/ 8 December 2017

When pudding is no trifling matter

Waiting for the trifle: Dinika Govender's family ready for dessert at the Christmas Ever dinner
Waiting for the trifle: Dinika Govender's family ready for dessert at the Christmas Ever dinner

My first memory of trifle pudding is one of an eat-and-run mission. It was during the height of Visiting Season — the “Festive Season” to those who are not conscripted into extended family visits and enough cups of tea to trigger a Five Roses shortage.

My grandmother’s living room was where we would gather for the annual Christmas Eve dinner.

For a family raised in the Hindu faith, there was nothing particularly Christmassy about the occasion. No amens or adaptations of Silent Night into quiet meditations.

Save for the principle of coming together as a family and participating in the Rainbow Nation’s calendar year-end ritual, Christmas Eve dinner was much like all other family meals but with an unofficial red, white and gold dress code. And extra cinnamon.

Biryani — with a few extra sticks of cinnamon. Raita — sour milk and diced cucumber with a dash of cinnamon. Paneer masala — handmade cottage cheese with a fragrant cinnamon gravy.

Creativity knows no bounds like the grandmother with a cultural challenge. I’m just grateful the mystery ingredient was not raisins.

Post-dinner, pre-itis, we — including a preteen me — would stack ourselves along the longest sofa to watch a live performance of adult sibling rivalry.

Younger siblings ridiculing elder siblings, sisters sizing up to brothers, elder siblings having the last word, being ridiculed further for it, and still squeezing in a last word. The banter was all there, in adulthood as in preteen life.

Of course, in no version of reality were we children seated solely for the purpose of observing our parents, aunts and uncles rally over trifles. We were in line for desserts.

And just before sweet justice could be served, the matriarchs of the family would do the unthinkable: they discussed dessert.

From “whose recipe was most faithful to tradition” to “who tasted the unfortunate attempt by the rival relatives” and “how useful the recipe on the back of the Romany Creams biscuit box really was”, dessert truly was the final frontier in social banqueting.

There was talk of the latest tart (Peppermint Crisp), a new style of cake (Red Velvet) and modern twists on the classic English trifle — but rarely was there any mention of an Indian sago or rice pudding, new or old.

I have since come to understand that the roots of this culinary peacocking run deep and fibrously into British India’s colonial facades: the kind that made “degenerates” out of traditional Indian cooks and “civilised cuisine” out of the meat, alcohol-heavy and gout-inducing British diet.

Such was the prevailing colonial view as documented by Dr James Ronald Martin, president of the East India Company’s Medical Board, during the 1830s.

Eighteenth-century historians such as Robert Orme also had a tendency to denounce traditional Indian food as “fit for … an effeminate race” of “generally lethargic” people.

It is little surprise, then, that long before my grandmother’s grandmother was shipped from India to KwaZulu-Natal under the coolie trade, traditional English desserts had unseated Indian delights in the pursuit of greater social currency.

If preteen me had known of the British Raj’s views of my ancestors’ food culture, I would have greeted my grandmother’s trifle pudding — that layered biryani of desserts that would arrive without fail every Christmas Eve — with a greater degree of sympathy.

Instead, I examined the dish from afar — observing each layer from bottom to top of cake, jam, fruit, biscuit, jelly, custard, cream and tinned peaches with a mixture of awe and dread.

Surely all these textures and flavours were never destined for integration? Did other families use levels when constructing their layers, or were we intentionally going for a zig-zag trifle?

I couldn’t help but treat the trifle with a degree of scorn. Compositionally, that trifle pudding — and every trifle pudding — was a fail. I fished out the peaches to justify a contribution to my daily fruit intake and quietly walked the remainder of my trifle back to the kitchen.

In the end it was more of a search-and-rescue than an eat-and-run culinary experience.

To my surprise I was not the only one who had employed the stealth method of trifle consumption. There were saucers where only the jelly had been excavated and some out of which just the custard had been siphoned.

Evidence would suggest that no one in my family actually likes trifle pudding. However, for all the sociopolitical mechanics of history, it is one of my grandmother’s things. And for as long as Koo does not change its canned peaches recipe and raspberry jelly is still pink, the family trifle pudding will stay the same and the rest of us will continue to tilt our heads while our mouths say, “Thank you, Ma.”