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Giving thanks in trying times

I’ve washed the last of the dishes and wiped the kitchen surfaces down; the evening has settled in like a blanket of clouds over Table Mountain, except I couldn’t be farther from home. Earlier, I cooked an Indian vegetarian dinner for new friends, and we made the burnt Basque cheesecake that everyone is raving about again on social media. The top didn’t brown as I’d hoped and it tasted a little flat (I should add more vanilla extract the next time), but it looked good and we showered it in praise.

In many ways, the cheesecake fits the theme of the year for me so far – nothing is quite as it seems, some things are a shell of their former selves. But, when we consider the whole and a pandemic that has created a chaotic pattern of turmoil for most of the world, we can learn to be deeply grateful that some of the comforts we assumed were ours for the taking are here at all. 

I have become more so over the past six months. Calmer, far more patient, deliberate in my efforts to make those I love know that I do, more accepting of flaws and imperfections like the not-quite-burnt cheesecake.

My apartment here in Lisbon’s historic city centre is eerily quiet, with none of the revelry of the odd late-night clubbers stumbling home, or the skateboarders who circle the statue of Dom João I, father of Prince Henry the Navigator. 

It’s not yet 10 PM, but the very heart of the city reflects the “new normal”. 

I came to Portugal two months ago on a repatriation flight, as the spouse of an EU citizen, to attend to urgent business at the end of September. I will return to South Africa shortly with a heart filled with adoration for my forever-best friend, but without the wedding band on my left finger. 

I will greet my mother whom I miss dearly with eyes drier than she has seen all year and I will sit at her table and eat the mutton breyani she has already promised to prepare for my arrival. I’ve asked that she keep an extra bottle of her mango pickle aside for me too.

My year, for all its excruciating grief, unexpected loss and mental struggle, was counterbalanced by the good fortune of solid, unrelenting supportive friendship and a table always full of glorious, home-cooked meals. Not to mention the wonky sourdough loaves and banana bread in all its iterations. I can personally recommend hazelnuts and dark chocolate in your loaf. 

I imagined that in Lisbon, away from my family and friends, I would recalibrate all alone, learning to cook for one, eat for one, and think only for one. And I did. But little did I know that my kindly neighbour Miguel would slowly draw me into his boisterous, arty circle and share my penchant for feeding people. Now we buy artisanal bread, wine and cheese to support talented small business owners and split the goods between the friends.

We currently have new curfew restrictions in Portugal  – no one’s allowed out after 1PM over the weekend. The restaurants here, many of them the Mom ‘n Pop variety, have gone through this several times this year and those that remain must absorb the knock again, using food delivery services to work around the rules. 

This means that lunch and dinner with friends and family over weekends in Portugal, a cultural norm as it is all across the Mediterranean regions, has become a heart-breaking challenge. 

Many abstain from these gatherings altogether. Elderly family members living in the sparsely populated villages and hamlets outside the cities are bereft of company, ritual and sometimes, essential supplies. The Covid-19 infection rates are surging again in neighbouring countries and compared to other European nations, Portugal has taken a fairly strict approach to protecting its most vulnerable. 

My Portuguese friends grumble only about the inconvenience of long queues outside grocery stores as the witching hour approaches on a Saturday, but they wear masks in public and fret about their parents and ageing neighbours. The food distribution services provided by churches and the municipalities face enormous pressure – I see the endless lines of indigent folks and the odd lost backpacker waiting patiently in the evenings for soup or a sandwich. 

The pandemic has placed that much more strain on already tough lives.

How we eat, gather, celebrate and mourn have taken on new forms as we navigate layoffs and harshly tightened budgets, restrictions in movement, difficulties expressing ourselves while wearing face masks. Research has shown that lipstick sales soar during times of global recession as a luxury item that women find they can justify to lift the spirits, and I wonder if the same can be said now for eyeliner and mascara, as we attempt to signal our joy and disappointment with our eyes.

One evening, I make egg-fried rice, recycling the sad leftovers in the fridge. I place the pan on the kitchen counter, squirt sriracha sauce over and start to eat while still standing. “Is this my life now?” I text my indulgent, long-time single friend C. She asks me to consider it a win and be thankful for the freedom to eat as I please, when I please and for having fewer dishes to wash up. 

The days of lengthy fine dining meals celebrating relationship milestones or slow-cooked stews for two with plenty of leftovers for the next day appear like ghosts in the corner of the kitchen. I shoo them out the window and raise the bottle of hot sauce in defence. Celebrate the little victories, I’ve been told by my beloveds all year. 

I’ve failed, multiple times of course. Courting grief of this kind requires lengthy self-pity parties and acquainting ourselves intimately with our personal failings and character flaws. 

Enduring it while isolated during a pandemic requires a kind of mettle I know I didn’t always possess this year. Acting with grace, shrugging it off like The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, (watch it on Amazon Prime Video) who becomes an overnight success as a stand-up comic (fuelled by an alcohol binge) the night her husband left, wasn’t part of my story. But a growing gratitude for the multiple kindnesses I’ve been gifted by a small, fiercely protective circle and appreciation for the numerous lessons I’ve benefited from as I embrace this rebirth of identity, are part of mine.

There was a time not very long ago when I consumed my meals — usually buttered toast or rice with dhal — seated on my bedroom floor on my yoga mat which remained unused for months as far as downward-facing dog and sun salutations went. 

Today, 26 November, the day the US celebrates Thanksgiving I will be co-hosting eight new friends for a Portuguese/South African dinner here in Lisbon. I feel utterly unmoored from the life I’ve always known, but at the same time, hopeful. A little excited even. 

And filled with gratitude.

Author

  • Ishay Govender is an award-winning journalist and cookbook author who wisely abandoned a career in commercial law in the pursuit of stories from kitchens and marginalised communities near and far. She is the founder of www.sapoctable.com, an empowerment network that assists people of colour in the food, beverage and related creative fields in South Africa and across Africa.