Heart, History and Soul in a Pot

By Susan M. Cashin   
Photography by Susan M. Cashin

One Thanksgiving seven years ago, Fred and Yvonne Reinhardt of Houston decided to gather with their expatriate friends for a traditional South African meal. Having moved to Texas from Durban, they missed the foods of their mother country and knew their guests did too. In fact, the party was a runaway success, and has since become a regular event attracting more than 300 participants with ties to South Africa.

 

These days, it’s known as the Texas Potjie Festival, and it’s a popular showcase for a food most Americans have never heard of, let alone tasted.

Potjie [poi kee] n. a little round three-legged pot used to prepare food outdoors, using either wood coals or charcoal.

Potjiekos [poi kee kos] n. pot food.

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It’s amazing how a small cooking tool can become an icon of a time, place and culture—think of the cast iron skillets treasured by American pioneers as they moved West. The potjie holds a similar place in the hearts and minds of many Afrikaners, who made history on their own frontier.

The first Afrikaners, whose ancestry combined Dutch settlers, French Huguenot refugees, German Protestants, Scots, Malays and native Khoi and San peoples, were semi-nomadic subsistence farmers who moved northeast from the Cape peninsula in search of better farm and pasture lands. Over a period of several hundred years, they undertook various immigrations known as Treks, and there was nothing easy about them.

Traveling in covered, ox-drawn wagons, they had no choice but to live off the land, subsisting on local game and whatever wild plants or vegetables they could forage or grow during brief encampments. The potjie lent itself to this way of cooking, and soon became an all-important, multifunctional tool, able to serve as a storage container until its contents could be cooked, and then, when placed over coals in a pit and covered with dirt and sand, as the original slow cooker. Rudimentary bread ovens were created in the same manner.

This was simple, subsistence fare. But eventually, just as American pioneers absorbed Mexican, Spanish and French culinary traditions, the Afrikaners adopted flavors of the immigrant East Indians and Cape Malays. As new ingredients found their way into potjies, meals became more sophisticated.

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The Texas Potjie Festivals have evolved into Labor Day long-weekend campouts since their inception in 2000. Most attendees live in or around Houston, Dallas, Austin or San Antonio, but each year sees more guests from other parts of the United States, and this past September, several South Africans living in England came to join the festivities.

In 2000, my husband and I purchased a farm in the Western Cape winelands of South Africa. Having fallen in love with all things Afrikaans, we decided to attend the 2007 Texas Potjie Festival. Our drive across the Hill Country, Blackland Prairie and Piney Woods ended on a piece of land north of Houston that had become, in essence, South African soil. As we turned into the Port Adventure RV Resort, we saw South African flags flying next to Texas flags, and rugby team banners from both South Africa and local ex-pat clubs. The atmosphere seemed to carry us eight thousand miles, at emotional warp speed, to our South African farm.

The participants, who arrived not in covered wagons but minivans, SUVs and campers, seemed also to feel the joy that comes from being surrounded by the language and traditions of a much-loved place. Tears appeared in grown men’s eyes as they talked not only of their homeland, but of family and friends they missed. For them, the festival was a place not just to reconnect, but to share customs and communal roots with children and grandchildren, many born and raised in America.

During three days redolent of the aromas of the veldt, we enjoyed South African foods, wines and beers, as well as laughter, music and cooking contests. Naturally, competition for the best potjiekos was fierce, with categories for breads, desserts and main dishes. And, in keeping with warm South African ways, food was shared communally before prizes were handed out.

Danie van Berg of Austin entered the Grand Prize Pot—this year, the chosen meat was lamb—hoping to break a three-year losing streak. Armed with a recipe made from grass-fed lamb shanks donated by Loncito Cartwright of Dinero, he finally earned the honor he deserved. Which goes to show that using local and fresh ingredients along with a dynamic, ethnic recipe is the path to gastronomic greatness.

There’s no need to wait until Labor Day 2008 to experience potjiekos—just try Danie’s Kalahari Lamb Shank Potjie recipe, above. Although potjies can be difficult to find outside South Africa, they occasionally show up on eBay. In the absence of a potjie, a cast-iron Dutch oven will produce excellent results.

Texas Potjie Festival: texaspotjie.com

Potjie pots and recipes: taste-africa.com/product_potjie.php

Recipe book:
Huis Genoot Potjiekos by Marlene Hammann