Milk tart

February 27, 2017 § 3 Comments


The trouble with eating milk tart made by one Lettie Stevens, is that you are ruined for life. No wobbly, cornflour infested, namby-pamby sweet pastry concoction – even from the local tuisnywerheid – stands a chance. It has to be Lettie’s milk tart or nothing.
Lettie, my grandmother, baked the kind of milk tart you’d change an RSVP for – the most objectionable company or gathering could be tolerated for a slice or two with a cup of coffee: proper moerkoffie, hot and milky and sweet.

Her tarts began with puff pastry, which she made herself. I remember marathon sessions grating butter into slabs of cold pastry, folding them this way and that, her fingers deft and slick. Puff pastry’s savoury flavour provides the perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of the filling, the crisp layers complementing its milky smoothness.

Next, the pastry was rolled out, blind baked in enamel pie plates, and piled into tall cake tins, ready to be called into service at any time. And the tarts were so in demand, before you knew it, it was pastry making time again.

There was none of the wobbliness you find in today’s milk tarts. My granny used flour in hers, not cornflour, which gives it a different mouthfeel, and a dollop of oomph and grit that perfectly represents an Afrikaner woman of a certain era. 

And it’s the milkiness that makes milk tart so distinct from its relatives – English custard tart or Portuguese pastéis de nata. Here the egg doesn’t take centre stage; it’s all about the comfort of sweetened warm milk when you can’t sleep, or the scent of cinnamon warming the air on a wintry day. Which is why it’s at its very best at room temperature or slightly warm.

My grandmother left me her handwritten recipe books, still among my greatest treasures, so when I heard today was National Milk Tart Day, I had to whip up a crustless version for dessert – in honour both of the day, and the woman I miss so much: a five-foot-nothing dynamo of wisdom and sass, of discipline and old-fashioned common sense, the toughest will, and the softest cheeks.

It’s been years since she died, but the sight of that handwriting still brings both a smile and a tear to my face. Tonight my kitchen smells of cinnamon and milk, and I’m warmed by the comfort of a childhood made sweeter by her capable hands.

Dress code

February 22, 2017 § 6 Comments

I remember that it was turquoise – a small, turquoise, rectangular box that epitomised glamour for me. It lived behind the rows of brown envelopes where my mother kept the cash she had allocated to various items for the month’s budget, each envelope meticulously labelled: chemist, groceries, bus fare, school fees… 

The tiny box only came out on special occasions, containing as it did my mother’s mascara. This was not the tube and wand affair of today’s mascara, however. One compartment held a black substance that required a drop of water to be activated, the other a miniature brush, like a fairy toothbrush, for applying the moistened mascara.

My mother’s idea of everyday make-up was minimalist. Most days, a slick of lipstick was all she wore. But on nights when she and my father were going out, out came the mascara box. And I, just four or five years old, in my nightie and fluffy pink slippers, hung around in the doorway to their bedroom, enthralled by her preparations.

My father wore a suit, always; my mothera long, brightly patterned dress, marcasite at her throat and ears, a dab of Chanel at her wrists. One blue curler provided just the right amount of lift for a section of her short, dark hair, and she dab-dab-dabbed at her eyelashes with that teeny tiny toothbrush. And then they would leave in a cloud of perfume and cologne, while I sat in Granny Bridger, the babysitter’s lap, for one last story before bed.

Today, going out is a much more casual affair. Go to the theatre, and you’ll find people in shorts, jeans, even slip slops. Some restaurants only permit long trousers and closed shoes, but you can wear a good pair of jeans. It’s a far cry from the formality of dress codes gone by.

Even the workplace is a lot more casual. As a freelance writer, I most often resort to a uniform of jeans and a T-shirt, but it’s not just me – many offices I visit seem to have a similar dress code. And while I love the comfort of casual clothes, sometimes I miss dressing up.

I know performers and chefs can do their jobs just as well regardless of what we wear, but there was something respectful about putting on something special for a special night out; a sense that this was a treat, a small celebration in the midst of an otherwise mundane life. And I think, in some small way, you behave differently when you’re well-dressed. There’s a sense of decorum that prevails.

