The bell pepper princess of Vrygrond’s walkie-talkies


The bell pepper princess of Vrygrond’s walkie-talkies

If we want to understand each other better we must start eating together, Antjie Krog once said. HENK SERFONTEIN puts her words into action and tells of a few strange but unforgettable meals.

Walkie-talkies are crispy fried chicken feet.
Walkie-talkies are crispy fried chicken feet.

THERE was a time when lunch invitations weren't followed up by a second WhatsApp message asking for a detailed explanation of your food preferences. It was a time before low glycaemic indexes, lactose intolerance and activist vegans. During that time, we all basically turned a blind eye, graciously accepted the invitation and brought along the best bottle of wine we could afford.

So there I found myself on a sunny Sunday afternoon at a long-table dinner in Pretoria. In the background stood a beautiful Sir Herbert Baker mansion, and in the foreground purple jacarandas were dotted against the sky as if painted with a sponge.

The gracious host had invited the aristocracy of the local art scene. To my left, Bettie Cilliers-Barnard sipped a glass of red wine and passionately recounted how at 10pm she would light a cigarette, climb onto a leather chair and paint a majestic mandala in soft apricot and peppermint green until the early morning. Apparently, the night had no shadows. With her sense of metaphysical abstraction and descriptions of how she reconciled the earthly with the transcendental, she was the epitome of rural intelligentsia.

As my mouth hung open in awe at the flights of the spirit of this sharp-minded, petite woman with a slight gap between her front teeth, the host announced that the main course was about to be served: trippa alla fiorentina. Yes, in Italian. With the red-and-white checked tablecloths, the afternoon could easily have been mistaken for a vignette from the movie Babette's Feast, even we were on the slopes of suburban Groenkloof.

We sat back, as in a Boeing seat, with starched white napkins on our laps, and the trippa alla fiorentina arrived. I gasped for breath, as if I'd been hit by unexpected turbulence on a flight, because first class turned out to be kitchen waste. The quivering piece of stomach lining with its honeycomb texture smiled in a puddle of thin tomato sauce, and with my fork I scratched open a loose eye that peeped back at me from the plate. I grated some Parmigiano Reggiano over the dish to rid myself of the eye contact with the pupil.

Saltwater walkie-talkies.
READY FOR THE BRAAI ... Saltwater walkie-talkies.

Best foot forward

Another unforgettable meal was on Loop Street, Cape Town, where I'd been invited by my Zulu neighbour. He arranged dinner for three of us who lived next to each other, so the guests were the artist from number 22, the Zulu beauty therapist from number 23, and the Jehovah's Witness from number 24 who worked in IT.

There we sat, the three of us, drinking a glass of sweet rosé from crystal glasses. As the sunset created pink stains in the sky, the beauty therapist revealed the main course with an elegant flick of his wrist: deliciously grilled “walkie-talkies”, or chicken feet.

The Jehovah's Witness insisted on saying grace, and at that moment I become a true believer and remembered the sister who prayed like that in Babette's Feast because she felt guilty about the wine they were drinking. I took a sip of wine before the prayer and held my neighbours' hands. We formed a perfect triangle with just an enamel bowl of chicken feet in the middle as a witness. I opened one eye during the prayer and peeked at the feet on the table to make sure I'd seen correctly.

With the combination of prayer, rosé and a bit of imagination, the walkie-talkies tasted heavenly, almost like the Zinger Wings in Long Street. The evening unexpectedly turned into a gastronomic feast. All that was left was a pile of thin bones. The host bid us farewell with a smile and a kiss on the cheeks and called the next morning to ask if I had a hangover. Soon afterwards, he left to work on a cruise ship.

The first encounter with walkie-talkies becomes a gastronomic feast.
VRYGROND STILLNESS ... The first encounter with walkie-talkies becomes a gastronomic feast.

