DR Renata Coetzee, a pioneer in research and awareness of the various food cultures in South Africa over five decades, passed away in Stellenbosch at the end of last month at the age of 88. DIANE DE BEER honours a woman, always a warrior, who attended the relaunch of her latest book only last month:
Through her lifetime of research and books, Renata Coetzee has built both national and international awareness of the culinary heritage of various cultural groups in South Africa. It is apt that her latest book, Food Culture of the First Humans on Planet Earth – A Feast From Nature, is currently being relaunched with a 2nd impression to bring it to the attention of a wider public.
One of these celebrations will be a dinner in Tshwane on Mandela Day to celebrate the impact of the culinary and cultural history of our first people on contemporary South African cuisine and another a launch presented at the Market Theatre the day before, July 17.
In collaboration with the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, the editor Truida Prekel and African Sun Media, the University of Pretoria Department of Consumer and Food Sciences will present a four-course dinner with recipes inspired by Coetzee’s decades of research on indigenous food cultures in celebration of her book.
The menu which will honour her research is the following: Sundowner is a honeybush and aloe cooler; First course, Nature’s Salad consists of morogo puree, spekboom gel, pelargonium sand, lemon foam, pickled papkuil shoots, compressed aloe buds, and an array of flowers; Second Course, Forager’s Pride is a dune spinach soup with deep fried warthog biltong; Third course, Rocky Waters, includes Tilapia, buttered ice leaf, sea fennel and oyster leaf puree and bokkoms dust ; main course, Exploring Burrows presents porcupine and waterblommetjies served with “ystervark-se-mielie”, roast uintjies, crickets rice and glace de viande; and thre meal is concluded on a sweet note with a Sunset tea party of buchu panna cotta served with pickled t’samma, rooibos and gooseberry syrup, arum lily crumble and acacia sweets.
Many will remember this remarkable woman as someone who was obsessed with and specifically studied our roots in many different forms with the food culture of different groups as her resource. Her aim was to promote “nutritional authentic cultural cuisine” which she believed could play a huge role in our growing tourist industry – and should do even more so in the future. Her major contribution is probably scientific, but she has always tried to engage ordinary people interested in food heritage with creative and stimulating documentation of various aspects of the South African – and particularly the Cape’s – culinary culture and lifestyles.
Her most important books in this field include South African Culinary Tradition/Spys en Drank – the food and food habits at the Cape between 1652 and 1800, featuring influences of the Malay slaves, French, Dutch and German settlers (Struik, 1977) (Afrikaans and English both out of print); Funa – Food from Africa – the food and food habits of the different African ethnic groups (Butterworths, 1982) (which should be reprinted); Cost-conscious Creative Catering and recently Kukumakranka – KhoiKhoin-Culture, customs and creative cooking which was a translation of the 2009 Afrikaans version dealing with food cultures in the early days; and this present relaunched book is based on research of 15 years which aimed to preserve the culinary heritage of the earliest humans and their descendants.
She always believed that she had to understand local foods to promote healthy nutrition. At one point in her career, she was catering for Anglo American Gold Mines providing 250 000 meals a day for five years with the accent on cultural preference. That is why she was always intrigued by the palates of especially the San and the Khoi people who presented the oldest DNA. She felt she was dealt this amazing hand which would just be silly to ignore.
By going back into the past, the way brains progressed and patterns developed, all of these, she argued, influenced the way people selected food. When the San and the Khoi people split, for example, their food choices developed differently. She realised that many of these choices were made for practical reasons. Some wouldn’t let go of traditions, but sometimes the changing environment determined new dining habits. The San, for example, became hunter gatherers and the Khoi turned to smaller animals while also learning more about the veld and the plant life around them. This was all determined by the way their lifestyles changed, something which still influences and determines our eating patterns and choices today.
Because of the way she studied, researched and publicised her hard-earned knowledge through her writings and TV programmes, and formal training, she empowered thousands of women over the years, by training them in the finer skills of entertaining guests and tourists with her cultural cuisine.
This latest version of this unique collector’s book on original food cultures, A Feast From Nature (R650 is a combination of the many decades of her knowledge as a nutritionist and food culture expert with multidisciplinary research of over 15 years – bringing together aspects of archaeology, palaeontology, botany, genetics, history, languages and culture in a unique way. While scientifically sound, it is also beautifully illustrated and a true collector’s piece.
In 2015 she self-published the book, through Penstock Publishing. The first print-run of 500 copies was soon sold out – mostly to friends, family and fans. The book was reprinted shortly before her death to make her unique work available to a wider audience. Academics, researchers and food experts can also benefit and build further on her research.
According to Prekel, “Communities will benefit from further work to build understanding among various cultures and on the history of our ‘First Peoples’. Indigenous plants with culinary and agricultural potential can be further developed for food production.”
“Her research included interviews with many elderly Khoi-Khoin women and men in various regions, about the details of their food sources and uses. A special feature in the book is that wherever possible, the Khoi and Afrikaans names of plants and animals are given, with English and scientific names. About 250 fine photographs and over 80 illustrations of edible indigenous plants – as well as maps and Khoi traditions – make the book a journey of discovery, bringing to life the linkages between evolution and culinary history over millennia.
“The book also offers valuable lessons in terms of the nutritional value of many indigenous foods, food security and sustainability. The DST/NRF Centre of Excellence: Food Security, hosted by UWC and the University of Pretoria, has supported the reprint of the book. They, together with the Agricultural Research Council, intend doing further research on indigenous food products identified in Coetzee’s extensive work on the various food cultures in South Africa.”
Her legacy will be legendary especially as it impacts on all of our lives, not only now – but especially in the future.
- The book will be relaunched on July 17 with speakers Prof Himla Soodyall, 50:50 presenter Bertus Louw and Prof Julian May on Tuesday 17 July at 6pm at the Market Photo Workshop Auditorium, Market Theatre. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The four-course dinner will be held at EAT@UP, Old Agricultural Building 2.9.1, University of Pretoria, Hatfield Campus. For more info contact email@example.com Tickets are R300 per person.