John Vlismas
John Vlismas

Waiting for Gusto

Since first we dragged our wet, half-baked selves from the primordial soup — limp croutons tired of swimming — and pulled air into our hard-won lungs, humans have worshipped food.

Whether as a simple set of sugars, proteins and amino acids that allow our metabolic engine to go about the business of combustion, or the ever more absurd modern art of what cooking has become (for the wealthy, the artistic and the obsessed) — we love what we eat to the degree that we have declared ourselves to be the product of our meals (which makes us the best thing since sliced bread, literally).

Whatever our individual tastes and criteria, as somebody with a family history steeped in successful professional kitchens, I must object to being told that there is an official SA family restaurant — especially one that insists on calling a sometime rancid and often-appalling salad buffet a “valley”. Which family voted? Was it an official family? How did that family become official? Is my family official? If not, what compensation can I get?

Sies, julle, it’s not a valley — it’s a vegetable graveyard.

If I ever am “taken to the canyon”, I swear in advance that I will take Alvin and the other chipmunks hostage and kill them one by one on YouTube until the spectacularly distasteful adjectival slogan “come hungry” is abolished, and Salad Valley gets some trees. I will also have to insist that any lone, shivering jacket potatoes are euthanised, and that Nasa tell us exactly what the chilli bites are really made of (I have always suspected it may be tiny bits of that boy band “the softshoes” who have been awfully quiet since Salad Valley opened … )

Where perhaps mock-western steakhouses once summed us up culinarily, I don’t believe our calorific rainbow is fairly represented thus. These rowdy theme feeding troughs have become “bloody agents” in food politics. There was a time when mielie meal, chakalaka, braaivleis and fruit preserves seemed to be our seminal work, when meat vacuum-packed with tenderisers heaped false praise on dead cows, and Aromat was a wonder drug.

But that is changing, today we have farmers getting all coy and braying about Organic Skaapbraai, we have Reuben Riffel admitting to the use of herbal Oros equivalents to keep children happy. The African Food Renaissance is upon us people: shallots, truffle oil, sorrel, porcini and vanilla pods fill our mouths with joy – all imported directly from DStv, of course, whence all good things come.

But it has hit our streets. I have seen it. Nowadays, you can’t walk ten feet in any big SA city without some interior designer’s moist dream exploding from a kitchen in a mall or renovated house. Entire suburbs have been redesigned around our desire to be taken seriously as foodies.

Parkhurst in Johannesburg has had so much plastic surgery it now looks like the result of a gay uncle’s nervous breakdown, oozing out of the backs of shops and onto the pavement, complete with geometric plates, muffin cups and ironically fused old and new décor.  

The real question is whether all the smoke and fury results in great food or whether it’s just the kind of big talk and no action you’d expect from the fraudulent foodies I call the “gastrati”.

Have we entered the first world of gourmet magic, or has cooking just become the next abomination of the rich, something to blow loads of cash on while they cluck and mock-fret over the future of the country? A fetish to translate into glossy magazines, reality TV content, designer kitchen fittings and décor baubles?

“Perhaps”, to paraphrase Freud, — “sometimes an onion is just an onion”.