My relationship to food is, as I have discovered recently, inextricably linked to the culture of my formative years and the psychological patterns that developed in my childhood.
My understanding of this started out as a conversation with my body about why I’ve started eating meat again after almost five months of giving it up, why I started drinking alcohol again and eating junk food after I’d also given that up and, quite embarrassingly, why I eat McDonald’s so much despite it being the gastronomical antithesis of who I want to be as a person.
Although I enjoy eating and drinking these foods, that “sunken place” feeling I get before, during and after I’ve eaten MurkyDeeds is no longer worth it. After failing at the cold-turkey route, I’m trying a different approach: trying to understand the source of my attachment to these foods, especially the yellow M. I’ve arrived at something I’d like to explore further in my work in various forms over time — the psychosocial significance of iintw’ezimnandi, what’s popularly known in colloquial terms as Nice Things.
When I think of my childhood, the term iintw’ezimnandi encompassed things like sweets and chips, moments like Christmas, and feelings like sleeping in my parents’ bed — things that were rare but rooted in pure joy when they did come.
What was normal in life were necessities, chores and a simple existence, which made iintw’ezimnandi an emotionally charged ‘’event’’ that one would look forward to.
For instance, when it came to food, because there were betwen five and seven children in the house at any given time, we had to ask for everything but water, bread, peanut butter and jam. If you wanted anything else, it was “mama ndice’iapile”, “mama ndicel’iorange”, “mama ndicel’icheese”, “mama ndicel’ivienna”. My parents, especially mama, dispensed the fruit, juice and even changing the channel on the television, at their discretion.
A microcosm of the social hierarchy that existed at home was replicated by the contents of the refrigerator and who they belonged to. Certain fruits such as grapes, peaches and mangoes were reserved for grown-ups, who would always give us slices or bites of the fruits when they ate them. Cheddar or gouda cheese and polony were for school and thus off limits.
The fridge nje wasn’t an area you could casually visit as and when you pleased. There had to be a reason for that, and that reason was usually cold water or ice, unless uthunyiwe (you’ve been sent). You would only taste the fizz of Coke and Fanta or the sweetness of Hall’s when there were visitors, which we would look forward to receiving for this reason.
Visitors also meant that we would have biscuits, which mama would fetch from her hiding place as soon as they approached the front door. We would jump at the opportunity to serve the visitors biscuits and tea or cooldrink. Why? Because we would always put more biscuits on the plate than necessary so that when we fetched the tray at the end, there would always be a Marie biscuit or lemon cream or three left for us, which one would either share or enjoy in the confines of under-the-blanket land.
When one or both of my parents would travel overnight, we would shout “nisiphathel’iintwezimnandi’’ (bring us Nice Things) as they reversed out of the driveway or, when we saw a plane in the sky, we would sing “bye bye aeroplane, usphathel’iintwezimnandi’’. Thus, the attachment to Nice Things, although we didn’t live in poverty, was formed quite early.
What does this mean for the aspiration of Nice Things now that I’m older?
The rarity of iintw’ezimnandi was the result of the scarcity of money for my parents but also my mother’s own upbringing when it came to luxuries. When she was a child being raised by her grandmother, a relative would would visit them in Tyeni and come bearing a bag of oranges, for example. Mama tells me that my great-grandmother would hide the bag of oranges and, weeks later, they would be discovered, grey from rotting because her grandparents either couldn’t finish them alone, or forgot to give some to the children.
So the deprivation was generational, and worse when she was growing up, when Nice Things like sugar and shoes were extreme rarities. She and my aunt tell me that, as children, when they would go to school in the winter without shoes, they would look for mounds of fresh cowdung to step into in to keep them warm on the journey.
It thus means something deeper than an “irresponsible’’ love for Nice Things when, in her adulthood, my aunt goes to buy her groceries in Ferragamos. Even me, when I could eventually afford to buy my own groceries when I started working, I would buy mangoes, grapes, peaches, sweets, chips, biscuits, any cheese that wasn’t cheddar or gouda and nice soap like Dove (and not the Geisha soap I shared with my siblings) from this place of historical deprivation in my memory.
Back to my problem with McD’s. While I was unpacking these emotional and psychological attachments to these foods, I remembered that my first experience of financial freedom was with McDonald’s because that is where I had my first job at the age of 16. The first time I could “reward” myself with label jeans, jewellery and other Nice Things in high school because my parents wouldn’t buy them for me was when I started working at McDonald’s, where my money was mine to play with and where I ate a lot of McDonald’s.
It’s no wonder then that, when I feel particularly low or stressed out, I drive to McDonald’s to reward or pacify my stress, playing out an association that was formed 16 years ago. Talk about the sunken place.
Meat and alcohol have a different historical context. Meat was something we ate almost every day at home because my parents valued it. Buying different kinds of it every Friday from Ideal Butchery in East London was my father’s way of expressing his nurturing love for us, and ensuring that it was part of our meals every day was my mother’s way of receiving that love. So meat was a love ritual and there are healthy memories associated with it, which is why my attachment to it isn’t as deep as other Nice Things.
With alcohol, although I’ve grown to become a moderate and even bored drinker, I’m still trying to figure out which voices to silence and which intuitions to listen to. A part of my genetic and ancestral history understood alcohol and meat differently to us victims of late capitalism, so I can’t ignore that history when I think about it.
But at the same time, I do physically feel better when I listen to the vegans on Instagram and when I just take the time out to listen to my body’s wisdom and have none instead of three glasses of bubbly on a Wednesday.
Iimbali is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis