Last week the Mail & Guardian’s Bhekisisa reported on the Van Neel family losing two loved ones to the largest outbreak of listeriosis ever reported. Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has since attributed the outbreak to two companies that specialise in the production and packaging of processed meats. In the story, members of the Van Neel family recall and resent how the deceased Sandra van Neel loved Rainbow Simply Chicken Polony.
The department of health’s plea for South Africans to avoid cold meats has created a paradox: our stubborn reliance on the product and the fear of its deadly potential coexist in a manner that I am battling with as I relinquish my personal relationship with French polony, a mainstay item in middle-class households around the country.
Now that our outlook has changed drastically as a result of these unnecessary deaths, what do I do with the fond memories I have collected over the years?
With no answer to this, I linger upon them one last time before sending them to storage.
Mapha, a term used ko Pitori, accompanied by palms outstretched towards food — which I grew up hearing and adopted on the playground — to request that a friend share their food with me.
When I think of this term right now, my fondest memory of French polony cannot help but resurface.
“Mapha?” The bell for first break had hardly rang as I walked into the school’s quad with bo chommee when Tumi requested a taste from my skaftin before I revealed its contents.
“Aowa, Tumi. Niix Mapha,” I half sulked, half-protested, knowing very well that Mama had made me a sandwich using white bread and her new makeshift paste — made by grating polony and adding a dollop of mayonnaise.
At first I squirmed at the combination but became a believer at first bite. So that day I knew I would not be sharing.
Tumi’s transparent lunch box let me know that she too had polony in her sandwich. But unlike mine, she dressed it in the basic butter and bread outfit that my 11-year-old self was already bored with. So I understood her need to hustle an alternative snack.
But Tumi was not the only one who would be drawn to my polony’s new outfit. Bo Bonolo, Letlhogonolo, Fiona, Shanice and even the newly converted vegetarian, Lehlomela, were fascinated by the fluffy, almost meaty and tangy mush Mama had concocted and placed between Albany bread slices, back when they still made them Serena Williams thick.
That was not the first or last time polony stirred conversation, brought people together or even got some of us into trouble.
I remember the time when the size of our slices earned me and my siblings a screaming rampage from Mama, after a full sealed version of polony was ravished in a week. My cousins had come to visit us from Loding eMpumalanga over the June holidays.
So, the eldest of the bunch, my brother, Mandla, was entrusted with the responsibility of keeping our tummies full while keeping our taste buds entertained.
And as I would expect any other 19-year-old to do, he took the easy route of introducing polony to my cousins and allowing them free rein with it.
What a big mistake.
Soon after they had gone home we removed the blame by explaining to Mama that our cousins, who were not familiar with the freedom of eating polony as frequently or cutting their own slices as they pleased at home, were responsible because their slices were so thick we could measure their height with a ruler.
Although I cannot fit the distinctive taste of polony into a taste box, I remember how with every bite my tongue would greet it with warm, expectant taste buds, to which it would respond with a smooth, cold, easy to chew, almost melt-in-your-mouth taste of mild saltiness and a slight sourness.
This also depended on which ingredients it was hanging out with that day.
Those who weren’t familiar with polony on an intimate level, like I was, only knew it as the processed meat to serve if they did not want to compromise. But I knew the full you, dear French.
In my middle-class home, your variety, accessibility and loyalty earned you your stripes. Every month-end, you were the last standing edible item in the fridge, making you the envy of cold water in Oros bottles and half-used onions and peppers that had lost their taste and crunch.
My nephew has just grown old and tall enough to reach for you — and cut his own thin slices like Mama taught him. You were a part of the family and fittingly earned yourself the nickname that I address you with today, French.
Your ancestor, bologna or what Americans call baloney, is a finely ground pork sausage containing cubes of pork fat, originally from the Italian city of Bologna. Her relatives, with the same name, are made using chicken, turkey, beef, venison, soy protein, or a combination of the above.
Gogo Bologna was brought to us after Sir David Pieter de Villiers Graaff, a cold storage tycoon and politician who transformed Africa’s cold storage industry and founded your first home here: Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company.
Somewhere on the way here, your name changed to French polony. He ran the company aggressively until he retired from business to serve in the government.
In the late 1990s, your current home, Tiger Brands, went through a period of rapid growth that led the company to purchase Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company, which they rebranded to your current family name, Enterprise Foods.
To us, your dear friends, you were our first taste of cold meats. You were the affordable friend who could be rocked in anything — you moved between varying spaces, from a sandwich to a potato salad. You were eaten raw as a cold meat, fried for breakfast as a bacon substitute — whenever, in whatever form you boasted, your real tagline, “Never ong confirme”.
In my late primary school years, after becoming too cool for you because any version of you wasn’t as cool as fish fingers, mini pies, those tiny Melrose cheese pyramids, meatballs — or anything else that I could floss with in the school quad — I began to mock you. My older brothers and I began to joke about you being Pinky Pinky or the Dragon Ball Z character Majin Buu, in a sausage casing, because of your hazardously pink colour and our unawareness of what you were made of and where you came from — excuses that we used to all of a sudden justify why you were not good enough for us.
We were unaware that you would fulfil the prophecy, and like those fictional characters we grow up on, you too would spread fear.
I had forgotten how frequently I would visit the snacks table when Sesi Holly hosted the family Christmas lunch. It was the one where she had added you to her potato salad “for the pop of colour” and you featured in cube form on her toothpick kebabs, alternating with cheese and cherry tomatoes, to make a sandwich on a stick.
I no longer cared for the almost bacon-like taste you had when you bathed in a shallow pan of hot oil. There were now healthier, less processed snacks for me to devour on late nights. Is this why you turned on us?
To your good companions in black households, abo atchar, mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, magwinya, dikota, Albany and Sasko, I say tswarellang. The storm is temporary and soon our good friend will return to feed us and turn from her infected ways.