Cook, traveller, father, husband, filmmaker, urban farmer, custodian… and not particularly in that order. I cook. I make television. I love the outdoors. I’m earning my green fingers and the open road is where I find my sanity. I was born in Durban, South Africa, grew up in Cape Town and have been burning my, Read More
Without the biggest fire of them all, that massive nuclear reaction that dictates all cycles and seasons on earth, the sun, we would not exist
I’ve spent a lot of time around fires in my life. From my first memories with my dad on the banks of the Breede River, cooking whole Kabeljou; to when I got married to my wife Eugenie and served up a spitted Greek style lamb with all the accoutrements (dips, salads and desert), prepared and cooked by friends, right down to filming contestants being put through their paces in 6 seasons of the Ultimate Braai Master
All these memories have a common thread. The river was where we renewed our family ties; our important day was more than a celebration of two newly-weds finding their feet with their friends; Braaimaster was about celebrating what we all love to do on weekends. All of them were around a fire. All of them were social events.
Most of us have those fire memories, but I often ask myself why? Why does the fire resonate with who we are?
If we look back on our time on Earth as a species, the use of fire was pivotal in allowing us to evolve. It represented safety from animals that had bigger and sharper teeth than we had; it allowed us to access food sources that were otherwise in-edible; it provided light on dark nights; protection from things that go bump in the dark; warmth… and I believe that that those memories and needs are deeply ingrained in our DNA.
But what is it actually?
If we get down to the physics, Fire is a reaction between oxygen and some sort of fuel source. Add ignition, and there’s a combustion reaction that results in a couple of side reactions. The obvious one is heat, then incandescence (light) and there are a number of by-products, including ash and smoke. All can be defined by science, and all are critical for life on Earth.
Yes, there are a bunch of other questions posed by this combustion reaction; the difference between charcoal and wood, why one almost burns with no smoke; even the beauty and horror of fire in that it can be self-perpetuating as long as there’s a fuel source and oxygen (just think of the tragic fires that engulfed the George, Wilderness and Knysna areas).
Fire is essential for life on earth. Without the biggest fire of them all, that massive nuclear reaction that dictates all cycles and seasons on earth, the sun, we would not exist. Beyond creating the unique conditions that allow for all life on earth, there is a specific reaction between plants and this big fire. Plants convert the solar energy created by the sun into matter. It’s a magical process that give us the plants we eat, the oxygen we breath, the wood we build with and creates the soil that binds it all together.
In nature, fire is necessary. There are only three elements that break down plant matter and allow a phoenix like re-generation. The tooth and mandible are the obvious two. Creatures eat or break down plant matter into what will one day become part of a natural composting process that creates soil, but it is fire that is so important to release moribund matter that’s been converted by plants into organic matter. When fires burn, the minerals that are held in stasis, are released back to the earth for re-use in the form of ash. It’s a beautiful, harsh but necessary part of life on earth that I fully understand as a gardener and resident of Earth, but as a cook, I love what fire does to food.
The lamb chop that’s simply seasoned and kissed by smoke has an Umaminess that cannot be imparted to food in any other way. Like snowflakes, no two fires are the same, and like snowflakes, no two lamb chops and the ensuing social engagement around the fire are the same either.
Gathering around a fire and the ensuing braai takes us back to the cultural importance of fire. You can see it in the Rainbow Nation. We have 11 official languages and loads of ethnic groups, and we all gather around a fire. Whether it’s a Shisanyama joint in the townships, or in the heartland of the boerewors curtain or a mussel potjie on the West Coast, the cooking on fire brings our cultures together and allows us to firm up our friendship and family bonds, making us remember.
I often think that fire is encapsulated in the Afrikaans word kuier. Loosely translated it means visit, but it means so much more. It’s the word that describes how when we prepare food on the open fire, we create a social engagement that allows us to connect as a community and take a trip down memory lane to our forefathers of old.
