Survivor’s Guide to Smelling Naais

In the pre-Apocalypse, Zayaan Khan nurses the Apartheid hangover that carved up sensibilities, lives deep in the crevice of being and after more than 20 years still sticks to the roof of the mouth. To empty out the bitter taste, she sucks on fennel flowers and takes her sweetness where she can get it – walking in the fallow land of District Six and sharing odes to the plucking and sucking that a good harvest delivers.

Introduction to the Apocalypse Pantry

The apocalypse has already happened or, in Public Enemy’s words, “Armageddon been in effect.” So how do we get a “late pass” that allows us to continue in the aftermath of colonial and capitalist catastrophe? In the Apocalypse Pantry it starts with food – as a basic of survival but also a source of pleasure, a site of knowledge and a communal conduit around which we regularly gather.

Founded by Zayaan Khan and Heather Thompson, two Cape Town-based activists set on reclaiming the kitchen as a space of liberation, Apocalypse Pantry recognises that food (in)security is an invention of capitalism, as is hunger; that vulnerability is the default, and so support must be primary. It offers community and self-sustenance as solutions.

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This piece appears in the Chronic, April 2017.

“The number of people growing their own food is on par with those remitting food or depending on aid; for every 50-60 persons accessing their food through a supermarket or a restaurant there are two growing their own,” the two women explain. “It has become a global condition in developed areas that healthy food remains a privilege of the wealthy when in fact, we believe, healthy food should be the most cost-effective of all.”

Heather and Zayaan maintain that food sovereignty – not just eating, but eating well – can be improved by reconnecting to the source of the food – the land, the sea, and the farmers and fishers that cultivate and collect our food – and by drawing on time-honoured food preservation and nutrient optimisation techniques to make healthy ferments, broths or preserves, thereby creating one’s own pantry system.

This requires learning and experimenting. The Pantry is thus also a laboratory – a site of corporeal research, experiment and revelation that takes seriously growing, preparing, and consuming food as knowing activities. It’s a space occupied by envelopes of rare seedlings, charcoal rubbings of tree barks, hand drawn maps of the Cape Peninsula, vats and vials of oils and salts in a thousand shades of white, large jars layered with indigenous foods in different stages of ferment. Everything tastes. Everything smells. Here, hands, muscles, tongues, noses, eyes, fingers, and stomachs are combined sites where knowledge resides. It celebrates the pleasure of food, while recognising the political implications of taste, with its connected cultures, politics, imaginaries and identities.

In the Pantry food is also always magic – not simply the material resources for human survival, but a means of regeneration through engaged interaction between the physical and imaginative worlds. There’s an alchemy involved in its kinetic, improvisational experiments that draw on a spiritual tincture of historic, cultural and scientific knowledge.

The Apocalypse Pantry’s website and blog (http://www.theapocalypsepantry.com) is the space they use to perpetuate their survival knowledge. At once a research tool and an archive, it takes the form of notes and photographs from fieldtrips, recipes, “inspiration seed bombs,” videos, and podcasts that provide thought windows on how to survive in the current apocalypse. – Stacy Hardy

AA001recipe-ode-to-sweet-stickinessSo many of our families were forced out of District 6, Cape Town. My family too (they lived on Dover, on the corner). With this forced move came a cultural shift – no longer were doors always open for unexpected guests: not a plate of food for hungry souls nor a couch to rest on for weary travellers. Gates remained locked and neighbours gradually became more distant. Every time I walk over the fallow land of District Six, I imagine the hundreds of little feet kicking up dust, the neighbours, the friends, all the loves and all the calls to prayers that echoed through the streets.

The Apocalypse came through the foot of this mountain and in its place sprouted hundreds of fennel. The sweet one, not the bulbous one. Where you might see weeds, I see sweets, wild and dripping. And while I’m harvesting and licking my fingers, I’m doing soft calculations of how much this costs me in the slave house of capitalism: two hours’ intensive harvesting of pollen (in glaring sun and even sometimes South Easter tempest) gets me an amount that makes it very expensive to sell. And who would buy it at such a price? My pantry is invaluable, the collections of flowers, resins, salts, woods, minerals, herbs, insects – how could you charge for such things? Money makes no sense here.

