American food comes to Makhado
Along the N1 road, east of Makhado proper, there’s this small, tidy mall called Makhado Crossing. Over the past few months, a rash of new restaurants have opened there. Glad as I am to see economic progress (if there had been businesses in the now-occupied spaces before, I’ve already forgotten what they were), there are three new enterprises that I want to mention directly because they tug at a specific American place in my heart.
One Saturday I walked into the mall and I found myself staring at a big anthropomorphic hot dog wearing nothing but a bun and a streak of mustard. He was on a sign for this new place, “Hot Dog and Sausage Cafe”. Several things struck me as odd about this. First of all, there are no “hot dogs” in South Africa. There are “viennas” or “russians” or “frankfurters”, but no one knows or cares what a hot dog is. Could it be that they serve American-inspired food? Secondly, a sausage cafe? When I hear the word cafe, I think of coffee and French people wearing berets. Sausage doesn’t enter the picture. Thirdly, it’s strange to see a restaurant specializing in hot dogs anywhere. Hot dogs are always a side attraction, an alternative to burgers. Maybe it could be done in Chicago, or a city large enough to support such a degree of specialization, but even after living in a village for over a year, I can still say that Makhado is not a big town. But enough thinking! I went in to try it.
The walls and the staff were decorated in yellow, and they offered two attractions: a hotdog and chips, or a boerwors and chips. I don’t actually remember whether they were called chips or fries, but I do remember feeling betrayed. This wasn’t American. It was British. Bangers and chips, just like you can get at any fish and chips place in South Africa. They even put salt and vinegar on their fried. I ordered a wrinkly hot dog in a too-big bun and vowed never to return.
Not too long after that, I noticed another attraction across from the Sausage Cafe. The sign read Big Al’s and it had a guy, presumably Big Al or possibly Elvis, with a red shirt and a hairdo that belonged in Grease. How quaint, I thought. A restaurant in South Africa themed to appeal to American nostalgia. There wasn’t any space for anyone to sit inside but they owned the tables outside. I went to the counter and to see what their burgers were all about.
Once again, I was misled. It wasn’t American. It was Afrikaner, plain and simple, and I don’t think it would be controversial of me to say that Afrikaners do not know how to make a burger. They lather the buns with cold, unmelted butter, they don’t use ketchup or tomato sauce, and the meat is not meat. It tastes as though it’s largely cornmeal. I don’t get it. There’s a grocery store in the mall that sells ground beef. You South Africans call it “mince”. Use that stuff to make your burgers. Just try it. You’ll never go back.
As I was leaving, I noticed some more construction going on. In one of the outside lots, there were some actual Chinese people (I guess) and they were setting up an actual Chinese restaurant. Their sign, sitting on the floor unmounted, said “Yummy Kitchen” and it featured a pink Oriental guy in a chef’s hat. A sign in the window said they were opening December 10, and I would be on vacation then, but it seemed promising so I resolved to go back later.
When I finally managed to catch them open, I sat down and pored over their familiar-looking menu. I ordered some lo mein and I took the place in visually as I waited. The decoration is simple enough: unadorned walls, a tiled floor and some polished tables. Behind the counter were some shelves where they stocked specialty items and some kitschy cat figurines waving their paws. I felt right at home. Most jobs I’ve ever had have had a restaurant just like this within walking distance. When my food arrived, it was the real deal. The ingredients were quality and my only complaint is that it was too salty but I can chalk that up to them being new. I worry about how well their business will do in a culture that’s not used to chinese food, but I plan to support them with what I can spare from my Peace Corps stipend. Of all the restaurants there, the Chinese one is the most American.