Gastronomic Experiences, Mandela’s and Ours


Having just returned from a somber afternoon walking through prison cells at Robben Island, the idea of attending a talk about the gastro-history of Nelson Mandela’s life seemed curious – superfluous, even. But at the launch of the Cape Town Globalist’s Seeds of Change issue, anthropologist and chef Anna Trapido revealed, through food, a few truly poignant moments in Mandela’s life.

More than anything, Anna enlightened us to a new way to look at journalism and relating to your subjects. Talking about food, she found, brought an ease and comfort to her interviewees that allowed them to recall moments that had long since floated to the back of their mental space. Food and its associated emotions is a powerful common human experience.

We knew already that Nelson Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment was tough on his family life, but nothing brought this more to life than the story about how Winnie Mandela saved a layer of their wedding cake for 15 years (how? it was a fruit cake) only to have it crushed during a move to Soweto. They were together for exactly eight days before Mandela returned to prison; the cake was something real and tangible for Winnie to hold on to.

Food is more than just an emotional trigger. Anna also spoke about the highly political role that food can play. For instance, the inauguration dinner for Mandela’s 1994 election, planned by the outgoing administration, was so awful that it could be seen as “a literal act of aggression,” as Anna put it. Or, how telling it was that Mandela’s second inauguration dinner served sparkling wine, while Mbeki’s served Möet.

Our own gastronomic memories of Cape Town are slightly less historically significant, but nonetheless meaningful. We’ll remember the night we ordered R900 worth of food from Nando’s and enjoyed ½ chickens while discussing the pros and cons of township tourism. And the time we enjoyed a braai lunch with Shane, the HIV-positive documentary film star and host of Mzoli’s. And simply… cheers to Savannah cider!

Ashley Wu ’15 is in Morse College. Contact her at