South Africa’s District Six Cookbook Helps Preserve a Lost Community

Linda Fortune’s family was forced out of District Six when she was 22. Growing up, the family often ate crayfish her father caught as a hobby. “If you had an overabundance of fish, you would share it with the neighbors,” she recalls.
Alan Greenblatt/NPR

You can tell a lot about a culture by its food, particularly if food is all that remains.

District Six was a mixed-race section of Cape Town, South Africa, that was home to Europeans, Asians, Africans, Christians, Muslims and Jews.

A half-century ago, District Six, which was just outside of downtown, was declared a whites-only area. By the early 1980s, 60,000 people had been forcibly removed from their homes.

To commemorate the anniversary of the order and as part of its ongoing work to preserve the culture of the lost community, the District Six Museum in Cape Town has released District Six Huis Kombuis: Food and Memory Cookbook.

Huis kombuis means “home kitchen” in Afrikaans. The book presents recipes from about two-dozen former District Six residents, remembering and recreating the food they ate as children. “This is not a cookbook in the sense of recipes of the greatest chefs,” says Tina Smith, head of exhibitions at the museum and the book’s lead author. “This is ordinary stuff and how people put it together.”

District Six was far from the only area in South Africa that experienced ethnic cleansing during the apartheid years. Perhaps because of its central location, it has been better documented than most. Last year, a musical commemorating the area called District Six — Kanala enjoyed two successful runs in Cape Town. (The area was originally called Kanaladorp, enshrining in its name the idea of a community “helping each other,” which is what kanala means.)

The cookbook grew out of an ongoing project at the museum to bring former district residents together. A core group of about a dozen women meets regularly to share stories and do crafts such as embroidery. “It’s always like yesterday when we speak of what we did in childhood and what we ate,” says Patience Watlington, a former District Six resident. “We decided we were going to start cooking our recipes.”

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Alan Greenblatt