Monday, 14 May 2007

Neanderthal Origins of a Barbeque (Braai)


Having had many, many years of experience with the sacred ritual of “having a braai”, (i.e. the Neanderthal way of cremating meat over a naked flame before consumption with ones grubby hands.) I believe that the hierarchy of experience now qualifies me to make a few passing comments.

The origins of a braai are not shrouded in the mists of mythology as other incomprehensible Greek and Roman fables that were designed to fuse fact and fiction and confuse the masses. The braai originated as a basic survival technique for mankind after he descended from the trees and started walking upright on his hind legs.
In the beginning man was a vegetarian, i.e. he was part of the food chain, hunted by a great multitude of carnivorous monsters, mostly lizard like animals with long necks, stubby legs and a shithouse full of very sharp teeth as a result of herbal steroid abuse. In primitive society man also lived a nomadic Hippy, carefree, kind of life. No aggression and love to all, while wandering around hunting and gathering nuts, olives, caviar, honey, succulent grasses and other crap forms of subsistence that today are considered healthy diets. Now that I think about it maybe man also roamed around in herds or flocks, whatever the collective noun would be for a bunch of Neanderthal men. But, the down side was that he had to keep moving or be eaten. As one can imagine, a very stressful time, with no Prozac or Xanor to take the edges off anxiety. This escape still had to be developed for the modern housewife trying to get to terms with her sons weed addiction.

Then one day a paradigm shift in mankind’s eating and social habits occurred. A bolt of lightning descended from the sky and struck an unknown hairy, pig like animal, hiding away under a dense bush from a hunting Somethingasaurus. The bush ignited and the pig was subjected to intense heat, ergo he was incinerated, one time. At this point in time our wandering Neanderthal and his hairy chested wife and offspring were watching this lot with fascination. When everything had settled down they approached the carcass. Most probably drawn by the smell of burnt meat and fat, as is still the case today. The Alpha male repeatedly jabbed the dead animal with a stick to show that he was still the main peanut around, even though he was the only one who shat his speedo during the lightning strike. The adult juvenile danced around the carcass chanting unintelligible rhythmic kind of sounds as juveniles still do. The dominant matriarch was watching this lot, and being ever weary, wanted to move along to the next place of safety. However one of the minor siblings, not wanting to be left out of the ceremony, ran over to the burnt mass of meat and gave the singed tail a good tug. The soft appenditure separated from the body and the little bugger was holding the first piece of braai meat ever, in his greasy little hand. Not wanting to be outdone the juvenile went one better and pulled off a whole hind leg. The alpha male was obviously obliged to do something totally stupid, so he pulled the head off. These first signs of aggression towards an animal resulted in mass hysteria with the rest of the tribe joining in, senselessly stripping pieces of cooked meat from the carcass in a vain effort to release pent up frustrations on a symbol of the animals that had hunted them so mercilessly for such a long time. Obviously during this melee man had his first taste of crackling, fried fat, neck chop and other cuts of braai meat that are no longer known. The rest as they say ……is history.

