Look, mama, I’m cooking

My mom’s phone is always ringing. 

Although a handful of the calls have to do with her nine to five, they’re mostly cooking and catering inquiries from friends, family and even strangers with word-of-mouth referrals. 

More often than not, my family is hosting birthday celebrations, not to mention weddings, funerals, tombstone unveilings and christening receptions. It’s because there’s so many of us on my maternal side. Every host strives to be better than the last, but all the events have one thing in common: a telephonic consultation with my mother.

Week after week, there’s a new ask: “Aus Marinkie, please remind me how you make your …” ginger-flavoured scones, Madeira loaf, lemon-and-herb fried chicken, creamy samp or the Worcestershire sauce tamatie gravy. And in the unlikely event that they’re not calling for a recipe, they’re calling to borrow her tent, tablecloths, bain-marie chafing dishes, crockery and cutlery. It’s been this way since she retired from her position as the (unpaid) head cook for family gatherings. It’s been about four years and she hasn’t grown tired. She always picks up the call and walks the person through whatever they need. 

That’s always been mom: so long as it’s related to food, she is always open to sharing what she knows and has with her loved ones.

Similar but more excessive energy was applied for most of my childhood.

Just before my teens hit, my mom stopped working for a while. When our parents sat my siblings and me down for the announcement, we were told that it was the best thing for her health. No further details were required. With my siblings and I being accustomed to functioning solo, there was very little for her to do in and around the house at first. And because she detested being idle, she threw herself into the kitchen.

A week never went by without my mother using us as guinea pigs for a new recipe. There was always a cake or biscuit snack to have with our tea in between meals. Whenever I visited a friend in the neighbourhood, she would send me off with an ice cream-tub of scones or biscuits. There was even a point in high school where I used to go to school with two skafteins because one of my friends wrote my mom a letter to say that she wanted to eat my lunch with me because it’s so much better than what her mom would pack for her. 

This was my normal on most days, except when my mom was “not feeling okay”. By the time I was 16 (snooping around and eavesdropping on adults’ conversations) I figured out that the “unwellness” that my parents spoke of in euphemisms was clinical depression and anxiety disorder. 

Whenever my mother was “not feeling okay” my oldest brother and I would do our best to fill the culinary gap. My brother was doing it because my dad was too busy stretching himself thin trying to make enough for our home to still feel like a two-income household. I guess I was unknowingly fulfilling my patriarchal duties as the oldest daughter, even though no one had told me I had to. I was afflicted with obligation, and the activity I loved to watch my mother doing became a sore point. 

Instead of looking forward to preparing food in the way my mother would, cooking became a reminder to worry about her. So when I moved out of home, I avoided cooking and the tasks surrounding it. To date, I dislike grocery shopping and delay moments when I have to chop, steam, roast, bake and fry anything until I absolutely have to, like now. 

Since lockdown started I haven’t been able to Uber Eats a family-sized order of butter chicken and naan or fried rice and tikka chicken to last me a week. Instead I’m cooking for myself, at least once every two days. My stove and oven have cooked pizzas, cold and warm salads, breads, fried rice, magwinya and pastas. The only exception is mornings, when I have my cereal with cold milk. 

As a result I have made more trips to Pick n Pay and Checkers than I care to. I spend so much time in the kitchen and on social media that the idea of baking banana bread to pass the time excites me. And, because I miss the taste and smell of home so much, most of the food-related calls my mother has been getting over the past six weeks are probably from me. At first her responses were short and puzzled, followed with her asking if I were “calling for a friend”. Now she answers the phone ready to share recipes with me before knowing why I have called her.

Of course, I miss the sushi, crispy fried wings and cappuccinos that were prepared in fast food outlet kitchens. But I’m not as mad as I used to be at the idea of making friends with the ingredients in my pantry and fridge. I know I’ll be taking a break from the kitchen now that the ban on food deliveries has been lifted. But I don’t think I’ll be a stranger to the knives, pots and pans for too long. 

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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