Thanksgiving is when Americans reflect on the many things that we can and should be thankful for. It is also a time when we strengthen and renew family bonds. For long-term expats like myself (naturalized citizen or not) it often brings back bittersweet memories of earlier days and bygone times when we were living in other countries, with family and friends now separated from us by a chasm of time and space.
As might be expected, Thanksgiving reminds me of some of the foods of my youth and later years. Some of these such as ‘mealie meal’ – the most basic of ground maize products – I have hunted for high and low here in Houston, without success. There are dozens of similar products but none approximating the exact finely ground texture of the mealie meal ingrained in my memory. When I’m feeling really desperate for ‘pap’ (several versions of which can be made from mealie meal by adding water and a little salt) I resort to an imported Italian polenta grain. It’s good but nothing like the real thing.
Other nostalgic foods from the past are easy to recreate. Such as Bobotie, a lightly curried and very flavorful casserole of ground beef or lamb with an egg-based topping. Malva pudding is another. My memory of this delightful dessert (alas not for vegans or someone trying to avoid refined sugar!) goes back literally as far as my memory can stretch. Certainly I knew what Malva pudding was and what it tasted like, by the time I was 5 or maybe 7 years old. This traditional South African dessert is often served on special days. If South Africans were to start up their own Thanksgiving day, Malva pudding would definitely feature as one of the desserts, together with Melktert (milk tart) and koeksusters.
Anyway, a few years back a South African friend sent me a cookbook produced by Gramadoelas, a well-known traditional African restaurant, still doing business at the Market Theater in Newtown, Johannesburg. I was intrigued by quite a few of the recipes including those for old-fashioned green bean and tomato stew. However, the moment I saw the recipe and illustration for Malva pudding, I knew I had to try it.
The prep work didn’t take long, the most ‘exotic’ ingredient being a little apricot jam. I poured the batter into a round stoneware baker, slid it gently into a preheated oven and set the timer for about 50 minutes. When I opened the oven, the unmistakable aroma of a freshly baked Malva pudding sent my scent sensation into orbit. In the time that it took a few molecules to trigger the neurons in the back of my nose, decades dropped away and I was back in my mother’s kitchen, eagerly eying a cooling Malva pudding, anticipating the first mouthful of this very sweet and silky dessert, made even more so by being drenched in a rich, vanilla-flavored custard sauce. I was astonished at the strength of the emotional recall set off by something as simple as the aroma of an old-fashioned dessert. I later learned that apparently, the part of the brain that processes smell is linked to forming long term memories.
Having been pretty much out of action since the San Antonio half marathon due to strained calf muscles, I am getting antsy to hit the roads again. Hopefully I should be able to do that later today, after my session with a neuromuscular massage therapist later this morning. My calves feel fine and I am confident that I will be able to manage a few miles!