This thing of owning land – with all the roots in the ground, every stone and every hole – is this where all the trouble started? When the continent was divided by the colonisers? And we are still here, with the majority of the people landless and the forced removals continuing. Land occupation is something that stems out of survival and a need to sustain livelihood. It is as if the Apocalypse came when the colonisers hit, then had a biggerlypse in Apartheid, and now all the residual shrapnel lingers in the land and people.

In the aftermath – surrounded by growing yellow sweets and memories, in the quiet and heavy heat, the heady fragrance of hot grass and hot fennel – there’s no way to change this devastation, only to continue to pluck and suck, licking sticky beads of pollen sacs that cling to me.

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When I think about Victoria Walk Park (also known as Victoria Park), I think about open space. Woodstock homes tend to be dark, mostly semi-detached, not too much open space.  

I’m here to look at this space through the lens of: how natural is our nature? I always consider the eucalypti, how economically viable they are while also being so detrimental to our water table and allelopathic to other plant species competing to live where they live. I stop at the red flowering gum, so stunted where it stands, but pushing out flowers. They’re at my height (and not the normal grand diplodocus size), so I notice them for the first time. They are exquisite in colour and in their formation, as if they landed here from space. Yet, they are obscene, a luminous coral red gaping sex, enticing pollinators and radiating lust. These alien plants settled and assimilated in Woodstock, Cape Town.

Part of me feels guilty for using the term alien. Who am I to judge the rights of life and species; whose fault is it that they are here? Global trade routes? They are up high on the local chain of commodity: paper (toilet paper), pulp, wood, honey, essential oil, real stuff.

Yesterday as I left home to run my dog at Victoria Park, I could smell chicken being cooked in someone’s kitchen, a smell I know so well, roasting gharam masala wafting round the park. Smell is one of those senses that have evaded the greatest of scientists and designers; smell-o-vision has a long way to go to be captured technologically. The story of food as nature is an obvious yet convoluted one. The chicken most likely came from a factory and not a farm. How much nature is in that food? Still, the aroma is enough to catapult me back in time, putting me in the kitchen with my mother, us talking about our day or maybe about the food we will eat in an hour.

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Flowers. Flowers all over the lands. Different species of these reproductive organs, standing erect or hanging soft and low. So many colours, textures, tastes, smells, shapes, feels. Where fields lay fallow and within the stillness of our arid spaces, hundreds of thousands of daisies pop up as if a sex meteor has hit. It’s incredible that these are evolutionary adaptations, but mostly that they’ve evolved so particularly for insects (sometimes rodents or birds or even the wind) to get busy in them. It’s been this way for millions of years. Such ancient sexy times.

It’s season for Rosa and Jasmine. AA002recipe-ode-to-smelling-naaisThese flowers are friends, they can smell each other’s heaviness on a good berg wind day. Their scents are heavy, heady, full, sweet like the first kiss of a marshmallow. They make you wish you were an insect so you could have this rose as your bed, undressing under the soft rose sheets. Or slipping down the tube of the jasmine, sucking the nectar at the tip, can you imagine? Sex on sex.

I used to grow poppy plants from seed. The most minuscule seed would blossom into the most perfect cups, dark purple, lilac, white, sometimes shades between. Often this would coincide with chafer beetle recreational procreation. It looked fun from where I stood, the beetles abuzz with love, dusted up as they rolled amongst the opiates.

When you come into an abundance of these insect sex beds, collect what you can and prepare them for transformation soon after. If you’re serious and intend to alchemise them, then dawn is the best time – before the sun gets the best of them. Apocalypse perfume is not so hard to come by in the Cape, but this is the smell of love. They work even better stored on your skin – a perfume bag, if you will, nestled beneath your bra, just like Marjane’s grandmother in Persepolis, the heat of your body puffing Turkish delight clouds. Or wear them under your scarf, your hair will smell defuknlightful.

Place them in a low dish or basket so air doesn’t stagnate around them. Do this somewhere where you spend most of your time, so your vibes are delighted. In the Apocalypse, you’re going to have time to collect flowers, so it’s good practice to carry smells with you. We all have to deal with stinky stuff from time to time – the apocalypse is no different. Nostrils are a great place to store petals, just don’t sniff them into your nasal canal because that would be most uncomfortable.

