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Surviving the Braai 11/29/10

Adrian Cooke takes a tongue-in-cheek look at how to survive at a South African braai.

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So it’s that time of year again. People are coming out of their hovels and starting to socialise as summer hits South Africa. And, if you live in the city this means a lot of yes’s, no’s and maybe’s to a string of events happening around town. But one thing is for sure, the evenings are warming up and the sun stays up late – and that means lots of braai’s (barbeques) and beers at friends and families’ houses.

With this, comes a whole bunch of questions that you have most likely not had to put up with for a few months while you were hermited away in your flat. A vegetarian at a braai, is a bit like a hippie at Caprice (the oh- so-sophisticated bar in Camps Bay, Cape Town) – it’s just not done.

So, if you are getting ready to head out on the social circuit, I thought I would provide you with a few tongue-in-cheek answers to the questions that all of you have probably been asked at a braai. And yes, even though you have been asked them a million times, it seems that we’re still in for decades of repetition.

On a beautfiul (yet windy) afternoon somewhere in Cape Town, you find yourself at a braai with lots of people you don’t know. The braai in South Africa generally contains a lot of meat, chicken or fish, talk about rugby with guys outside grunting as they stand around the fire drinking beer or brandy and Coke, while the girlfriends spend most of their time in the kitchen fixing the salads sipping on semi-sweet white wine.

Often, people will braai kilogram steaks, metres of boerewors (a kind of sausage) and eat lots of biltong.( Biltong is a very popular dried meat that is found all across South Africa.) In this unique social setting, the vegetarian is often not really understood which can lead to some interesting conversations.

So, let’s get down to it and visit one of these “braais”.

An average 30-something guy is standing around the braai. The beginning of a beer boep (stomach) is just visible under his South African rugby shirt, he’s wearing khaki shorts and has some old flip flops on his feet. He’s holding a Castle (one of South Africa’s biggest beer brands)  in one hand and a big piece of biltong in the other.

Standing next to him, is the skinny, endangered vegetarian. He has slightly long and disheveled hair and has a  plate full of vegetables, some lettuce leaves and a large dollop of hummus. He’s drinking a Windhoek beer (naturally brewed with no chemicals) and is wearing trendy sunglasses. But they have something in common, and are obviously from the same culture, because they both have equally bad shorts and cheap flip flops. Cultures still collide and this is how the conversation unravels:

[Random guy at braai] Hey Bru, howzit going?
[Endangered vegetarian at braai] It’s all good. Beautiful afternoon, pity about the wind. But I guess it’s not unexpected – this is Cape Town. How you doing?
No worries. Can’t complain. Hey what’s going on with all that salad, hey? Don’t you want some meat? The boerewors is almost ready, there’s plenty to go around, it’s really juicy so you must just help yourself.
Thanks, but I don’t really eat boerewors. Got myself some veggies. [And this is where the clash begins.  It’s recommended to change the subject here if you can.] Did you watch the rugby yesterday?
Ag, ja. But lets not talk about it. The ‘boks are not at their best, hey. [Looks down despondently] But listen – are you sure you don’t want some wors? You’re not going to get full on just that green stuff, hey?
I’m really fine thanks, happy with my veggies.
Man, how can you say no to such awesome boerewors. Is there something wrong with you?
No there is nothing wrong with me, I’m a vegetarian. Great afternoon though…
Seriously? A vegetarian? No ways, bru. What do you eat?
[The endangered veggie can’t help trying to change topic again, but at this point, there’s just no way out…] Everything except meat.
Oh ok. Do you eat chicken?
Well no, chicken is meat.
Oh, I thought chicken is more like salad. Do you eat fish?
Um, let me think. I am a vegetarian. So, no, I don’t eat fish. But I do have milk and cheese – but but no eggs and no kind of meat, white or red.
For real? What about pork?
Pork is pig, is it not?
True, true, but what about biltong? Surely you must eat that hey?
No, biltong falls into the category of everything but meat…
Yes, but I LOVE biltong. How can you not eat biltong. I could eat biltong for breakfast, lunch and supper and any time between. [Wild shaking of the head] How can you live without biltong? Just look at this delicious piece in my hand. [Takes a huge bite] Don’t you want to just try? [Chewing away with open mouth and talking] I mean, it’s dead already? Check, nobody’s looking. Come on take a bite. Oh, this biltong is great!
[The endangered vegetarian stares blankly into space and takes another gulp of beer and thinks, ” Sigh. Here it goes again.”]
Hey, guys, this guy doesn’t eat biltong! Don’t you think its strange? I mean biltong is the best food in the world.
I am sure it is, you seem to be enjoying it. [ Which is clear from the spittal on the side of his mouth and chunks of meat stuck in his teeth.] I just don’t eat it.
Come on try some, once you’ve tasted it once you will never look back.
Well, actually I would rather not.
That’s just weird… but how can you not eat meat? Don’t you miss it?
Well, I was brought up vegetarian. So, no, I have never really eaten meat, just a few times by mistake. Like when restaurants put bacon on your pizza by mistake. So, you can’t miss what you’ve never had.
Yes, but bacon is not really meat – it’s like breakfast.  The only real meat is ribs – only girls eat bacon. [There is a look of total incomprehension growing on his face]  Are you gay, I mean real men eat meat?
No, I am not gay. [Notice that the endangered vegetarian is drinking a very manly beer (Windhoek is advertised as the real beer for real men,  whereas Castle is just crap.)] I just don’t like meat and don’t eat it.
[Shaking head in disbelief] Wow, I just don’t understand. I mean what do you eat? I eat steak and potatoes, burgers and chips, boerewors and buns… that’s all meat. If I just ate salad I’d be hungry the whole time! That’s not a meal.
Well, I eat potatoes, chips, buns and that nice salad that your girlfriend made over there. [Who is pretty cute by the way] Take a look at the coals. Check that bag of  foil under all the meat? That is full of potatoes, onions and a bunch of  veggies, chopped up finely, with really nice spices and interesting flavours. I actually picked some of those herbs from my own balcony. It’s going to be awesome.
Suit yourself, bru, I reckon you’re just a bit of a weird hippie, hey? That boerewors looks frikken amazing. Anyway cheers, till later… [Shaking his head and walking off to the boys]
Sure – cheers.

