Today is Valentine’s Day. It would also have been my dad’s 70th birthday…
I was 18 years old when it happened. We never figured out what killed him – he had the doctors, specialists and pathologists scratching their heads while he was in ICU and my brother and I didn’t have Google back in 1997 to perform our own Dr Google diagnosis to try and challenge them. A bizarre, unidentifiable bacteria attacked his lungs and he was dead within weeks of getting a blocked nose. We all thought it was a bad case of the flu: it wasn’t. He had made a recent business trip to central Africa, but nothing identifiable came up on the pathology results after a battery of tests. It was – and still is – a medical mystery..
My worst birthday was four years ago when I realised I had lived longer on this earth without him than with him. Too bizarre a thought.. I can still smell him! I remember every detail of every pore on his skin, his hairline, the gap in his teeth, his laugh, his sense of humour, his integrity…… and his love of people, Roy Orbison, Elvis, wine .. and food! I could write a whole book about this incredible man who I like to refer to as the Wind Beneath My Wings.
Most (winter) Saturday mornings while my brother and I were still asleep, my dad, Ronald (who was a successful banker) would go to the shops and stock up ingredients for his famous stove-top potije (a stew in South Africa). He had swept and mopped the kitchen floors and had mowed the lawn before my brother and I even opened an eyelid. By 10am, the smell of his stew slowly cooking away in the kitchen – along with the smell of fresh bread rolls – would lure us like lanky, hungry teenagers into the kitchen. Of course, we weren’t allowed in because the floors were still wet! Later in the day, while he sat devouring his Saturday newspapers and settled into watching rugby or cricket on TV, sipping his G&T or dry white wine, the smell of the stew wafted intensely throughout the house, assaulting all our senses. If we were careful enough, we could tip-toe into the kitchen and lift the heavy lid of the cast-iron pot with a tea towel; carefully open the brown packet of breadrolls and dip one into the stew sauce… HEAVEN! But it was always followed by a loud “I can hear you! Leave it alone, don’t touch it!“. LOL.. Oh daddy, he had eyes on the back of his head, just as he warned my boyfriends!
We loved each other intensely, Dad and I. He knew how much I loved him and I knew he was proud of me. I could grieve (and still do) without guilt, what-if’s or should-have’s. I am not sure many people can say that when they lose someone.
Many years later, when I tried to recreate my dad’s lamb stew, I phoned and emailed all my uncles, my dad’s friends, my brother: ‘can you remember what Dad did? What recipe did he follow?‘ – no one could help me. He didn’t follow a recipe. He simply threw it all in a cast-iron pot and it tasted good because he made it with such love, passion and patience.
My recipe below will never be as good as Dad’s .. not even close. It’s just a simple lamb stew in a tomato-based sauce with some vegetables I remember mopping up. He is probably looking down, commenting on things I left out.. but I (now as a chef) can look back up and say, “oh but Daddy, you forgot about the Maillard Reaction …” LOL! Yes, I added few cheffy tips along the way to get the best results. In my own limited capacity, this is the only way I know how to honour him. Thank you for reading.