From lobola to tagine

A few years ago, Antjie Krog suggested in an interview that if we want to understand each other better in this country, we should start eating together. So, my housekeeper Bongi and I have been eating together for years on a Tuesday afternoon at my kitchen table.

What initially started as a slightly uncomfortable meal has evolved into a weekly gathering that we both look forward to. Our lunchtime conversations have revolved around topics ranging from the township economy to the price of taxi rides and fires at Cape Town railway stations. We have philosophised together about exactly how many cattle she is truly worth for lobola. I have come to know her three children, and I have even cooked a chicken tagine with Lungelo, her six-year-old.

In the early years, Bongi was still infatuated with President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, and we joked that she might become his next wife. She said she would invite me to the wedding and ensure that I became the next minister of arts and culture. That's how politics works, right? It's all about connections. After Zuma's Nkandla scandal, she said no way, her love for him had faded, and she started dating a petrol attendant. These days, he smiles on the screensaver when her phone comes to life with its Beyoncé ringtone.

I recently asked her what we would do if Zuma were found guilty of corruption. She suggested that we visit him together in Pollsmoor Prison. I jokingly proposed that we hand him a chicken leg through the cell door. No, she protested. All he will get is plain boiled maize without salt. “He must experience how it feels to suffer," was her final argument.

During another lunch at my light blue table, she made us a cup of Five Roses tea and looked at the star on my windowsill that I bought from Koos Malgas, Helen Martins' assistant at the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda. Bongi stared at the star as if it were the last one in the Milky Way and said she wished her English employer in Bishopscourt could see what she eats with me on Tuesdays.

In a moment of brilliant cultural cross-pollination, red bell pepper becomes the sole fragrance.
PAPRIKA FOR A VRYGROND PRINCESS ... In a moment of brilliant cultural cross-pollination, red bell pepper becomes the sole fragrance.

British bread crusts

In a shocking revelation, she told me that while he gives her orders in his  pretentious British accent, he throws the week's old bread crusts in a shopping bag and gives them to her to eat while she works there. I was angry and offered to help her find another job. As a single mother, she couldn't just quit. Jobs are scarce, and actually, she wanted to be a businesswoman like Oprah Winfrey.

Bongi started by selling vetkoek but the profit was too little to buy electricity. That's when I remembered the Florian street food, or scraps, and suggested she start a makeshift food stall with fried walkie-talkies. During a brainstorming session, we decided there was no money for “11 herbs and spices" (as in the case of KFC), but her recipe had to surpass all competitors in taste and visual impact. We needed a secret but simple recipe. My “people eat with their eyes" was met with her “it must taste like Kentucky". In a moment of brilliant cultural cross-pollination, we then decided on just one seasoning: red bell pepper.

That's how Bongi became the paprika princess of Vrygrond. She should actually be nominated as a South African hero on that programme on She has survived two men who disappeared to evade maintenance payments. She survived the bread crusts in Bishopscourt. When her shack was one of the 120 that burned down last October, she barely survived.

On Tuesday, she tells me that on a good day in Vrygrond she can sell chicken feet worth R1,000, at 70c each. Freedom came to her in Vrygrond in the form of just one seasoning. She provides for her entire household with paprika walkie-talkies.

When I ask her how it feels to be a successful businesswoman now, she shakes her Oprah Winfrey wig, smiles with her Bettie Cilliers-Barnard passion gap, and answers: “They love my red feet."

Braai over an open fire for about 20 minutes.
OVER THE COALS FOR THE GODS ... Braai over an open fire for about 20 minutes.

Vrygrond Walkie-Talkies

fresh chicken feet
lemon or lime juice

Clean the chicken feet thoroughly, removing feathers and loose skin.

Boil in saltwater on the stove for about 20 minutes.

Generously sprinkle with paprika. Season with salt to taste.

Grill for about 20 minutes over an open fire.

Drizzle with lemon or lime juice before serving.

Invite someone else for a meal for a change.

♦ VWB ♦

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