And, this is what you put up with throughout your life (especially if you grew up behind the “Brandewyn Gordyn” in the midst of a strong meat eating culture.)

But the good news is that there is hope; more and more vegetarians are around and popular culture is getting a lot more familiar with catering for the veggie folk out there.

There is a meat-free Monday option at some restaurants.  And the added fire power of the environmentally friendly non-meat eater (which can be an easy way to explain why you don’t eat meat) has made vegetarianism far more acceptable.

And generally, people will make space for your veggies on the side of the braai. So stand strong, dice those veggies and wrap them in foil (Mmm… just thinking about that makes my mouth water!) Combine that with a lovely salad, maybe a soya sausage or two, some good humour and patience and you can have a great braai with your friends – even if they do hog the braai with their boerie.

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5 Responses to this article

editor November 29, 2010 Reply

While obviously not all South Africans are quite as clueless as this random character – the unfortunate reality is that a lot of people still view vegetarian food as something completely unfathomable.
I am sure that a lot vegans probably feel the same way when vegetarians declare their undying love for cheese!

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Roline November 30, 2010 Reply

Adrian, you hit the nail on the head! What a humorous take on an often tense situation. These days I often find myself in the company of these “Braai-Meisters”. Perhaps it’s my face that warns them not to ask too much more when they quizzically question, “Don’t you eat meat?”. Or perhaps they really are jealous of my potatoes, aubergines, mushrooms… Having said with buckets-full of optimism, I am still not the biggest fan of a braai. I feel like my effort is always solitary: Wrapping my food in foil; often my food is ready way before anyone else’s or way after everyone else’s; then I eat my separated food, a plate starkly different to anyone else’s. The only thing we share is the salad, which, like you say, some “oke’s” girlfriend has made. I even have to braai my own stuff sometimes because the “braai-meister” gets confused and doesn’t know when to turn the potato on it’s head… Eish! Even my braai-broodtjie is different to the others’! It feels to me very odd to not ‘share’ food when the whole idea of a braai is to cook together, throw it all together, and share it all together… Like you said, stand strong, have some patience and throw in some good humour to mix it up!

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Adrian.Cooke December 1, 2010 Reply

@editor Yes, there is always an unfortunate reality, but its all relative. The Raw Food guys probably sneer at the Vegans who actually cook their food….

@Roline Yes, I know what it its like, often I eat alone after others have finished their meat, and people are always impressed with what gets created. It often feels weird not to share with the others, like you say. But to be honest, the scenario described in this story happens less and less, maybe its where I live or people are more progressive, but things are definitely improving. All I can say, is at least you are a women! Then at least the “Braai-Meisters” can blame it on their chauvinistic view of the world, I am a male vegetarian, and that’s even harder to understand!

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editor December 1, 2010 Reply

@Adrian – completely – I am sure the raw foodists laugh at us uneducated people who COOK our food! I do think that there a lot more progressive people out there, but unfortunately I still experience braais where it is a bit like the situation you described.

@Roline – I know what you mean. Depending on the crowd, sometimes I rather don’t put anything on the braai at all and simply eat a salad roll. A good option is to get everyone to make toasted sandwiches on the braai. Then at least you share the experience 😉

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Gina Heyer July 22, 2011 Reply

Ha, this reminds me of the scene in ‘Everything is Illuminated’ where the Ukrainians find out Elijah Wood is a vegetarian and think he is deranged…

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