/ 21 December 2017

An ode to the matriarch

Sweet abode: Christmases past brought back memories of a home in Moshoeshoe section
Sweet abode: Christmases past brought back memories of a home in Moshoeshoe section

There is alchemy in the pot on the stove. Nutmeg, cinnamon and sugar with sweet pumpkin. The words “Something good is going to happen to you today” murmur at us from a white sticker on the stove.

My maternal grandmother is about a metre-and-a-half tall, she has a red apron on and a stick of butter in her hand. She drops it into the pot and mashes her pumpkin one final time before popping the lid back on.

She retreats to her wingback chair, lifts her legs on to a footstool and reaches for the remote. She is about to watch an omnibus of a soap opera she has been tuned into all week.

Her house smells of ammonialamb stew, rosemary and spices. Her kitchen stable door is open and anyone who comes by knows the burglar door is a formality. A steady stream of children, grandchildren and neighbours walk in and out of her house all day, by pushing the door aside and hollering “ko-ko”. They first lift the pot lid, steal a piece of meat, and then walk go to greet the grand doyenne.

It is early December in Katlehong, in Johannesburg’s East Rand. The summer heat and her steaming pots are competitively simmering from noon to dusk.

My grandmother had run away from the Western Cape in her 20s. Her husband had died and left her with two children, a boy and a girl. She had been promised to his brother, a violent man. And so, barefoot, without much to her name, she escaped to Gauteng. She settled into the City of Gold with a steely resolve to survive, like countless migrants had before her. There, she met a man whose good looks were graced on to my mother. Before long, she met another, married him and together they produced the third, final daughter in her family line. The family of six settled into a small three-bedroom house in Moshoeshoe Section.

The cramped family home became a popular shebeen, a major source of income for the growing brood. The four children spent their days going to school, and their afternoons mopping up beer and blood. My grandmother’s sharp record-keeping skills became significant for the small business’s bookkeeping, her day job as a clerk at a clinic and for finding deals at grocery stores. Before long, the marriage ended, the shebeen closed and the matriarch’s home became a sanctuary for herself, her four children and a swarm of grandchildren.

Decades later, the house was a swallow’s nest, calling the adult children and their offspring home. A pit stop, a rest stop. During the festive season, the house came alive. A crate of records reveals the magic of Sixties jazz, Seventies disco and Eighties pop played in the house.

The first birthday, my mother’s, marked the start of the festive season on December 7. My mother’s tell-tale eyes reveal the glory of being raised on Christmas cake and Donna Summer. The brandy-soaked, decadent delight was but one of many treasures that were devoured throughout December.

In December 1990, my cousin Neo was born and her birth brought many gifts with her — mutton stew, braais and parties that began mid-afternoon and ended in a crescendo of Christmas feast preparation.

My grandmother’s eager eyes would search the pamphlets of grocery stores to compare the prices of beans. Five cent differences between one no-name brand and another house brand were viewed as small fortunes to her tiny purse.

Bean salad was the heart of the meal. It often served as a substitute for meat during less affluent times, and fed a growing brood of grandchildren. Red beans, broad beans, butter beans and baked beans in a secret sauce, the recipe filed safely in her memory.

The day before Christmas Eve, gemere was brewed in large drums. The yeast filled our lungs as we snuck into the storeroom where it was kept. Discarded pineapple skins from diced pineapple for the trifle revealed that nothing went to waste, not even fruit peels — which were boiled for hours to sap juice for the gemere. Copious amounts of sugar, yeast, ginger and sweet spices amalgamated in these magical drums.

The homemade concoction was a perfect accompaniment to be served with scones, baked throughout the night. This rich pairing was served to a steady stream of well-wishers and church ladies who would pop in to read a scripture and share neighbourhood gossip. The scones had to be baked at night because the oven and stove were occupied throughout Christmas Eve.

Green beans were chopped, potatoes were washed, chickens were copiously doused in seasoning and the roasts were tucked into the oven and slowly cooked until the meat was falling off the bone.

A stuffing for a turkey was prepared, and the large bird was stuffed, brined and seasoned before it was flung into the oven to be roasted at 180˚ Celsius. Finally, a gammon — also festooned with leftover pineapple from the trifle — was prepared.

On Christmas Day, the four children, the growing brood of grandchildren and the tiny matriarch filled the yard to give thanks. Feasting on the sweetest pumpkin, the softest steamed bread, the most flavourful meat, the family gathered year after year until my grandmother’s death — differences and distance aside.

Boxing Day was my grandmother’s birthday, so the house continued to overflow with family and food.

The matriarch’s last birthday on December 26 was the most significant. Troubled by kidney problems, she whispered in my ear that her sole birthday wish was “to live”.

She turned 70 without lifting a finger — her children had spent a lifetime preparing for this moment, having studied under a master the art of mashing butter into pumpkin and seasoning a turkey. Born into relative poverty, the children had been taught how to turn five cents into a feast from infancy.

Statistics South Africa tells us that, in 2015, the incidence of poverty for single-woman-headed households was 50% whereas the same statistic for male-headed households was 33%. In her album Lemonade, Beyoncé softly praises “grandmother, you spun gold from this hard life”.

Women like my grandmother held up half the sky and the heart of their homes with simple food, the spirit of celebration and an open kitchen door.

The tragedy was briefly masked by the magic of comfort food, the clamour of grandchildren in the kitchen and the alchemy of a pot on the stove.