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Inaugural Suppers

Last week’s post on feasting, thanksgiving, and national identities made me think about inaugural dinners. In the United States they’ve become not only a statement on the kind of administration the new president hopes to usher in, but also a reflection of the country’s concerns and preoccupations at that moment. They’re a kind of culinary state of the nation address. In an excellent article on inaugural suppers, Andrew F. Smith describes Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to choose a menu in keeping with wartime austerity. His cook

offered an austere, ration-conscious ‘ladies’ lunch’ of cold chicken salad, rolls (no butter), cake (no frosting) and coffee (no sugar). To make matters worse, some of the chicken had spoiled and had to be thrown out. George Jessel, the luncheon’s toastmaster, posed the question, ‘How is it humanly possible to make chicken salad with so much celery and so little chicken?’

With a nod to his folksy appeal to American voters, Bill Clinton’s menu was described as a ‘cross between a state dinner at the White House and a traditional Arkansas Raccoon Supper’. Barak Obama’s menu deliberately paid homage to Abraham Lincoln, whose reputation as a conciliator Obama hoped to emulate, and in commemoration of the bicentenary of Lincoln’s birth. Presumably, though, Obama didn’t intend to replicate the shambles of Lincoln’s own inaugural dinner.

Lincoln’s inaugural committee had planned a lavish midnight buffet for the inaugural ball: terrapin stew, leg of veal, beef a l’anglais, foie gras, pate, cream candies, fruit ices, tarts, cakes and more. The venue was the Patent Office, which had two spacious halls for dancing and dining. The buffet was set out in a corridor where patent models were displayed. When the grand supper was announced, after several hours of dancing, the crowd rushed the table and people began grabbing, pushing and stuffing themselves shamelessly. In a matter of minutes, the sumptuous buffet was a shambles – as were several of the patent exhibits.

Oh dear. We know that Obama’s lunch went well, but I’m more interested in the fuss that it caused. The menu was printed in newspapers and generated huge amounts of discussion – the Guardian even usefully provided recipes for the lunch.

It opens with a stew of sea scallops, shrimp, lobster and black cod in a cream sauce, baked in a terrine covered with a puff pastry…. Following that, the 230 guests will be served a winter veg medley of asparagus, carrots, brussels sprouts and wax beans, and a ‘brace of American birds,’ duck and pheasant…. For dessert, they’ll have a quintessentially American flavour, a cinnamon apple sponge cake.

I imagine that branches of Waitrose in north London were sure to stock up on scallops, lobster, cod, duck, pheasant, and heirloom apples before being inundated by enthusiastic Guardianistas recreating the President’s first lunch. This menu, with its emphasis on simple, unprocessed food harking back to homely, ‘honest’ meals based on seasonal, ‘whole’ produce suggests a presidency aware of the country’s economic crisis, and committed to responding to the concerns of ‘ordinary’ Americans.

A very quick internet search has revealed very little about South African inaugural dinners. Considering that since 1994, presidential inaugurations here are imbued with an incredibly strong symbolism, it’s odd that the only menu I could find was for Jacob Zuma’s inauguration in 2008. I wasn’t in the country at the time, but I can’t remember much fuss about his choice of dinner – and the same goes for the inaugurations of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.

So this is what Zuma served:

Canapés

Cucumber topped with smoked snoek pate and lemon caviar.

Entree

Dullstroom trout wrapped in lettuce, citrus segments, lemon aioli, and dill served with an avocado salsa.

Palate Cleanser

Prickly-pear and fresh-ginger sorbet,

Main Course

A trio of meats: Peppered beef fillet, lamb cutlet, chicken breast stuffed with Peppadew, served with African dumplings and a thyme and berry sauce, spinach and steamed root vegetables.

Dessert

Mini malva pudding served with a chocolate potjie filled with tropical fruit, accompanied by slices of milk tart, finished off with a berry compote.

Well, ho hum. Putting together a menu for an occasion such as this, where the chef has to cater for a variety of dietary requirements is always tricky. Here, the caterers have played safe: the only recognisably South African dishes on the menu – malva pudding, milk tart, and snoek pate – are guaranteed crowd pleasers, and they’ve emphasised South African produce – Dullstroom trout, avocadoes, prickly pear, and Peppadews – rather than South African cuisines. The dumplings and spinach hint at traditional African cooking, and there are gestures towards Cape cuisine in the snoek pate and puddings. Otherwise, this is a menu that could be found in any half-decent restaurant anywhere in the world.