These flowers could go into tinctures, bakes, an enfleurage, macerations, waters and a bajillion other things. The moments of living with them are fleeting, but their seasons are abundant so your time together will linger.

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Oh sweet tobacco, how you have become an evil in this contemporary world of consumption. Nicotiana tabacum, like many other sacred plants, quickly became bastardised through commercialisation via colonial mercenaries (the earliest multi-national corporations). Tobacco is now grown all over the world and cigarettes are sold in every nation.

AA004recipe-ode-to-smokablezTobacco evolved in the Americas and its use is an integral part of indigenous cultures. The smoke is used as a mode of communication, in prayer, for protection, cleansing, and healing. The plant was (and still is) used as incense, bunched up and burned, and smoked also, though not to be deeply inhaled. Nicotine is a very poisonous substance, it can and will kill you as well as many other smaller creatures. You need to treat it with respect.

Now take all of that knowledge that has been garnered over centuries, strip it down completely, and, in fact, negate it all by growing the plant as a cash crop for the masses. Grow it with chemical input, process it with chemical input, package it with chemical input, light it up and suck on it. Crying shame. Never mind the marketing. Now cigarettes are all about Pall Mall, Dunhill and Peter Stuyvesant (a Dutch coloniser celebrated on cigarette packs around the world).

Yet, smoking is a cultural practice all around the world. It has come out of every culture, whether recreationally or medicinally. That means there are many other smokable plants all over the globe too, right? Down here we’ve heard about smoking kanna (Sceletium tortuosum) and wilde dagga (Leonotis leonurus), but what else? We began looking at plants, not only in terms of medicines or foods or cosmetics, but also in terms of smoke and created blends that became plant world answers to our bodies’ call, subject to change and future curiosities.

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I am fascinated by insects. They have become metaphors for survival and intrigue. They are enigmatic, surreptitious, ubiquitous, eternal and adaptable.

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The first time I intentionally ate an insect was with Justin, a fynbos farmer, outside his home in Hopefield, north of Cape Town. A hot summer, dry and dusty, heat packing. Typical West Coast. The termites, in a deep hustle, orderly, in tune, in time, almost institutionalised.

I remember a moment when I was eight years old and my baby sister was deep in thought, lying down with baby fat fingers learning to grasp. She plucked at ants and put them in her mouth. How entranced she was (the inherent knowledge this new person had) to see these tiny insects and to instinctively put them in her mouth. It took a moment to shake out of it. When she was picked up, her face brushed of grass and the insects, her new brain must have computed this as a food truth, ants must not be for eating. I know better now, of course – it’s taken a few years to unlearn and relearn food truth. The true meaning of edible.

I’d given a talk about indigenous food revival, where a new friend had heard me sing the song of insects as edible. He connected me to confection demiurge, Heather. Heather needed insects to enrobe in chocolate and play with flavours – like bacon on waffles, so crickets and chocolate. The crickets were blanched in boiling water before being roasted for 20 minutes. They were spiced and enrobed in dark chocolate, sprinkled with smoked salt and paprika, chilli or rose or cinnamon, and some set in chocolate bars. It was especially auspicious because these were the last nine crickets and two grasshoppers left of the season’s hunt.

Enrobed, chocolate works with everything. Like when the Mad Hatter started eating his plate.

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To be self-aware is to gain awareness of everything outside of yourself. Of course, this is the complete antithesis of what we have come to know about self-awareness. This thinking builds upon the thought that we cannot grasp our ego within the vacuum of our single existence. Nothing, not even the intricacies and extremities of space, is separate to anything else.

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Perpetuating this understanding of self-awareness – that says that it is the “capacity for introspection and the ability to recognise oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals” – is incorrect for me. It’s inside out. I am self-aware because I am aware of the other, I know myself because of how I exist, have always existed, will always exist, within the other.

Opening up your every sense to what it takes to survive, you begin to see the value in every bacterium, every virus, every plant, every insect, and every life.  Every life (and non-living life: water/virus/mineral) is valuable in a way capitalism cannot quantify. We begin to see or uncover uses for the smallest and simplest natural things. In the pre-apocalypse, we have the years of scientific (and non-scientific) uncoverings to map out why things work the way they do, sometimes to uncover new exploratory routes to newer innovations, or find the answers to the greatest questions the universe continues to entice us with.

