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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

“I still can’t have rusks in the morning” – read an excerpt from The Fifth Mrs Brink

Karina M. Szczurek’s soul-baring memoirs of her life before, with and after her marriage to André P. Brink details a year of widowhood and a love to last a lifetime. This is the book which shows decisively that Karina is a writer in her own right, still coming in to her full creative powers, and simultaneously silences any gossips who might still have disbelieved Karina and André Brink’s love for one another.

A homage to a marriage cut tragically short by Brink’s death, in 2015 at 79 years old, and a diary of creative dissolution and knitting back together, The Fifth Mrs Brink combines enough literary skinner, salacious detail and moving romantic description of dealing with the death of a loved one to satisfy fans of her and her husband, both old and new.

Read an excerpt here:

Zuul, please come back!

I don’t know how long I have been standing between two aisles in Woolies without moving, but people are beginning to stare. I snap out of it, turn to one of the shelves and pretend to be looking at individual food items, but I have no clue what I am doing.

It is the first time I am shopping on my own again, and answering the question What do I eat? is suddenly trickier than I would have ever anticipated. The thing is that I haven’t been eating much at all since André’s death. For ten years, we have been shopping together. And even if I went on my own, I knew what we liked and ate, and bought groceries accordingly.

We had our routines and favourites – rusks with tea and coffee in the morning; cinnamon, sugar and freshly pressed lemon juice pancakes with Olga on Tuesdays; champagne breakfasts in the bath for special occasions; fried tomato, bacon and egg brunches; tuna, onion and tomato sandwiches at The Alma Cafe; tea and chocolate in the afternoons; feasts with friends at Casa Brink on weekends – and now I had to decide whether I would continue with them on my own, or discover something new for myself.

For the first few weeks, the house was full of people arriving with food. On the rare occasions I did open the fridge during this time, I never recognised its contents. It overflowed with the generosity of friends. Others organised meals, accompanied me to the shops, took care of the cleaning up. There were a few days after most other family members departed when Krystian and I were alone in the house with Mom before she herself had to catch a flight home.

There was something extremely soothing in being called to dinner by our mother and sitting at the kitchen table with my brother, waiting for her to dish up our childhood favourites for us. It made me feel safe in a reality that had sharp edges wherever I turned.

André was a fantastic cook. Most of what I know about cooking I have learned from him. His bredies, saddle of lamb, scones, crème brûlée, fishcakes, pancakes and bobotie were legendary. Despite his peculiar ability to burn everything, especially pumpkin (notoriously so), whenever André entered the kitchen, one could expect a feast to come out. The kitchen was never recognisable after his cooking sessions, but I was happy to clean up when he prepared our meals.

The first morning I visited André in Cape Town, when I arrived at his home after a gruelling flight, André made me burned toast – and I mean charred black – and served it with butter. He had asked me beforehand what I would want, and, remembering the taste of mango in the mornings from my previous visit to South Africa, I asked for the fruit, unaware that it was not in season. André told me that he drove around the whole of Cape Town in search of a mango for me the day before my arrival, but couldn’t find a ripe one. I didn’t mind missing out, but was moved by the fact that he tried.

Food was one of the simple things in life that we enjoyed together. Lamb was a great discovery. Not popular in Austria or Poland, it was never part of my culinary vocabulary. Now all the other meats have nearly disappeared from it. André introduced me to the two best braai chefs in the country, his friends Gerrit and Kobus. Oh, André loved his braais. Nothing fancy: just chops and wors with a nice salad and a glass of red wine (cleaning up after a meal, I could recognise which glass had been André’s, as it was always the one which was most clouded by greasy fingerprints). In my experience, apart from one exception when we went to Wedgewood on our own and he braaied our chops to perfection that evening, André wasn’t a particularly good braaier. There are friends who swear he could braai fresh snoek like no other, but I never had the opportunity to taste it. I somehow got the burned end of the stick when André was involved in a braai. But I loved watching him in the kitchen, teaching myself to cook many South African dishes that way. Some I refused to learn, like bobotie. And I haven’t had it since André’s death. The taste of bobotie is hiding in the same secret place as paternal Grandma Ala’s tomato soup. When she passed away, she took the recipe for my all-time favourite soup with her to her grave. She made it whenever I came to visit, or left some for me if she knew I was coming. There was no secret. She told me how she prepared it. Use a lot of carrots for the broth, she would say, and a little bit of sugar or honey at the end to make it sweet. I tried many times to replicate it, but it wasn’t the ingredients or their proportions that made it special. It only tasted that way when she made it. With some recipes it is a matter of the hand that executes them.

Fortunately, the last two times André was making crème brûlée he asked me to assist, so that I could make it myself, and somehow passed on the magic. It gives me great pleasure to be able to serve it to family and friends who have come to love it over the years. André’s crème brûlée was so good that after tasting it once, I refused to have it anywhere else, because I knew any other attempt would only disappoint me. Whenever he made a batch, and it was only for special occasions, he kept one ramekin aside for me, so that I could have it the next day with my coffee first thing in the morning. One tradition I insist on to this day, even if I make the dessert and keep one portion for myself.

André introduced me to foie gras poêlé when we met in Paris. And waterblommetjiebredie here in South Africa. Artichokes and snoek pâté. Granadillas and pumpkin fritters. Gazpacho – he prepared the best and taught me how. He loved it when I made barszcz, and my mom’s fried potatoes, and my fried banana dessert with whipped cream. We treated ourselves to special dishes all the time, and loved exploring and experimenting. Restaurant outings – whether it was The Alma Cafe or Fraîche Ayres in our neighbourhood, or the Planet Restaurant at the Mount Nelson, or Buitenverwachting in Constantia, or The Stagg Inn in the UK – were something to be celebrated. There was a time when we even considered compiling a cookbook, but it will remain one of those dream projects which live on only in the ‘loss library’ of my head.

My eating habits have changed greatly now that I am alone. Krystian was the last of my guests to depart mid-March, six weeks after André’s death. The house felt awfully empty, but my fridge was still cluttered with more or less unidentifiable food objects. When I opened it, I was reminded of that classic Ghostbusters scene when Dana, portrayed by the magnificent Sigourney Weaver, opens her fridge to find the monster Zuul lurking in its depths. I took everything out, and even though I hate throwing away food, I did feed most of what I found to the dustbin. I washed out Zuul’s lair with vinegar water and put back the fresh milk and pink wine. And then I wept. Apart from special occasions, my fridge has been empty for two years now.

Shopping and eating on my own, I discovered that there were few dishes which gave me real pleasure. Whenever my stomach refuses to cooperate, three things will always go in: meat, chocolate and veggie juices. For quite a while I had rare steaks for breakfast and dinner, chocolate and beetroot or tomato juice in between. They helped me survive and keep strong. Gradually, my appetite returned and, not surprisingly, it became easier to eat in company than alone. My tastes have changed. I haven’t bought sugar or flour for a long time. Cooking for friends makes
me happy. Occasionally, I try to prepare elaborate dishes for myself, but there is little fun in it. I still can’t bake to save my life. For Easter and Christmas, I baked the only thing that I can: Grandma Ala’s rogaliki, crescent rolls filled with rose petal jam. The smell from the oven and their crumbling texture on my tongue made me feel as if I were in her kitchen again. I wish I could make her tomato soup – its mysterious sweet taste remains one of my most delicious childhood memories.

I still can’t have rusks in the morning.

The Fifth Mrs Brink

Book details

Also available as an eBook.

 

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