Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fat Cakes

As you walk down the crowded streets of Turfloop you are bombarded with street vendors selling anything and everything you can imagine. You stroll by the fresh fruits and vegetables and can tell which ones are currently in season, you walk by the braaiers who are cooking up whole chickens over the fire, you pass nail polish, hats, chips, matches, and sweets- but at the end of all this you walk by a small street vendor near the university which is the most popular of them all. As you pass by, the wind blows slightly and carries the smell your way- and you are taken back to your childhood, standing in front of a funnel cake stand at the fair. This stand sells one of South Africa’s most loved foods- the fat cake. Basically it is sweet dough which is fried into round “cakes” which are then sold in plastic bags on streets all over South Africa. They are comparable to the North American doughnuts, only without the glazed covering and the hole in the centre.

How can something with the name “fat cakes” be so popular? I doubt that if we were to rename doughnuts (which are probably more fattening than the version here in South Africa) as fat cakes that they would be successful in the United States. In the states we have a cultural perception of thin and toned as healthy and desired, and thus we shy away from anything with fat in the name. But here in South Africa there is a different perception of food and health. Thinness is often associated with sickness, due in part to the major impact that the HIV/AIDS pandemic has had on this country. As many people have seen their friends and family rapidly slim down to skin and bones due to the virus attacking their bodies, thinness has very negative associations. Therefore, being thicker is seen as being happy, healthy, and desirable. This varied perspective can be seen in all aspects of South Africa’s relationship to food:

1) Carbohydrates are not avoided. In fact, if you do not have carbs with every meal then you can not have a meal! Whether it be bread, rice, pasta, or the preferred pap, each meal comes with a heaping serving of carbohydrates.

2) Calories do not exist in South Africa. When you are searching food labels to determine how many calories are in each serving, you will see the calories labeled as truly what they are – ENERGY. And we need energy to survive, do we not? The obsession with calorie counting that is widely prevalent in the States becomes inapplicable here.

3) Portions are extremely large here, as food is a very central part of the rural South African lifestyle. Yes, portions in the USA are notoriously known for their abundance, but I can proudly say that I have found a rival here in South Africa. Often, days become centered on meals, which can take hours to prepare.

4) Eating well means eating all the food on your plate. If you eat well, it shows that you are happy, or the food will bring you happiness. If you do not gain weight in your first few months in South Africa people will ask you what is wrong, and why you are not happy.

5) Fat cakes, cookies, and biscuits of any sort are not avoided! Even though they may be fattening, South Africans just enjoy their goodness without the thought of carbs or calories, and it is relieving!

Yes, there are major problems with obesity here, just as is seen in the United States. We both eat fattening foods and do not participate in enough physical exercise, but the difference is that people are comfortable with their bodies here, unlike the constant self-critical state into which North Americans are succumbed by the advertisements and celebrities that are thinner than twigs. Have you ever watched TV while sick? You notice just how much food is advertised, yet we are expected to be thin? Hollywood pulls us to anorexia while advertising pulls us to obesity, no wonder we have so many eating disorders and unhealthy relationships with food!

In typical southern fashion, my usual saying is “butter = love”, but a farm wife from Illinois sums this up much better in a book I recently read, Food for Life. She wrote, “Food is love. When food is used as God intended, it can manifest God’s love for us, as well as our response to that love.” Often food is not associated with God or theology. Although some of us say grace over every meal, we do not realize the miracle that it truly is- how the world becomes a part of us and restores us to life. God provides this food, and makes this whole process of restoration possible. In Food for Life, L. Shannon Jung claims that God’s intention for food is that we delight in it and share it with others, both of which I agree. I think most of our problems with food arise from not using it like God intends. The modern day fast-food lifestyle leaves little time for delight and promotes eating alone- breaking both rules. Overeating is a form of greed and usually an attempt to use the delight available in food to satisfy other desires. Anorexia and bulimia take out both the delight in food and the sharing of meals with others. If we were simply to eat food in moderation for delight and to share it with others like the Lord intended, then perhaps our unhealthy relationships with food would come to an end.

We all enjoy sharing meals with others and engaging in conversations which add to the delight of the meals, but how far does this sharing go? A few months ago I had a dream about my pantry and refrigerator back at home in America (I often used to dream about the luxuries that I left behind in the USA- especially running water). It was overflowing in abundance and resembled more of an aisle of a grocery store than a pantry. We had hundreds of individual containers of yoghurt, but we did not have the correct flavor of Yoplait yoghurt, so we had to go to the store down the street to pick up the blackberry Yoplait light... I am not a dream expert, but I believe that subconsciously I was missing the comfortable lifestyle that I had in the States, and the amount of variety I had in food! But I also realized how ridiculous it can get. How long has some of the food been sitting on your pantry uneaten? What about that Cambell’s chicken noodle can collecting dust in the back? And how much variety does your fridge have? Mind you, it is winter, from where did those fruits and vegetables come?

