We rarely have spring or autumn in Pretoria. The only way you realise that summer may be over is in the way the light changes around March, and remains like that throughout the Highveld winter. It’s still bright, but it feels fundamentally despairing, the colour of the sky the colour of the dead grass on the side of the highway, a pale yellow for months on end. I hated winter in Pretoria.
It is with the changing of the light in the not-really-autumn of 2010 that I first started making lists in an effort to keep my head above the water. I was dreading how cold my apartment would be soon, how, with less daylight, I would suddenly have to do much more driving at night, and then there was the issue of the light. I started composing the first list in a car with friends, on our way to another friend’s 30th. I had not slept the night before, nor the night before that, and my most succinct memory of the trip is not the list I was composing but the way in which the driver of the car would make a quick swerve to the right every time we passed under any of the underpasses, taking us across three lanes of the empty highway in a matter of seconds, then returning to our original lane. There had been a slew of cases where men on the overpass waited for cars to approach and then threw large rocks or bricks through their windows from above, and we were trying to swerve out of the way of anything that might be dropped. We drove like that the entire way, and I, in the way I have by now come to accept as being both pityingly weak and yet the only means of self-preservation, started making a list of small things that would make the coming months feel less devastating. The vast majority of my list contained dishes ideally cooked or eaten in winter. This was how I was going to deal. Most of the list is lost, but I remember three items. Chicken korma, a Nigella Lawson recipe I made in those days, from Feast, heady with cinnamon and cardamom, laced with sultanas and cream. Roast chicken with leeks the size of my pinky, from the Boeremark, the outer leaves crisping up in the chicken’s juices. And vendusie vetkoek, or vetkoek* sliced in half with a piece of boerewors inside it, something my father used to eat as a little boy whenever he accompanied my grandfather to the vendusie, and which my mother made periodically throughout my childhood.
I still make that list every winter, that list and a lot of other lists besides, as lists have become the way I perform joie de vivre to myself when I want to die, and are a conduit of actual joy when I do not.
On the list for winter 2016 has been Yotam Ottolenghi’s chicken with Jerusalem artichokes and lemon, from Jerusalem, which delivers garlicky pieces of chicken flecked with tarragon and caramelized slices of lemon. Also a pot of David Lebovitz’s short ribs braised in beer and hoisin, that also happens to contain a fuck load of garlic and ginger, so don’t make this if you have meetings the next day. Or do, YOLO. Best served with mashed potatoes. The list also sports an embarrassingly large number of recipes from Diane Henry’s A Bird in the Hand, one of those types of books where I want to cook everything. So one night last week J tackled my list and made Mexican chicken and pumpkin with pepita pesto, and it was exactly what we wanted to eat while watching House of Cards and discussing how long it’s going to take Claire Underwood and Tom Yates to start fucking. The leftover are also delicious, but best heated up. Nobody really likes cold pumpkin.
*Vetkoek, for those not familiar with it, is a type of savoury doughnut eaten in South Africa, a yeasted dough deep fried in oil and either eaten with jam, golden syrup, cheese, or ground, spiced beef. It is sold at every Afrikaner church fête or sports gathering or market, and it is deeply satisfying. Too many will kill you.