Fyndraai Restaurant at Solms Delta

I wonder if this hesitancy to embrace South African cooking – and we have lots of it – is connected to the fact that we’ve only recently begun to see local cuisines popping up in good restaurants. In the Cape, ‘traditional’ cooking remains the preserve of restaurants like the Volkskombuis in Stellenbosch and Cass Abrahams’s De Waterblommetjie at the Castle (now sadly closed). I like these restaurants and they’re really good at what they do (or did), but their cooking is of a time: it’s the heavy, relatively simple cooking of guidebooks to the Cape, and old-fashioned recipe books on Cape delicacies. And until around about now, we’ve seen local cooking as an ‘experience’ had at these kinds of restaurants.

But things are changing: the amazing Marianna’s in Stanford, as well as Fyndraai Restaurant at Solms Delta and, to a lesser extent, Babylonstoren, know Cape cooking well, and incorporate it into the menus. Why, though, should we care? These are all relatively – and in the case of Babylonstoren, nose-bleedingly – expensive restaurants which only a tiny number of South Africans and tourists will ever visit. So, no, there’s no overwhelming moral imperative to cook Cape (or South African).

I think, though, that it’s worth thinking about how we used to cook as a guide for eating seasonally and locally. A knowledge of these cuisines draws our attention to what grows – and lives – most easily in the regions in which we live. It makes us think more closely about the connection between what we put on our plates, and the farmers who produce our food. In a sense, it helps us to reinsert ourselves into a food chain.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Denni #

    There are also a small number of restaurants, very obviously aimed at tourists, with menus described as African, ja nee. Examples are:

    http://www.marimbasa.com/ http://www.moyo.co.za/

    http://www.goldrestaurant.co.za/

    AmaZink Eatery in Kayamandi is perhaps an example of the kind of restaurant which draws on local cuisines, uses locally grown seasonal products and is not exorbitantly expensive. May it be the first of many.

    March 13, 2011
    • May it be!

      In my self-righteous annoyance, I’d forgotten about these. I think, though, and with the exception of amaZink, these kind of eateries are similar to the Cape Malay joints: it’s South African food as themed experience.

      March 13, 2011
  2. Lovely post. The Zuma dinner seems quite boring to me. Do we know who planned and cooked it?

    March 14, 2011
    • Thanks!

      Unfortunately I don’t know who did the catering – and I agree that the menu is terribly dull. I’m really curious to see what Mandela and Mbeki had – I’m going to investigate and see what I can dig up.

      March 14, 2011
      • Denni #

        This illustrates the themed food experience very well, although interestingly, not the more usual drum-beating, beads and animal skins kind:
        Mama Tembo’s styles itself “Sophiatown in the suburbs”. The décor is sort of romanticised 1950s, a bit like those sepia-tinged movies one always sees trying to glorify the Drum writers. But there are also images of Nelson Mandela and Nkomazi jostling for space on the walls, while the waiters give you pamphlets of their 2010 Supa Soccer Special (food = R20; drink = R10).

        There are quite a few restaurants popping up playing on this nostalgic theme. I think they are hankering after a time when “the international struggle for human rights” was part of our vocabulary.

        The menu is meaty and most of the dishes are named after an SA icon: Mandela’s Meat Platter, Tutu’s Beef Burger, Winnie’s Seafood Platter, Thabo’s Marrow Bone (eh?) and even Nkosi (Johnson’s) chicken livers.

        I go for a (football club Mamelodi) Sundowns oxtail with pap and vegetables; Matthew for a seafood curry with rice. We sit outside and wash it down with Heineken. Matthew enjoys his curry. My oxtail is fine.

        The truth is that you don’t really come to places like this for an excellent meal. Mama Tembo’s is a bit like a curio shop, a Disneyland of aspects of our past and present. http://secure.financialmail.co.za/07/0413/life/zmalala.htm

        March 14, 2011

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