In the United States, we enjoy the results of our globalization. We reduce the price of our exports to compete on a global market while small farmers from poor countries are forced to undercut to compete or even export all of their crops to pay off country debts, leaving the inhabitants starving and poorer than ever. The variety and abundance which we enjoy comes at the cost of others, but it is comfortable, which is why I dream about it! We therefore develop partial blindness to these atrocities so that we can continue on with our comfortable, enjoyable lifestyle to which we have become addicted. But even if we remove our blinders, what can we do to change this? How can we follow God’s intention for food and share with those in need? We certainly can not wrap up our leftovers and send them, and sending non-perishable food items once a year is obviously not solving the problem. The answer in my opinion is- we need to change our lifestyle and our relationship with food first. We can shop locally and not support globalization, we can buy directly from farmers, and we can stop stocking our pantry and fridge full. We can even walk to the store and only buy what we can carry- what I have to do here in South Africa. We have to shop more often, but we shop more efficiently and only buy what we need to survive for a week or so, limiting the amount of food we have stored in our houses.

Together we can bring our relationship with food back to what God originally intended. We can stop the societal pressures which drive us to obesity or anorexia and thus remove the delight from eating and stop us from seeing food as the blessing and miracle that it is. We can associate food with God more intentionally to strengthen this relationship. We can be conscious of how our food habits affect others all over the world. So delight and share the food with which God has graced us- especially the fat cakes!

~Heather Anne Nelson

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stop and See God

Every now and then we have those days when we can not help but smile. It’s the kind of smile that comes from within you, and as the happiness inside bubbles over, a big smile stretches across your face. If others see this explosion of happiness they may ask what has caused you to smile in such a way, but at that you just smile bigger and respond “oh, nothing.” Nothing I can describe verbally at least…

I do not know if it is due to a high intake of Vitamin D from the recent sunny summer days here or not, but recently I have been having a lot of days like this, where my happiness bubbles out into a smile. It usually happens when I become suddenly present in the moment and fully take in all that is going on around me. When you are living and working somewhere you are liable to fall into a routine which causes you to live more in the future. Tomorrow you are going to have rice for dinner since you had pasta tonight, but you will have to go to the store on Friday since you are running out of rice, which means you will have to wake up extra early to get your morning exercise in before you go to town, and you have to exercise because next week you are on vacation where you will be seen in a swimsuit… And it keeps going, and you often pay little attention to what is around you in the here and now. Okay maybe you don’t fall into this category, but I certainly do. Even here in my relatively non-busy life in South Africa, I have fallen into this forward-thinking routine, but when I am pulled out of it into the here and now I start to realize how amazing this life is and I can see the beauty and love of God in everything around me.

The other day I was sitting iin a mint green room surrounded by some of my closest friends here and I had one of those moments. Looking around I saw the mint green walls with the plaster falling off in places showing the age of the house. Stones were placed on top of the wooden rafters to prevent the tin roof from sagging in between the supports. The red stained concrete floor was lightly coated in a layer of dust that coats everything in Masealama, but beneath my feet was strips of carpet that invited you to kick back, take your shoes off, and stay a while. I sunk in too far to the couch beneath me, and it made me realize that I was just one on a long list of visitors to this house. Looking outside I saw the bright sun shining down on the tall stalks of meile (corn) which seemed to grow overnight and were now swaying slightly in the gentle breeze. But inside we were comfortable, protected from the intense heat of the sun by the thick solid walls. The conversation was lively, as it usually is among the Lutheran youth here, and even though it was in Sepedi, I enjoyed looking at each person as they talked and reading their body language. And I could not help but smile.

This life is so different from my life back in the States, but I have become so comfortable and at home with it that often times I overlook the beauty around me every day. I encourage you to look for that beauty in your life. Take a moment and pull yourself out of the future. Stop running, take a look around, and enjoy what you discover around you. Whether it be a row of icicles on your porch, the little kid singing in church, or the gentle rumble of passing cars outside of your office window, you will find something that makes you smile. God is present anywhere and everywhere you look, but you can not see him if you don’t slow down and look. Stop and smell the roses, stop and see God.

~Heather Anne Nelson