A recent visit to South Africa made me consider the power of metaphor and its ability to guide people’s thinking. One of the tropes of my childhood was that of the great American melting pot: vastly different ethnic groups dropped into the same cauldron, mixed up together, and heated into a rich blend. This metaphor not only described the blending of differences; it also inspired assimilation for several generations who believed in the nationalist ideal that the melting pot represented. Its anchoring effect influenced the way many Americans conceived of their nation. Unlike this model of assimilation, an essentially different metaphor—a rainbow—developed in South Africa following that country’s independence from minority white rule in 1994. Archbishop Desmond Tutu extolled the nation’s racial diversity by characterizing South Africans as “the rainbow people of God”; Nelson Mandela called South Africa a “rainbow nation.” While Jesse Jackson twice ran for president in the U.S. under the banner of a “rainbow coalition,” the slogan failed to persuade a sufficient number of Americans. By contrast, in South Africa the idea of a rainbow has resonance. The metaphor has extended even into the culinary realm, notably with the publication of Lannice Snyman’s 1998 book, Rainbow Cuisine. In gorgeous photographs and celebratory prose, Snyman and photographer Andrzej Sawa extolled the country’s diverse peoples and culinary cultures and reached a wide audience.
Nearly fifteen years after independence, the specter of apartheid is still painfully apparent in South Africa. Yet, an exciting new inclusivity is visible in the cultural sphere, particularly in the kitchens of some talented chefs, where the various traditions comprising South Africa’s multilayered cuisine come together. “Rainbow cuisine” has proved to be more than just a catchy phrase. It has actually impelled change, at least in the culinary arts. The larger question is whether this metaphor can have a wider impact and help shape social behavior. Can new ways of visualizing what’s on the plate enable South Africans to accept their society as a rainbow shimmering in a beautiful whole, each band distinct yet united?
Hard-bitten realists might scoff at the idea of a food trend influencing social or political behavior, particularly in a country as afflicted as South Africa. But I believe there is reason for hope. Rainbow cuisine is not as self-conscious a trend as fusion food, which is so often outré in its combinations. It is, instead, a natural expression of the country’s history and of those who contributed most to it: the indigenous Khoisan, Xhosa, and Zulu peoples, among others; the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French; the slaves brought from Java, Sumatra, India, Indonesia, and Madagascar. Until the end of apartheid, the dishes of these different groups remained distinct, mirroring larger issues of racial separation. Only Cape Malay cookery, an amalgam of Indonesian, Indian, and European flavors developed by kitchen slaves, bridged the separate culinary traditions. Now things are different.
While in South Africa I experienced various bands of the rainbow in dishes both sophisticated and homespun and noted the pride of those preparing and serving the meals. Over the past few years the country’s cuisine—not to mention its wine—has become a source of national self-respect. Regional staples once taken for granted—distinctive local produce like rooibos (brewed into tea), marula (made into jam and liqueur), aloe (extracted into a refreshing drink), and diminutive Queen Victoria pineapples—have now been elevated to specialty status. I feasted on sugar-cured gemsbok with mango salsa and kudu tartare one day, and on a meltingly rich bredie of lamb slowly braised with vegetables and spices the next. In Cape Town I savored mackerel-like snoek, smoked in traditional fashion or tucked into crepes with creamy béchamel sauce and homemade peach chutney on the side. Buttery Indian Ocean kingklip, simply sautéed or grilled with fresh herbs, was a revelation to me, as were the cassava bread and “mealie meal” (cornmeal) patties of South Africa’s black population. Namibian oysters, biltong (antelope or beef jerky), and succulent lamb from the Karroo region contributed to the vivid prism of South African flavors.
What do we talk about when we talk about food? Potentially everything. Cape Town’s Table Mountain, dressed in a white tablecloth of clouds, appropriately defines this city, which owes its existence to provisioning, as Laurens van der Post has pointed out. Where the American melting pot metaphor presupposed a desire to diminish ethnicity in favor of assimilation, South Africa is working to affirm the bands of the rainbow as distinct colors shading into one another. These colors touch, yet each retains its intrinsic vibrancy. As a cultural and political image, the rainbow will not immediately shine upon those who remain unempowered. But perhaps Table Mountain can begin to stand as a metaphor for all South Africans who wish to come to the table and share equally in its bounty.