Emily Smith is a researcher at CNN. She grew up in Cape Town before moving to the United States and recently wrote a South Africa travel guide for CNN Travel. Her previous article explored how a childhood trip to Disney World gave her an even greater appreciation for fresh food back home.
I grew up in South Africa and moved to the United States. Atlanta to be exact. Home of fried food and sugary drinks.
I hated the food when I first got here. It didn’t taste the same as home, in that it didn’t taste like anything. Chicken was bland no matter how well seasoned it was. The bread was the worst. I love white bread. Adore it. We hardly ever had it growing up, but I think to help ease the transition from South Africa to America my parents allowed my sister and me to eat it.
I distinctly remember sitting down for lunch the first Saturday we were here. Mom had made the lunch we always had Saturdays – fresh bread with a platter of meats and cheeses and salad type stuff from which everyone would make their own sandwich. Simple, but a comfort food back then. I lifted the warm baguette filled with ham and cheese and lettuce and mayo to my mouth preparing myself to taste home and instead got the yeasty, vinegary reality of sourdough bread. I hated it.
Slowly I slipped into an awful cycle of sleeping as late as possible, watching Jerry Springer reruns, eating hot dogs and going to Kroger. I felt like a zombie.
My dad had introduced me to another South African girl much older than I who’d lived her for a while in an attempt to get my out the house. The first time I’d met her she told me about a South African restaurant in the city that only served South African food. I became quietly obsessed.
One Sunday, after having spent much of the night sobbing in despair, I asked my parents for a favor. I asked them to drive me to this Mecca and see if they’d hire me. My parents realized the significance of my request and obliged. All I knew was that it was on Roswell road, which runs from Roswell where we lived, all the way south into Buckhead, a good 25 miles away. We’d been driving for more than 30 minutes and I could sense my dad was getting impatient; it was almost lunch time after all. Finally I conceded and said we could turn around and lo and behold there it was, right in front of us.
I am not a particularly confident person. In school I was never very popular and my friends were all so talented that I never really had much of a voice. Somehow, by the grace of the food gods, I mustered up the gumption to walk into that restaurant and ask for a job. My eyes were puffy from crying, none of my clothes fit because I’d lost so much weight and I had a really awkward hair cut that wasn’t long enough to tie back and not short enough to be cute. I was a mess.
I’d never waited on a table in my life, but I’ve been working since I was 14 and I knew that having something to do would pull me out of my funk. I told this all to the owner and after mentally preparing myself for him to dismiss me he said something I’ll never forget, “You can come back tomorrow.”
I felt elated. I skipped back to my parents waiting in the parking lot. I finally had a sense of purpose, but more importantly I would be around South African food.
The restaurant imported what it couldn’t find in America, making the food very authentic despite the fact that it was prepared by the most delightful Mexican man Jorge. He couldn’t pronounce half the menu items, but cooked each dish with love. I’d show up early to take advantage of the staff discount. I ate biltong and bobotie and sosaties like they were my last meal. Slowly the weight came back and so did something I never knew I had – confidence.
After working there for almost three years I decided that there was no point in spending all my time at a South African restaurant with South African people if I was living in America, I may as well have moved home.
Oh who am I kidding? It was really because I’d had the fried chicken at a Southern restaurant in midtown and had been dreaming about it for months. I was desperate for more.
They hired me despite my lack of fine dining experience and off to training I went. There I learned about each dish on the menu as if I would one day have to prepare it myself. I didn’t appreciate that knowledge at the time, but boy would it come in handy later on in life. Chef demos were held once a week where we’d learn how to filet a whole fish, or debone a leg of lamb, or how to make a brine (for the fried chicken of course).
I became obsessed with the Food Network. Alton Brown taught me the proper technique for poaching eggs and how to make home made mayonnaise. Ina Garten helped me perfect chicken thighs stuffed with goat cheese and sage leaves, and the importance of fresh herbs.
I started watching my mother more closely. I spent more time with her in the kitchen and found she was thrilled to teach me some of the lessons she’d learned or made up along the way. Until that point I’d been especially close to my dad, but the hours spent laughing over ruined dinners and impressed in-laws really brought mom and me closer together. I realized that food was more than just sustenance, it bound us together as a family.
In last few years my parents have moved back to South Africa and I’ve had to create my own food memories. I made my mom's roast lamb for Christmas, attended only by my sister and me (her ex was there but that doesn’t count). I started having friends over for dinner as often as my budget would allow, and as often as they were willing to play guinea pig for my new recipes.
I still watch Food Network, and Cooking Channel, but now I take notes. I borrow flavor combinations and try to make them my own. I joined a community garden with the high hopes of being able to grow my own vegetables. I became obsessed with baking my own bread and making my own granola bars. When I’ve got a cold I make my own tomato basil cream soup (with basil from the garden) and cheddar biscuits. I’m that crazy.
Food plays an important part of my life these days. It lets me show people how much I care about them, and it allows me to connect with my parents even though they’re a continent away.
I wouldn’t change my love-hate relationship with American food, but I do wish more Americans would pay attention to what they eat. Not to just the portions or the salt content, but to where it came from and how it got to their plates. I wish they’d pay attention to, and appreciate, the people that prepared their meal or who picked their produce.
More people should sit down with their families at night and eat a supper that wasn’t at one point frozen and pre-prepared. They will realize that cooking is not as hard as is commonly thought. All it takes is some patience, the ability to forgive yourself for not getting it right the first time, and love.
Everything tastes better when it’s cooked with love.
Lean more about South African cuisine
If you've been to South Africa, we're curious what you would recommend and what you've enjoyed. Share what you think a traveler should eat, and any food-related adventures you've had in the comments area below.
CNN's Destination Adventure series takes a look at great places for eager explorers. Each week, we'll feature favorite regional foods, secrets from the locals and the best photos and stories from readers. Have you been to South Africa Share your story with CNN iReport. And next week, we'll journey to Iceland.
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