Mycelium was there before us all, a bajillion years ago. When you pick up a mushroom, when you eat it, you never think of how fucking old that DNA is. The way mycelium and insects live in community, even having little fungi pouches, is the sweetest of life’s loves. Fungi are e v e r y w h e r e.

Mycelium is the vegetative part of the fungus, the strands of growth that reproduce asexually (in the same way that strawberry plants, potatoes or bananas reproduce asexually). These strands find their way through rock, through the earth, through decaying matter and into any suitable substrate.

The sex bits of the fungi, the mushrooms, are the parts we eat for food and medicine, the parts we notice in the state of awareness when we forage, hunt or gather.

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Death is the mystery in which I hold the most faith. Living in an Apocalypse is the acceptance of my own demise, to think about the end of me. My end. I have seen a lot of death since I was very young and not everyone has that experience, I have come to learn. This doesn’t normalise death, but makes it more acceptable. Death becomes a peace. It humbles you right down, debilitates you, crushes you and breaks you. To deal with grief, the trauma of death, you have to let it flow out of you, even if it takes years. You go through all of it, an unbearable burden of mourning, and mostly come out of it OK, open to more of life and grateful to be among the living.

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I was so madly in love this one time that my spirit was weaving poetry for the most wonderful person. He filled my home and my mother’s home with flowers, , spilling out into the streets. The fragrance and life from all of the vases made us all heady. Hearts in our eyes. I started collecting all the pollens in their different shades from all the lilies, stockpiling dyes for the future Pantry, yellows and burnt oranges and rich reds. I saved all the petals and made potpourri, like my grandmother used to do. I added to it every time something magical happened, like Kholofelo and Farhan’s wedding: the eucalyptus hangings were invigorating, some were burnt and the rest went into the Pot of Love Pourri. 

So in love were we two that we wanted to do it forever and we almost did except that our love made us too hungry and we started eating ourselves. It was fine that it didn’t work out, it was our decision and it was better to be friends who can love instead. A few weeks later my grandmother passed away, the love of our lives, the Rose, our Matriarch, most beloved Mamma. Death had finally arrived for her, she welcomed it and we knew it would happen. There was absolutely no space to feel anything else but the full gravity of her passing, the agony of being without her. I could not mourn the love who filled my home with flowers, I had absolutely no capacity and of course he could not compete or grieve with me.  

The days before her final passing, I came to recognise the face of death. I’d seen it before and understood at that moment the truth was absolute, she was already within death’s loving embrace. It is certain that death was a gradual process.

I knew exactly the moment my grandmother passed away. I was not with her, but in meditation I felt her last breath come from me and my eyes shot open. I needed a moment to be in myself before I got back to her and my family. To fall apart, even just for a bit, before having to stand up again and do the necessary duties to prepare for the burial the next day.

We were privileged to prepare her body, to wash her with all the women in our family, altogether. We dried her and shrouded her, her kaffang (shroud, from Malay “kafan”) so much bigger than she. Roses and camphor with her in her linen sheets. There were so many flowers that I kept them and dried them with the camphor. Of course I had to, I couldn’t throw them away or compost them. Camphor has a very specific smell if the first time you smell it is when you kiss the forehead of the deceased as a child. A smell of death for me. I had that smell in my room for months as I would toss the flowers. They had eventually withered, dried and died and they were beautiful, even more beautiful. I had so much of it, huge piles, but I could not throw it away. I poured vinegar over some of it, preparing a potential of uses from cleaners to conditioner. Preparing a new life to the things that had died. Refreshing and restarting.

Grief is not something that goes away or heals entirely, it stays with you forever, as long as you live, and as Mamma said: “Death often comes to show, we love more deeply than we know.”  When death happens, our depth and capacity to love is expanded beyond our knowledge and experience. Imagine how much space that creates for those of us in life. The ultimate potentiality of Love Matter.

As for the broken heart, to give him the respect he held in my heart I decided to remember only the good and only the magic, the sanctity and not the struggles. Keep it as a memory, something that happened to us in our pasts and dilute the sense of time. It’s about survival, this life.   

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This piece appears in the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.

Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.

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