So whether your man alone in the bush watching the African TV, are having a sunset braai with friends, are making stok-brood for the first time, are taking your children camping or are simply fighting the Winter cold with a roaring hearth, no matter where we’re from or our ethnic background – these fire memories remind us of who we are and where we come from.
I can only imagine that for our collective forefathers, fire represented a form of magic. What I do know is that this magic has translated across the millennia and is still true for all of us and is deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche.
We are a species that has a burn culture…
Recently I presented to a group of community members in the South Peninsula of Cape Town a plan to install a market garden on community land next to a school to both connect children to where their food actually come from and to service the community with fresh vegetables on a daily basis in their neighbourhood as part of the Neighbourhood Farm Pilot project
From the minute I arrived at the meeting, some uninformed and disconnected community members attacked me verbally. They assumed, without facts, that I was there in a commercial capacity. That I had a secret agenda. That I was trying to hijack a public space for commercial gain. That my heart was rotten and greedy.
The level of distrust and lack of understanding was astounding and was a real test of my integrity and a lesson in how to bite my tongue. It was a sign of how broken the system actually is and critically how disconnected community members are to their own environment, where their food comes from and each other.
My initial reaction was to be depressed. I came home to my wife and said that some days, I just feel like giving up. I couldn’t believe how a small minority of community members armed with animosity and no facts could leap to their own conclusions and whip up a frothy over their own lack of curiosity or need to know.
Don’t get me wrong, I admire those community members who fight for a better environment for their neighbours, who form action groups, neighbourhood watches and regenerate their neighbourhoods, but similarly, I also abhor those that are so narrow minded and so settled in their ways that they don’t see the tree’s for the woods.
For those community members who are incurious, I thought I should share the following piece I wrote for an American Magazine about the genesis of Neighbourhood Farms and why I think it’s so important. Perhaps, it’ll help them to become allies.
Neighbourhood Farm is the most important initiative I’ve undertaken in my life, and I’m afraid that there’s no short answer.
I was (and still am) filming a documentary about the last 350 leopards that survive on the Cape Fold Mountains of Southern Africa. I kept coming across conflict between wild animals and domestic livestock farmers protecting their livelihood. The deeper I delved into the why, the more I realised that if I wanted to try and save the leopards from a regional extinction, my focus would have to be on that human created biome, the city, and her inhabitants for solutions.
A 100 or so years ago the earth had a largely rural population where the gap between farmer and consumer was minimal. In most cases, we were the farmer. Fast forward to current times and our mass migrations into the cities of the world for the perceived land of milk and honey and the gap between farmer and consumer has become so wide that it has created unforeseen and hidden problems for both the farmer and us.
We are no longer rural and no longer produce our own food. Farmers are the most important people in our lives, yet we don’t know who they are, and between them and us, there are a series of middlemen who’ve increasingly made the farmer so marginal, that farmers are being forced to use destructive short term solutions to deal with the threats to their financial wellbeing.
Instead of nurturing farmers, we’ve allowed the middlemen to turn these custodians of the land and its wild denizens into mass murderers on our behalf just so that we can tuck into a lamb chop or slather a slice of bread with butter.
There’s a cost to both us for this new arrangement that we don’t yet fully understand or comprehend.
We now live in cities. But don’t know how to live in them. They’re a relatively new environment for humans and we haven’t evolved our thinking or implemented change fast enough to reduce their impact on wild and rural environments. To boot, we haven’t really looked at the cost to our wellbeing, nor how we maintain or regenerate it.
Then there’s us. I’ve coined a phrase special phrase for us: The Forgetting Generation. The longer we live in cities, the more we forget. And it’s a terrible downwards spiral. Children grow up believing that food comes shrink-wrapped in polystyrene and can no longer relate to the living breathing animals that are slaughtered for the pot. We no longer bake our own bread or know our neighbours. We forget when we should be remembering, and as a result, we’re slowly losing our natural awareness and are increasingly becoming reliant on those that don’t have our best interests at heart.
