Mom announced the other day that she had ripped up her school album. Gone are the letters, photographs and report cards. Nothing left, all gone.
I asked her why she did this, after all, she kept everything for nearly fifty years. Without hesitation she answered, “These things are not important anymore”. “And if you’re not going to take your late father’s old records, I am going to smash them and put them into the bin too”. And right there she pushed a button. A big, red one.
For the last few years I have been re-assessing my life. It’s been turbulent years, and I have lost focus and happiness and it was time to get it back. To unpack the boxes, literally and figuratively.
Every box I opened posed the same challenge: to find what is important among the worthless junk that surrounds it.
There were hundreds, if not thousands of books, vinyl records, photographs, household implements, tools, documents, academic material, compact disks, floppy disks, videocassettes and a vast assortment of loose, indescriptive items.
As I started to sort through the items, I realised how much difficulty I have in getting rid of the stuff. I realised I had emotional attachments to all these things, even though most had no intrinsic worth or value. Clearly I am a sentimental hoarder. I keep stuff because I am afraid that letting go, would destroy my precious collection of memories.
Confused, hurt and utterly disappointed, I realised I had started in the wrong place. I should have started where the rot was at its worst: in my own head and heart.
I had become heavy with the material things in those boxes. What I once regarded as assets, turned into burdens. Too heavy to carry – emotionally and physically. So I got rid of them.
For memories are the timelines and roadmaps of our lives to date. They make up who we are and what we have done. They should be our inspiration, not our burden. But mostly, they live in our hearts and minds and not as material items in boxes.
These days, I scan old photographs and restore them with great care. This way they do not take up space and are better preserved for future generations. And, I can look at them at any time and place by clicking a button.
I have also embarked on a mission to read old cookbooks, digitize the recipes and cook from them. That way the old recipes would not die or gather dust.
Every family should have a family historian. Someone who learns the old recipes and techniques. The context and ingredients. And someone who would cook them regularly so that everyone can share in the wonderful experience that is eating with close family.
Although I own hundreds of cookbooks, it is the old ones that I treasure most. For they take us back to times long gone. Imprecise in measurement, full of context and custom, myths and people, these books are so much more than mere collections of recipes.
Often written as prose they describe to us the markets, the streets, the farms, the kitchens and people that inspired the writer so that we could visit those places even if now they are long gone.
In 1970 Vida Heard and Lesley Faull produced a book Cookery in Southern Africa: Traditional and Now. In it they offer recipes for hedgehogs and porcupines, anteater, tortoise, baboon and leguaan, ground ants and termites. They also described how a then member of Parliament representing the old South West Africa proposed (in Parliament nogal) a seemingly outrageous scheme for termites: “Termites are quite delicious. I have eaten them as a child in South West. They taste like a cross between meat and lobster tail … If we started raising them commercially perhaps one day they might be a famous South African delicacy which could bring us a profitable and significant industry”.
They also recounted an ‘old wives warning’ for selecting a chicken. “Choose one with short legs, small bones and white flesh. If you must cook a chicken with black legs it should be roasted and those with white legs are better boiled. Chickens are all the better for being singed as this gives firmness to the flesh”.
Priceless. Don’t you think?
This recipe for ox tail and white grapes is from Elizabeth David’s book French Provincial Cooking which first appeared in 1960. It is a dish that was frequently cooked for grape pickers making use of what was plentiful (grapes) and cheap (oxtail).
Happy memories! And no thanks mom, I do not want those old vinyls.