Friday, 15 April 2011

A free meal

I was in Cape Town last week and I saw an exhibition at the National Gallery by a photographer called Ernest Cole.

His pictures powerfully document the dehumanising effects of apartheid and the mining industry that funded it.

One picture particularly stopped me in my tracks.

The caption read:

Kitchen helper dumps food on men’s plates with shovel. Diet is nyula, a vegetable mixture, and maize-meal porridge served twice a day”

 I don’t know what Nyula is.  I’ve never eaten it although I lived in South Africa until I was 23.

I grew up on a weird hybrid of Litvak Shtetl food, International Classics and Cape Malay dishes -
Spagetti Bolognaisse, sardines on toast, Tomato Bredie and Tzimmes.

It doesn’t really matter though. All food is basically just chains of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

What matters though is how we serve it and how we eat it.

It is dehumanising to have food dumped on your plate with a shovel.

Food prepared without care and slopped on a plate, feeds a sense that you are a person without value. 

This is food not eaten with a knife and fork, but with shackles.

And it makes me wonder about how food is served in prisons, schools, old-aged homes and institutions of all kinds. And what that says to the adults and children standing in-line, waiting their turn for their food.

I took comfort from another picture in the exhibition.  It was of three men sitting around preparing their own food. One is playing the guitar. There is no table or plates and probably no electricity either. 

The caption reads: “On Sundays many prefer to give the “pig’s food” a miss and will cook something themselves.  Whenever possible, the men go outside the compound to buy some extra food – corn meal, for instance – which they cook themselves”

It may still be just cornmeal, but these look like free men, and forty years later, in a black and white photograph it still shows.