If the city is the biome we’re going to choose to live in, we better learn how to live in them lightly, and fast, or suffer the consequences of a sterile and toxic future.
When I started looking at this multifaceted crisis there were a couple of epiphanies: Whatever I did to help us remember would have to be managed, be financially sustainable, expandable, replicate-able, focus on children (and in turn their families and the broader community), create biologically diverse environments, regenerate the fringes of the urban landscape and most importantly, do good for all of us.
The rest was just connecting the dots…
To best help children remember and become the agents of change for their communities, we largely work with schools. We then use permaculture to design a short, medium and long term productive and regenerative plan for the entire school property.
Our first focus is water security. This is especially relevant to Cape Town as it’s become a food desert in the middle of the worst drought in living memory. It’s important to remember that wherever you grow food, there is a water cost, but only where you grow food, is their food security. Those naysayers that say we can ill afford to use water for agriculture in urban environments are truly short sighted. Instead of future proofing cities, they would prefer to jump on the water crisis bandwagon and imagine that using less water is a long-term solution. To mitigate our water usage, we use a number of proven techniques: We harvest rain water for the permaculture plan, plumb the surplus rain water back into the school’s sanitation reticulation system and look at how to best plant the rain. Whether cities are in dry land environments, or are water rich – how we look at, use and conserve water should be an urban dweller priority.
Then there’s the outdoor classroom. A space homed in a biologically rich environment where teachers can give children edible education. Where an education syllabus can be brought to life. Geography, science, biology, even economics and mathematics – all have their roots in nature and the outdoors.
Finally, the project has at its heart market gardens that generate a small turnover to keep the project economically sustainable. This means we can pay for permanent employees from previously disadvantaged communities through the daily sale of nutrient rich, organic produce into neighbourhoods while re-connecting children to where their food actually comes from.
My hope… to claw back a balance between our needs and desires. That give children the tools and the right environment to break the cycle of disconnect and re-create a cycle of mutual respect and empathy – where they can remember instead of forgetting.
That we get to know our neighbours and borrow that cup of sugar. That we re-create the cultural memory of our village. That we keep our economy local, and keep re-investing in ourselves and each other in our own neighbourhoods. That we change our urban living philosophy, and in turn, as we all start to remember and we re-empower the farmer, we might be saving the last leopards of the Cape Fold Mountains of Southern Africa.
I don’t see Neighbourhood Farms as bringing working gardens into city neighbourhoods, so much as creating a network of urban farmers that re-create the village of our cultural memory. The trust and faith we’ve placed on the urban food supply chain is built on a disconnected system. We need to re-create a network of trust and accountability, that has as its primary focus the wellbeing of our neighbourhoods. Then there’s all the other positive spinoff’s: Social engagement, reduction in crime, nutrient dense produce available with a tiny carbon footprint, education of children… the list continues. I always say we need to learn to live in cities and believe that Neighbourhood Farms are key to this evolution.
Ultimately, growing our own food is primarily about sowing seeds to reap a regenerative future, but to understand the importance of growing my own food, of working the earth, I need to take a little trip down memory lane.
We spent hundreds of thousands of years being hunter / gatherers and by necessity, were very finely tuned to the natural flow and ebb of the ecosystems. A little over 10000 years ago, we domesticated animals and developed agriculture and this in turn allowed us to develop cities. The last 100 years of living in cities have made us un-learn that evolutionary IQ and made us the forgetting generation.
Growing, nurturing and harvesting the fruits of your labour teach you about the intricate connections between what we eat and the natural ecosystems, the flow between the seasons, the importance of water.
At home, I have a 200m2 organic permaculture garden that not only provides my family with daily, nutrient dense produce (in the thick of the worst drought in recorded memory in Cape Town) – but helps me to remember, and more importantly makes sure that my children break the cycle, and don’t become the forgetting generation.