Phillippa Cheifitz is one of South Africa's best loved food writers but, like many others successful food writers, she did not set out to become one: life conspired to set her on the path of food writing and she has never looked back. A former Cosmopolitan food editor and a current columnist for Taste magazine, she is best known as the author of a series of beautiful cookbooks, including South Africa Eats. Today, she tells us a little about her history in food and her writing career.
I abandoned psychology for a passion for food, and I have never regretted it. When did I fall in love with food? Was it eating crisply fried onions out the pan in my grandmother’s kitchen? On Fridays (in Cape Town in the '40's) the fish cart came round, the fisherman blowing his horn to announce his arrival. So that was the day that fish was served at a casual lunch along with hand-cut potato fries, home pickled cucumbers and jugs of iced borscht. ‘There’s nothing better than hake’, claimed my grandmother, ‘as long as it’s fresh’.
Some was minced for patties, or fillets were simply dipped into flour and beaten egg, then fried in hot oil until golden. To get the oil to the right temperature, a sliced onion was added and once deeply browned, removed (to my pleasure) and the fish added to the pan. I loved the sweet, slightly burnt shreds of onion.
Granddaughter of East European immigrants, I grew up knowing only the simplicity of Ashkenazi
Jewish cooking. It was my grandmother's loving approach to cooking that was more important than the sophistication of the dishes prepared. Again and again the same foods were made, shared and enjoyed, and every time my grandmother would take the same care to produce them perfectly. Friday night was the big meal of the week. The extended family, my parents, sister, two aunts, three uncles and all the cousins gathered at the white damask covered table, the Sabbath candles flickering. The twin golden brown braided loaves of kitke (known everywhere else in the world as challah) were blessed and broken. On the table were platters of chopped liver, decoratively sprinkled with minced white and yellow egg. A tureen of steaming hot chicken soup with lokshen (homemade noodles) came next. Then old-fashioned roast chickens with gravy, a crusty potato kugel, sweet carrots and steamed green beans. Kosher laws allow no dairy after meat. So dessert was a big platter of fresh fruit, eaten at leisure with fruit knives and forks. Glasses of lemon tea finished the meal, along with taiglach, rings of pastry boiled in syrup, then dipped in ginger and sugar. Quite a feat to master. All the Jewish holidays were celebrated at my grandparent’s home. Passover with matzo balls (kneidlach), the New Year with tsimmes, brisket braised with onions, dumplings, carrots and syrup, to guarantee a sweet year. Cinnamon-sugared white cheese blinzes at Shavuot and irresistible, fried potato latkes at Hanukah.
But when I was eleven, my food experiences were unexpectedly broadened. My grandmother, with my uncle, aunt and three cousins, took me on a tour of Europe. We travelled, first class, on an ocean liner, experiencing the last of Edwardian gentility. Strains wafted from the minstrel gallery, as we ate course after course of British fare served by white-gloved stewards. I loved the cups of beefy bouillon served on deck when the weather was cold, and the ice cream coupes as the weather warmed. I loved the English tea set up every afternoon in the elegant lounge. In London I ate Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding at Simpsons- in-the-Strand. In Paris I indulged in baba rhums and profiteroles. I watched a plump and pretty cook whisk omelettes in a story tale bistro with red checked tablecloths. It was the first time I ate fresh mushrooms. On the Alps we picnicked on freshly baked rolls, sweet butter and whole cherry jam, Swiss cheeses and boiled
farm eggs. At the pension on the lake creamy veal geschetzeltes and crisp rosti. In Genoa pasta with pesto. And the nuns in Nice cooked utterly delicious simple French fare savoured under a canopy of vines in the courtyard of the pension. Chocolates and waffles in Brussels. Uitsmijters in Amsterdam. We drove from country to country in a large black limo designed for a bridal retinue rather than a party of tourists.
Over a career that spans decades I have eaten many more memorable meals around the world, met equally passionate chefs, cooks and food writers. Through my features in newspapers, magazines and numerous cookbooks I have shared recipes, that are both feasible to make and delicious to eat. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than compliments from 'fans' who have cooked and enjoyed these recipes. After all, what could be more bonding than a well-prepared meal, whether an everyday dinner for family or a shared feast with friends. It all began by sheer chance. An art director who had eaten at my home recommended me to a brilliant photographer who was in need of a food stylist. My first assignment was for the South African Tourist Board, a feast on a beach. Blissfully, it was a great success. Later, advertising agencies asked me
to supply recipes. A kitchen appliance manufacturer commissioned a cookbook – Cooking for Compliments.
A magazine asked me to join as food editor. An invitation to join the evening newspaper The Argus followed the publication of the immensely popular Meals for a Month. When Cosmopolitan magazine was launched as South Africa's first glossy magazine (more sophisticated then than its international counterparts), the celebrity editor Jane Raphaely invited me to be food editor. A Cosmopolitan Cookbook was published. I moved to other magazines in the stable; authored many cookbooks. Cape Town Food shows the way we cook today, casual, gutsy, full of flavour, using local olive oil, wine and produce. My cookbook South Africa Eats is a culinary history of the many immigrants who came to South Africa plus a section of modern recipes using South African and African ingredients. My newest cookbook titled Easy is a repertoire of everyday recipes for the home cook. Ever eager to learn more, cookbooks are certainly one of my great inspirations. I am an avid collector and am happy if I too can inspire other good cooks.
Every month I produce recipe features for an award-winning food magazine, Taste I sit at my computer and somehow edible ideas float through my head. I think 'what would l like to eat?' Something spicy? Or comforting? Light and healthy? A good grill, or a roast? Or a top of the stove braise that can be done in under an hour? Asian or Mediterranean? My focus is simple everyday food – impressively easy – for the family, or a few friends for a weekday dinner. Shopping of course is inspirational. As I see new ingredients, new on the shelf or new in season, I'll change a recipe. I diligently test my recipes, propping the computer in the kitchen as I work through the first draft. I add or subtract, adjust, simplify a method, improve a flavour. What joy when the dish tastes as good as imagined. I only include the recipe if I'd like to cook it again. On
the shoot, there's a chance to check the recipe once more.
Blogging is my new love. Spontaneous, spot-on seasonal, for me it's the antithesis of the disciplined recipe development that I can consider essential for magazines and cookbooks. Anything goes. A dish I cooked last night from remnants in the fridge, the sum of which turned out more than the parts. Lots of ideas for late summer fruits. A fresh fig cake – the recipe works but the style doesn't have to fit a format. The easiest-ever pasta sauce I devised. A new eaterie I loved. Or a cookbook. Other people's food – friends or relations – or simply overheard. I try not to miss a trick. Sometimes a throwaway line is the start of a fabulous recipe.