I know those distressed jeans and T-shirt are more comfortable, but I wonder sometimes if we haven’t become a bit too comfortable in life as in our theatres and restaurants. I wonder if we couldn’t do with a bit more decorum, a bit more discomfort, a bit more of a sense of occasion.

Maybe one day the pendulum will swing back to a more respectful, more genteel, more gracious way of navigating the world. In the meantime, I’m putting my mascara on, just in case.

It’s a kind of magic

January 29, 2017 § 2 Comments

biscuits

I spent today in a pleasurable haze of writing and baking, the smells of cinnamon and vanilla wafting through the house like a prayer as my fingers rapped out an irregular rhythm, making words, painting sentences, telling stories.

I love the alchemy of baking. I love that you take the simplest of ingredients – flour, sugar, butter, eggs – and create something that is at first unprepossessing, but later transforms into something new with the simple addition of  heat. I love the warmth it adds to the air, the slow motion rising and reshaping, like a live time-lapse video behind the oven’s glass screen.

And there are many similarities between baking and writing, even if the ingredients and tools are not the same.

Of all the culinary arts, baking is the most precise. Too much butter and your cake will be limp; too much flour and it will be dry and dull. Add moisture to the raising agent too soon, and the bubbles meant to lift the batter into mouthwatering softness will evaporate into thin air before they can do their work.

Just as the baker mixes together the right quantity of this and that, the writer must take those most ordinary building blocks of communication – words – and meld them together in just the right combination, just the right order. The baker stirs to combine. The writer combines to stir.

Neither will be rushed. Of course you can speed up how quickly you measure and mix both the batter and your words, but you run the risk of disturbing their balance. There’s a delicate chemistry and process to both, which must be honoured.

And it’s so important to get the temperature right. Too hot and your cookies burn; too cold and they’re doughy and raw. So it is with writing: too much rewriting and your words are brittle and scorched; too little, and they’re turgid and pale. Somewhere in the middle, you learn to leave them alone, to let them find their own rhythm across the page – sauntering here, marching there, meandering sometimes, or coming to a brisk stop.

In baking and in writing, you also learn that sometimes you just don’t get it right. Sometimes it flops despite your best efforts, and you simply scrape it all into the bin and try again. Because you still have your building blocks – flour, butter, eggs, words. You will measure them all again, combine them in the right order, and produce something better next time.

Most of all, you learn that what you produce will never be perfect. One biscuit will be slightly bigger than another; that chocolate cake always rises slightly more on one side; this vanilla flan tends to sink in the middle. And every time you read what you’ve written, you’ll see a new, better way you could have expressed this or that.

But ultimately as long as the eater – or the reader – enjoys what you’ve produced, those tiny imperfections become completely unimportant.

 

* The topic for this post was suggested by Gus Silber, a friend, colleague and devoted fan of cinnamon buns, who would be a master baker if he baked half as well as he writes.

 

 

No means no

January 18, 2017 § 3 Comments

I bet you think I’m going to write about rape. I am and I’m not – first let me tell you a story.

A few months ago my daughter and her friends, their dates and parents met for drinks before a school dance. At some point in the proceedings, someone decided each girl should say a few words about the year, about their friendship, and so on, and they began to take turns to speak.

My daughter suffers from crippling social anxiety that makes public speaking or performance a complete ordeal. She has medication to get her through school speeches and violin performances. So when it was her turn to speak, she simply said “No.” She was calm, firm, and clear in her wishes.

And then it began. First her friends tried to persuade her to speak, and then the parents joined in. She dug in her heels. They continued, louder and louder. Colour began to rise in her face; tears glittered, poised to flow. Eventually I raised my voice above the din, and pointed out that she’d said “no”, and that should be respected. And finally they let her be.

It’s a tiny incident – although it was very distressing for her – but it got me thinking about how we respond when people say “no”. The truth is that we just don’t accept it as an answer.

When someone says they can’t attend a dinner or birthday party, for example, if they offer no reason, you’ll often hear the host ask why they can’t attend. When someone’doesn’t want to join in an activity like bungee jumping, abseiling or zip lining, there’ll be a fair amount of persuasion from their peers.

Children, of course, seldom take no for an answer, because that’s how they test their boundaries, but when you pay attention you start to notice that adults aren’t terribly good at it either. It’s almost never acceptable to simply answer, “No.” At best there’s some expectation of explanation; at worst you’ll be bullied into changing your mind.

