/ 18 November 2016

Spoonfuls of raw meat and ‘stubborn gladness’

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.
Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.

On the day Donald Trump was announced as the president elect of the United States, my response was to imagine the last time I felt truly carefree. Although delighted is a stronger word. Ah! A smile readjusts my face and thoughts as my mind travels eight weeks back to an evening in Lausanne, Switzerland, where a small dining misfortune made for a moment and a feeling I have not truly felt since that dinner.

It might be what poet Jack Gilbert calls “stubborn gladness’’, the need to fight for delight in “the ruthless furnace of this world’’.

I am one of 10 guests at a restaurant so lovely, not one but two of us comment that we feel like we’re in a Meryl Streep movie because the lighting and setup are surreal. After a long day of walking and listening and looking and photographing things and performing my South Africanness the same way the Russian, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian and Swiss people in the group were performing their national identities, I am craving a steak.

When the time comes, I order beef tartare and the table responds with a medley of ahhhhs, ohhhhs, ouiiiiis and yesssses and two or three people order the same. Excited, I start thinking about how I’m going to ask for mayo to go with my frites and also wonder why the waiter didn’t ask me whether I want my steak medium or rare.

Ah, it doesn’t matter. I rejoin the table in chitchat about the day, our countries and our presentations the following day. The table bread arrives, starters also come and the regional wine pours along with the conversation. During random moments of the cordial exchanges, I drift off again, fantasising about my steak.

After a while, the food arrives and everyone gets served very generous and piping hot variations of meat, fish and vegetables. The tartare de boeuf crew is last to be served so we pass the time commenting on other people’s porc du somethings and cordon bleus. My food finally arrives.

The waiter places in front of me a fecund garden of salad vegetables including radishes, three slices of toasted bread and local butter. Instead of my steak, I’m staring down at beef tartare, which I discovered is a cold uncooked ball of mincemeat with onions and spices. I keep a straight face, look at the other members of team beef tartare but all is well with them.

With no timing and no audience to do a WTF? face, I zealously dig into my salad, grab the bread and gradually start to see more plate than food. Now, it’s just the beef tartare and my reputation.

My fellow diners have no idea that I’m taking deep internal breaths of preparation to eat raw mince meat for the first time in my life. I’m playing it very cool, teasing it with my knife and fork, sipping some of that regional.

I think of my man, not a fan of exotic foods, and what he would say about this. I want to tell this story to my French friend Marie. I think of my father and the chronicles of European cities such as Luxembourg and Berlin that he used to buy and read at Christmas.

Eventually, I make friends with the cold crushed meat on my plate. I eat a spoonful and realise it’s not too bad. I try some more, with the bread this time. I like it. My frites arrive and I’m not as interested in them as I had anticipated. I join the conversation again and start talking as if I didn’t just get schooled by some Swiss mincemeat.

I think of my father again and remember the last page in each of the dozens of chronicles we both liked to read. “That was Berlin”, it would say. “That was Brussels.” “That was Prague.” And at that point, I smile to myself thinking, that was okay.