Pinch of Salt: Man on Fire

By Pete Goffe-Wood.

Cooking over hot coals is the measure of a man, making and controlling fire is what has helped us rise above the rest of the animal kingdom, and braaing is what sets men apart from other men. It is an unspoken language in which you are sized up by peers and judged to be an equal or found to be wanting.

We have been cooking over open flames since the dawn of time, and recent archeological discoveries have seen cave paintings that prove unequivocally that South Africans were braaing while others were still trying to walk erect.

So it comes as no surprise then that we take it a little more seriously – it is clearly etched in our DNA.

I don’t mean for a second that when the Aussies throw a few shrimps on the barbie, Americans BBQ all things pork or Argentinians use elaborate S&M type rope work to truss up entire beasts, they don’t take it seriously. It’s just that for them it’s about cooking and fire – it’s not a way of life, a right of passage.

You are judged on your heat source – whether you are a wood, charcoal or (no sniggering at the Gautengers) a gas man. It’s about your management of the heat, your dexterity with the tongs, your ability to turn an entire roll of boerewors without it spiraling out of control. The ability to know exactly where to place the potatoes in the coals so that the skin crisps up while the centre cooks perfectly. The order in which you place the various offerings on the grid so that everything is ready at the same time (if you have to keep it warm in the oven then you might as well cook it in the oven!).

Mastering the heat is everything, because guests have a tendency to not show up on time and it would be sacrilege to begin before your audience were correctly assembled. For it is, after all, all about showmanship. And most food is best served straight from the fire to the table. Cold braai food may be a treat in the middle if the night but not at dinnertime.

This is not just about providing sustenance – it’s about a social hierarchy where every man must carve out his own space. Most, if not all, South African males  fancy themselves as champion braaiers but secretly each knows his place.

When I married into an Afrikaans family 28 years ago, my brothers-in-law did not think much of a soutie arriving in Klerksdorp, via London to steal their sister away.*

One of my early visits coincided with my father-in-law Hannes’ 60th birthday celebration. Hannes’ favourite treat was lamb on the spit and his choice part of the roasted lamb was the neck.

The two brothers grilled me [Ed’s note – we see what you did there] – seeing as I was chef, could I cook a lamb on the spit? At least that is what it sounded like to the untrained ear but what they were actually asking was – are you worthy of our sister? The gauntlet had been thrown down and I was not going to let the fact that I had never really cooked a lamb on the spit before get in the way of this brazen challenge.

(Strictly speaking, I had once assisted in the unmitigated disaster of a lamb on the spit earlier in my career as a Food Service Management student.)

A friend had asked me to give him a hand cooking a lamb for a 21st  birthday at The Llandudno Surf Club. The birthday girl was the daughter of the owner of the restaurant in which my mate worked. This restaurant used to offer a lamb on the spit for Sunday lunch. So I naturally assumed he knew what he was doing and, boy, did that assumption come back to bite me in the arse!

The birthday girl’s brothers arrived with a magnificent lamb from their farm that had been purposely slaughtered for the auspicious occasion. But it quickly became quite obvious when it arrived at 6 in the evening that he had never actually participated in the preparing or cooking of the lamb at the restaurant.

Firstly, we had woefully too little fire and secondly, we were clueless as to how long the beast would take to cook. Then, to make matters worse, the manner in which we trussed the lamb to the spit  didn’t make for a particularly fast cooking time and a number of mumbled comments by some experienced spit roasters made me realise that we had a world of pain ahead of us.

By 9 o’clock the poor birthday girl was in tears because nobody had eaten yet and there didn’t seem to be a promise of food anytime soon. At this point my “mate”, who by then was completely stoned, announced that he couldn’t  handle the pressure anymore and simply disappeared into the night.

I was about to head off myself – these weren’t my people, I was just the hired help (well not even hired) – when three of my friends appeared out of nowhere. They had bumped into my escaping ex-friend in the carpark and came to see what was happening. But it turns out that the three of them were on some bizarre acid trip and were freaked out by all of the people so, instead of being helpful they too disappeared into the darkness.

Eventually the thought of the distraught birthday girl and all of her family and friends not getting any food was something I couldn’t have on my conscience (even though the entire debacle wasn’t my fault), and so I hung around slicing what I could where I could until by 11 o’clock everyone had at least been fed. I, too, then slipped of quietly off into the night.

So it was with some trepidation that I attempted my second lamb but I wasn’t about to stand around and have my manhood called into question.

Fortunately for me, the outfit that delivered the lamb and the spit braai had taken the liberty of trussing the lamb to the spit, so all I had to do was make a fire and concentrate on actually seasoning, basting and cooking the beast.

Suffice is to say the lamb was a hit; the crowning glory being Hannes picking the neck clean with his penknife.

As to the brothers – a cursory nod was all that was forthcoming and all that was required. I had been measured and deemed worthy.

* Without giving too much away, soutie is South African army slang for an Englishman.