And of course, what we forget, is that while we’re telling our children that “no means no” we model the exact opposite of what we’re saying. And it is a well known parenting principle that your children learn far more from what you do than from what you say.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many girls are raped – and often by people they know – when the very act of saying “no” in a myriad other situations is seen as an opportunity to override, persuade, dismiss or – let’s call a spade a spade – bully the person into submission?

I don’t think we should be surprised at all that rape is rife in society. I do think it could make a difference if we all made this shift.

No means no.

Telkom – part of the post-truth world

January 11, 2017 § 6 Comments

Another Wednesday, another customer service blog post. And this time it’s Telkom, a company that is there – in supreme irony – to facilitate communication.

Because a lack of customer service is one thing – we have come to expect that from South African parastatals. But it’s the total lack of communication – and the blatant lying about such communication – that drives me to write this post.

On 28 December 2016 my ADSL stopped working. I was driving back to Johannesburg that day, so I reported it the following day. I knew it would take a while to have it repaired as we were going into all the New Year holidays, but we are now a third of the way into January and it remains non-functional.

I’m sure at least some of you think this is a first world problem, but a good internet connection is actually essential to how I make a living – I am self-employed, and as a journalist I need access to email and the internet every day. I am limping along thanks to a friend’s mobile wifi device, but I hate using all his data, and the signal isn’t always great, so it’s not ideal. But without that, I would be well and truly screwed, and forking out money I don’t have hand over fist, to run off mobile data.

For once the Telkom call centre hasn’t been entirely useless. My first follow-up call must have sparked someone into action, because my second follow-up call yesterday revealed that a technician had been assigned to my fault – on 6 January. It is the 11th today. I’m not sure if that technician is on leave, or if he’s just supremely busy, but either way, some sort of meaningful communication from Telkom to me would be hugely helpful.

I say ‘meaningful’ because I have chatted to Telkom’s ‘helpline’ on Twitter in an effort to find out what’s going on. Chatting to the slugs in my garden would have been just as helpful. At least they would shuffle off slimily and ignore me, and not pretend to be taking my problem seriously. Several times I have tweeted @HelloTelkom, direct messaged them, asked nicely, said ‘please’ and each time I get a stock standard response – feedback will be communicated to me. They are no help at all. Perhaps they only know how to say ‘hello’ and promise feedback.

Look, I know ‘communicated’ is a big word, and ‘feedback’ has eight letters too, but I’m not sure they really know what it means. It’s really simple. It means you talk to me, as if I’m a human being (because really, I am), and tell me what the problem is. You don’t just roll out an answer from the six versions of the same lie that are printed out in your social media script. You take my reference number – the one I provided at your request – and you follow it up. You find out how far it is. You talk to the mythical technician who’s been assigned to my fault and find out when he’s expecting to get to me, and you give me some actual information.

Even better, you ask him to call me and tell me when he plans to attend to the fault – because at least that way I know whether there really is some light at the end of the tunnel or not, and I know how long I can expect to have to make alternative arrangements.

I can accept that perhaps I’m on a list, in a queue behind some other people, and that’s okay. But don’t promise me feedback and then go silent. Just tell me what the delay is. Because I’m over here paying for a service that I’m not receiving, and it’s having an impact on my work. The work that pays my rent. Is that so hard to understand?

The thing that enrages me as a customer, is not so much the shoddy, slow service – although it’s annoying, of course. The thing that drives me batshit crazy is that none of these organisations communicates well. Communication is a two-way street, and most of the time, they just have people with fishing nets to catch the incoming communication from customers – and that’s the end of it. Nothing comes in the other direction when it really matters – unless they want to sell you something. And the response to your communication is often just a pacifying pat on the head – we’ve answered you, now go away.

And when all the customers do go away, and they have to close the doors, they’ll wonder why.

The saddest part for me, is that I’ve spent years defending Telkom, because they’ve always given me excellent service. I’ve honestly never had to wait more than 24 hours for them to come and sort me out. This experience, however, has left a very bitter taste in my mouth. No one likes to be lied to.

