If I hadn’t already seen Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show, and laughed at his wit and marvelled at his intelligence, I probably wouldn’t have noticed this book, other than it being the selection for my book group this month. This is a series of essays that together form a jagged picture of a life, forged in circumstances that are so foreign to me, this was a real eye-opener. The title refers to the fact that when the author was born, it was against the law for people of mixed races to be together, and a crime for bearing children as a result of such a union. Had he not been carefully sequestered as a young boy, he might have been taken away from his parents. Astounding, but made very real by the anecdotes Noah related in the book. His father was Swiss, and white and laid back. His mother was Xhosa, and black, and defiant and rebellious. Because he was born under apartheid in South Africa, his story illuminates what life was like to be colored in a racially charged and oppressive environment.
Noah explained that apartheid, perfect racism, started with the Dutch in 1652 in Cape Town when the colonists warred with the natives, and developed a set of laws to enslave them. When the British took over, the descendants of the original Dutch settlers moved inland and became the white tribe of Africa, the Afrikaners. Then the British empire fell, and back come the Afrikaners to claim their inheritance. To control the black majority, the government knew they needed newer tools. “They set up a formal commission to go out and study institutionalized racism all over the world. They went to Australia. They went to the Netherlands. They went to America. They saw what worked, what didn’t. They came back and published a report, and the government used that knowledge to build the most advanced system of racial oppression known to man.” I don’t know what about this shocked me so much. Perhaps the fact that a more studied and systematic approach to oppressing a particular group of people implies the deliberateness of the effort. It wasn’t like, things just happened, and suddenly, “oh, my goodness, what have we created? We didn’t mean for this to happen!” This was a deliberate, conscious, ruthless undertaking. And yet, people survived. Trevor Noah survived. His mother, his friends, his family, survived.
In the same way that Barbara Lynch’s memoir Out of Line taught me about what it was like going to school during busing in South Boston, this book taught me about growing up black under apartheid in South Africa. I am so glad I read this, and now how even more respect for Trevor Noah and his indestructible mother.
THE BEAUTY: When people have no legal options, they still have to survive, so they do what they have to to feed themselves and their families. There weren’t enough jobs for blacks and coloreds, and the government made no provisions for people who were out of work, so it stands to reason that the threat of being arrested was a daily possibility. The beauty of the people who survived apartheid and came through on the other side, was their resilience and ingenuity. Trevor, had nothing to recommend him in high school, he wasn’t cool and he was poor. But he was fast on his feet, in part from learning to run away from situations that could potentially land him in trouble. So at school, when the bell rang for lunch, Trevor was always the first in line. After a while, he learned to leverage that ability to his advantage. Those who were slower to get to the truck, had less time to eat their food, so Trevor began buying their lunches each day in return for a cash tip. He built up quite a business, and was able to upgrade the equipment he used to make pirated cd’s of American hiphop music, selling to his customers at both at school and in the neighborhood. The business grew and grew, and was the start of his later success that placed him behing the desk at The Daily Show.
Trevor’s father was a presence in his life, even though he couldn’t live with him and his mother, until Patricia married Abel. Then Robert moved to Cape Town and they grew apart, mainly because of the geographical distance. When Patricia hounded Trevor to go find his father, because she believed he couldn’t truly become the man he’s supposed to be without knowing him, Trevor does. On that first meeting reuniting them, even though he was a young adult at the time, his father prepared his favorite meal from childhood, rösti with meat and gravy. Don’t be intimidated by the length of the directions. After you grate the potatoes, it’s really easy, and the resulting rösti is so deliciously crispy, it’s worth it.
Crisp Rösti Potatoes
Yield: one 8-inch potato pancake or three to four 4-inch ones.
1 lb potatoes (Yukon Golds or russets are best)
1½ tsp salt
Generous ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 T vegetable or olive oil for frying; more as needed
Peel the potatoes and grate them, using the large holes of a hand grater or a food processor. Put the potatoes in a large bowl, add the salt and pepper, and toss to coat thoroughly. Let the potatoes rest for at least 5 minutes, and then, working with a fistful at a time, squeeze as much liquid as possible out of them and transfer to a second bowl. (The potatoes will start to discolor, but that won’t really affect the final results.)
Large holes mean faster work, better texture. A very finely grated potato could turn
mushy during cooking. To make one large rösti—Heat a heavy-based skillet that
measures about 8 inches across the base over medium-high heat. Add the oil (it should come to a depth of about ⅛ inch; add more if necessary.) When the oil begins to ripple slightly, test it by dropping in a potato shred—it should sizzle
enthusiastically. If not, wait a few more seconds. When the temperature is right, take a fistful of potatoes, wring it out once more, and let it fall loosely from your fingers into the center of the pan. (Be careful because the oil will spatter; getting hit by a few tiny droplets is inevitable.) Fill the pan gradually. Adding just a small amount at a time makes it easier to get an even layer. Working quickly, repeat until you’ve got enough potatoes in the pan to cover the bottom. With a fork, gently spread out the shreds of potato to make a layer about ½ inch thick, trying to distribute them evenly, avoiding dense or thin patches. If there are straggly potatoes around the edges, tuck them in with the fork also so they don’t burn. Adjust the heat so that you hear a lively sizzle but the bottom isn’t browning too rapidly. Cook until the underside is a deep golden brown and the potatoes on the top are starting to look translucent, 12 to 16 minutes.
To turn the pancake, carefully slide the rösti out of the pan onto a dinner plate and return the pan to the heat. Put another plate on top of the rösti and, holding tightly, flip the plates over. Slide the inverted rösti back into the pan and continue cooking until the new bottom is browned and the potatoes feel really tender in the middle when poked with a knife, another 6 to 8 minutes.
Slide the rösti onto a cutting board. Blot the top with a paper towel to remove any excess oil. Cut into wedges and serve as soon as possible.