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Braai the Beloved Country

by Ryan Govender / 24.09.2010

A braai is an amazing event. I’m brave enough to say that cooking the food is the least important thing. Starting the fire is a task that every man present must contribute towards. Every dude has his own way of making the fire. Once an approach is agreed upon we chuck fire lighters and coal together and get it going. Then we make this huge blaze that scares everyone a little.

Then the fire poking starts. Men use this time to discuss politics and drink beer. This is prime bonding time. (The ladies are encouraged to mingle but it’s a catch 22 for them because salad must be made and plates prepared).

All the men will slyly try intercept the movement of the braai tongs because we all know that whoever is holding them when the raw meat arrives has a legitimate chance of actually cooking the food. The owner of the braai can demand possession of the tongs if he chooses to exercise his rights though. We’ve all seen the video.

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Meat will arrive. Everyone holding the meat will suggest an order of cooking: steak, chops, chicken and boerewors. General consensus is chicken on first because under prepared drumsticks can give you the runs: salmonella. Before meat goes on though the fire starter realizes he neglected his fire so it needs more air before cooking can commence. Cue man on knees puffing lungs out at the sparkly ashes. On the other side of the fire people now need to buy new shoes and are choking on the eye reddening smoke. Finally, the meat goes on.

Frenzy as the pace picks up. Salads arrive. New beers. Sizzle on the grid. Fat hits hot coal and a small uncontrolled flame erupts. A heavy hand will douse the flame with beer or water, depending on how much beer there is. Now we have all but put out the cooking fire. More puffing and choking as the coal comes back to life.

The most drunk one pours half his beer onto the food at first sight of a new flame. There will be grumbles over the move. This drunken one must say “It adds flavor okes”. Everyone forms invisible factions in response. Some say genius. Usually those few just one beer behind the pouring guy. Some point out that it could have killed the fire. Then a reprimand: does everyone actually want beer flavored meat?

Meat testing. How beer soaked is it? Plus quality evaluation and its readiness. Everyone wants to test so food starts flying. Some beautiful soul will say: “Ag, it’s not about the food hey, it’s about the company.”

Steak has now shrunk in size by many little tester bites so all that’s left is the boerewors, some chops and the still suspect looking chicken. Chicken wants extra time on the grill or, on the odd occasion, a few spins in the microwave. Although no one ever talks about that.

Because men are full of beer and must eat. Not salads. They go on the side. Best commend the cooker now. Mention the marinade. Make the lady of the house feel good. Eat your fill.

After eating most are lethargic and heavy but the ladies brush it off and change the look of the smoky butchery back into a home. Cleaning up. Kids, or man-children, can now roast marshmallows on dying coals at this point. Scorching knuckles for little gain. There will always be one whose marshmallow catches fire. Blow out the flame. Say they love it that way and then eat their crispy carbon.

This stereotypical braai is only one in an entire spectrum of possibilities.

I would go so far as to say that braais give a good indication of how one is doing in life. Braais happen on brick cubicles, the drum from a defunct washing machine, an empty paint can or a full gas/electric engineering marvel. Fire free braais lack soul though. People covered in coal smoke and wors grease smelling like cooked animal mixed with alcohol and wood smoke. That’s a braai. It’s like Kamp Staaldraad without the homophobia!

You can be broke yet extract all the best from a braai using cheap wors, cheaper wine and some rolls. On the other end of the social scale is the mild bunch that prepares starters, braais on a Weber and eats with a knife and fork. It doesn’t matter though. It’s all about the dream. It’s all about getting together around a burning focal point that allows us to connect.

Anyone can braai. Old enough to handle matches and survive under-cooked meat? You can braai. You can braai anywhere. In the backyard, on the beach or even at work. You can wear anything while you braai. Shorts and a t-shirt or a cheesy apron with plastic boobs. The “Kiss the Cook” apron is usually worn by frustrated family men who are forced to braai with the in-laws rather than friends. They usually have to play 30 Seconds moments after the last plate is washed. Poor bastards.

Any weather is fine for a braai. If it’s hot we gladly sweat it out and if it rains we will move the braai to any bit of cover we can find – regardless of how dangerous it is walking backwards holding a cauldron of fire. There are more places you are allowed to braai than smoke a cigarette. Police are likelier to arrive at your party for a free wors roll than a warrant for starting a massive unlawful fire.

We laugh around the fire while the smoke makes us cry. We share our food as much as we share our lives. The braai is generally classless because it’s difficult to have one and look sophisticated. It’s something we share with our families. Children are scolded for running near the heat. The music is never the latest. It’s UB40 or anything we know we love from the 80’s. When we are alone and broke a ‘bring and braai’ is all we need.

I’ve been trying to think of a word to describe situations where everyone participates in something that brings people together. The word is culture. We have been loving braaivleis culture for as long as we’ve been South Africans. And what a culture it is.

*Download your MAHALA BRAAI SONG by Zinkplaat & Tidal Waves in a unique collaboration to celebrate Heritage Day. Moja, ne?

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