Far from the madding crowd

January 4, 2017 § 4 Comments

I had a week. A week without my children, in the middle of the summer holidays. So I did what any sensible person would do. I headed home.

Some of my friends were mystified. Why home? Didn’t I want to go away? Spend some time away from everything familiar? Be by myself in a beautiful place? No. I wanted solitude – proper solitude, not the kind where you’re only really alone when you’re in your hotel room.

The first day was spent driving 1100km across South Africa. It was tiring, sure, but I was headed home – to my own bed, my own fridge and store cupboard, my own bathroom. I didn’t listen to music, or podcasts or audio books as I drove. I just drove, in silence, sending the odd text message to concerned friends at each stop I made, focused on the road ahead and mesmerised anew by the beauty of the scenery.

When I got home, I mostly disengaged from texting and social media, apart from texting my kids every day. I wasn’t rude – I answered messages that arrived – but when I was ready, when it suited me.

Perhaps it’s confirmation bias but I see many other people like me, who are choosing to take a step back from social media and the pull of the smartphone. I’m redefining how I use both. Because it feels sometimes like I am being used by social media and not the other way around. As though I am the product.

I’m tired of feeling as though I must be always on, always available, always apologising for not answering this or that post or message swiftly enough, constantly feeling that pressure. And I know not everyone feels like that, but I often do, and it’s a pressure I no longer feel the need to capitulate to. 

The mob mentality frustrates me, the constant nitpicking and negativity depresses me, and the blatant stupidity of some people leaves me despairing of the world we’re leaving behind for Keith Richards, as the meme would have it… In all seriousness, though, we may just self-destruct by the time he does.

But I digress. In that week of stepping back, I noticed a few things. I slept better. I thought better. I solved problems better. My mood was better. I focused better. I was happier. And boy, did I get stuff done. All because I remembered that I have a smartphone for my convenience, not everyone else’s. 

Also, I really do think we all suffer from TMI – too much information. It’s quantity, not quality, and I don’t think it’s doing us any good. It certainly feels overwhelming to me.

I am determined to have a burnout-free year in 2017. Twice last year was enough. And I think the constant squawks, beeps and cackles of my smartphone don’t help. I removed the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone a year or two ago, and that has helped, but I am also determined to be less of a slave to messages too. I’ll answer, of course, but at my convenience. And my social media time is going to be drastically reduced.

As Eccles so often declares in The Goon Show, “I’m a brain worker!” I need to be able to think logically, creatively, analytically – to do my work, to earn my bread and butter, and with any luck, some jam too. Yet my brain feels as if it has been invaded by a million mundanities, a billion banalities, a trillion trivialities.

It’s time to reclaim it; I’m taking out the trash and putting boundaries in place so it doesn’t creep back in. 

Quality over quantity, baby. That’s what this year is going to be about.

Leave a message – I’ll get back to you. It just won’t always be straight away.

The long and the short

December 14, 2016 Comments Off on The long and the short

There’s a great scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral right near the beginning, at the reception of the first wedding, where Charles and his friend, Fiona, are chatting.

The dialogue goes like this: 

CHARLES: Any idea who the girl in the black hat is?

FIONA: Name’s Carrie.

CHARLES: She’s pretty.

FIONA: American.

CHARLES: Interesting.

FIONA: Slut.

CHARLES: Really?

And with just those few words and a quizzical eyebrow from Hugh Grant, a whole story is told.

There’s a tendency among some writers – professional and amateur – to use far too many words. Many words, they think, will make them seem more clever, more profound, more ‘writerly’.

But writing short is much more difficult, because you can’t explain yourself endlessly. You have to choose that one precise word that will tell a whole story; conjure up an exact image, stoke a compelling emotion.

There’s a quote that’s been attributed to Twain, Lincoln and Hemingway, among others, along the lines of, “I’m sorry this letter is so long; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Whatever the source, that quote holds great truth. Good concise writing takes time and a craftsman’s touch.

And if you still don’t believe me, here’s a famous six-word story, usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway, which has spawned a genre online. Urban legend has it that he wrote this after a wager with other writers: his authorship is unsubstantiated, but I like to believe it’s true. And anyway, it’s a great story.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Tell me again how that thing you wrote is too short to say what you need to say?

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