats and other pets. Expect Lamb, Chicken, Pork, Beef, fish, boerewors, small sausages like chippolatas, and the occasional veggie burger to share the grill. Barbeques are limited to pork things and burger patties.
South African meat is more lekker: It just is. In every way – how it’s farmed, how it looks wrapped up in a supermarket, and how it tastes. American chickens, for example, are free to range. But since they’re too interbred to walk… well they don’t range much. It’s ridiculous. That’s why America won’t let foreign meat in on domestic airplanes. Once Americans had tasted the stuff we smuggled over the border they’d never eat at an in-and-out burger again. My mouth waters at the thought of that chicken I wrapped in foil, that lamb chop with mash, that meat salad at Mzoli’s… that potjie that I cooked until the meat fell off the bones, and we could all barely stand.
Braais are served on china, tjina: There will always be exceptions, but the idea is usually that you try and sit around a table to eat, with proper plates, knives, and forks. This is serious food – so treat it with respect.
When you braai, accessoraais Potato salad, mielies (that’s not-sweet-corn), foil-roasted veggies (garlic, potatoes, sweet potatos, onions), beans, cole-slaw, garlic bread, putupap (krummel, ideally) and braaibrootjies… starch rules and should all be cooked on the braai, unless you have a British passport or something, you soutpiel. Plus (especially in Durban) you’ll need some hot sauce, usually ‘seshebo – tomato, onion, an d plenty of chilli. Guests should also be offered so many different chips and dips before the food is ready in an attempt to keep them sober, that they can’t really eat when their food is cooked.
And when it’s all over… it’s not over! It’s traditional for the drunken guests who haven’t yet bred themselves a litter of screaming kids to heap more wood on the fire as soon as the last meat’s off, open another bottle of wine, and sit around the fire until a) someone drags them home, or b) someone starts crying, someone or c) some bright spark realises that the hosts have gotten the moer in and gone to bed, leaving the guests to break all their plates while “cleaning up” d) a fight breaks out over politics. Eish – not again.
All South Africans braai: They may do it while watching rugby, soccer, cricket, or just while drinking. They may not drink. They may not eat pork, may eat halaal, or kosher, or perhaps only fish – like smoorsnoek – or maybe only veggies. Or they may just light the fire for no reason except for light to drink by. But we all do it. It brings us together, whether we do it together or not.
*Having said all this against America’s second-favourite way of cooking things (deep frying is easily the first), I’ll have to add that I’ve really enjoyed at least one BBQ since arriving in the States, and that it has its own charm… real guacamole dip, for one. Home brewed beer, for another. And someone brought soft, chewy chocolate chip cookies for dessert, which was truly awesome. The lack of drama is still foreign to me, but in time I’m sure I’ll come to find it refreshing in its own way.