Man now had fire, food on the hoof, an attitude and a new way of life. No longer a nomad, he settled down and lived in a cave, put paintings on the wall and built a garden wall. He waited in ambush for any living creature that was small enough for him to pounce upon and beat to death with a stone or stick. (Guns, obviously, were not around, so man had to wait a very long time before he could shoot his meat from the safety of a thousand metres.)
So much for the origins of eating meat scorched over naked flames. The similarities of days past are still highly visible in our society today. Firstly one must have a look at where this ritual takes place. Every male has a braai area. No matter what. From the mundane bricks on the ground setup, with a take away grid from Spar, to the ultimate luxury of an indoor, customized, split level, built in spit that uses 3-phase power. The whole materialism thing, however, takes second place to the space within which this ritual is performed. Here all men are equal, here size does not count. There is an invisible boundary or aura surrounding the demarcated area selected for this purpose, be it permanent or temporary. In this area the man is Supreme Commander. As has been empirically proven by eons of research, women are inclined to inflict grievous bodily harm on their husbands in the kitchen, and husbands on their wives in the bedroom, their perceived areas of dominance. In the braai area no human or animal that challenges this authority is safe. This is the third dimension of domestic power that has yet to be researched, but results would be scary.
Having demarcated his area, the man will invite selected guests to enter this area at his invitation. Oftentimes-outside males will enter, and if you observe carefully you will see that they usually wander off and piss against shrubs and walls or any other upright objects they might encounter in secluded areas. This, to coin a phrase, is “pissing on the mans battery”. It is not a terriortorial marking habit as we have been conditioned to believe by Animal Planet, just a plain sign of disrespect for another’s sacred place. Turdinand Rabie, the infamous tuinkakker, took this insult to its highest level.
To digress, it is strange that man must relieve himself against something. If not against, then at least on or up and down something. Male dogs do the same. A male dog will run 100 metres to find a suitable stationary object to relieve himself upon. An interesting spectacle is to observe a male with fly open, legs apart, appendage in hand, suddenly decide he has spied a more suitable object to focus his attention upon. He will waddle off like a duck with hemorrhoids, but he will do what he has to do. I firmly believe that this strange behaviour can also be traced back to primitive man. Primitive man was not only a hunter, he was hunted. So when nature called he was obliged to find a safe haven to respond to the calls of nature. We all know that one is vulnerable against physical attack during these activities, and, as porta potties were still in the design stage, an area was sought out that offered physical protection. In centuries past man needed both hands to do justice to the occasion. However nowadays due to the modernization of man and the genetic downsizing of underutilized equipment, one hand is sufficient. It’s a pity though, now man has a fee hand to hold a spear or something, there are no animals to worry about. I have this surrealistic vision of our man in a squatting position trying to take on an aggressive and intimidating pose, when confronted by a hungry saber toothed tiger. On the upside, laxatives in this situation would be redundant.
Having demarcated the braai area the next logical step is to gather wood, some form of kindling and a means of igniting this lot. Space does not permit a detailed evaluation of the choice of wood or any of the other components. Sufficient to say that this is a very subjective approach and is unique to the individual. Each individual unquestionably believes that he has developed and or adopted the only way. There is no question in challenging or questioning the method used by any individual, as one will only receive looks that will strip paint off a wall.
Another interesting phenomenon is the segregation of the sexes attending these rituals. Almost without exception the men gravitate towards the fire, like moths being attracted to ultra blue light. (The same sort of light used in strip clubs, so I am informed.) The braai itself, is the preserve of men. From a distance you can observe this phenomena. As a woman approaches the braai, you will see the men closing ranks around the fire, making entry into the inner circle virtually impossible for the intruding lady. After a few futile attempts the intruder usually backs away gracefully, restoring the testosterone dominance. Should a woman actually break into this circle, you will observe an almost immediate termination of conversation. This silence will continue until the intruder has backed away.
The role of the female species in the ritual is extremely limited. The Man rotates pieces of meat with a tong in the right hand and sips from a beer held in the other. Oftentimes he wears a stupid apron with some brain dead slogan embroidered on it like, “Worlds Best Chef”. The real cherry on the kitsch cake is a chef’s hat. Man, it is difficult to comprehend how one could make such an utter arsehole of oneself in adult company and still smile for candid camera.
So it is the man who cooks the food for family and guests. As mentioned the role of the female is limited. Limited to ferrying beer, wine, snacks and mixers from the kitchen to the braai on vocal demand. Under normal conditions the lady of the house will take her stand against verbal abuse. But she too seems to entranced by the magic of the moment, and will respond to these shouted instructions with the passion of a wench serving her Lord in medieval times. In addition she has to supervise and attend to hyperactive children, entertain the toothless geriatric mother in law, prepare salads, make The Man’s special braai sauce with secret ingredients, that only he knows how, but forgot. If this is not enough, desserts have to be prepared, meat basted, tables set and attention given to a few other mundane tasks, too numerous to recall. This is the closest that the man can get to his Neanderthal origins.

You might have noticed that the earliest cave drawings are of animals. Be it in Africa, Australia or wherever, the drawings in caves are of buck. Not the Big Five, but ordinary common everyday buck, usually in groups of 3 or more. Usually in full flight, running away from some unseen form of danger, and always from the left to the right. Reminiscent of the 1960’s flock of migrating ducks that graced many a sitting room wall. Why? Surely there were more impressive animals to commit to this form of art. The answer is simple. There were no refrigerators. The lady of the cave made these drawings and it was the first shopping list ever. Having no fridge magnets or Post It’s, the drawings were there to remind Grog when meat was required for a braai, what type of meat, ( Impala, Kudu) in what quantities ( Big or small ) and on what days (Left to right). Explanations are always easy when one has insight.

The choice of wood and the manner in which the wood is packed for the fire is also very important. Smoke from the fire is no longer a method of communication as mobile phones have replaced this function, so dry wood is preferred. The specie is very important and is a function of personal choice. Many a man has driven many a mile to obtain the best wood, be it vine, gum, hardwood, whatever. These endeavours would put the walking of a mile for a Camel to shame. Never, ever, question his choice, as there will always be something that you don’t understand. The packing of the fire has three main constructions. Pick up sticks, tepee and tower are the most popular, depending on the character of the builder. My experience has been that the practical man will dump the wood and ignite. (Pick up sticks). This is a no nonsense kind of guy who is focused on getting the job done. Not many beers are consumed around this type of fire and family and guests usually get eat at the same time. The tepee construction takes somewhat longer, as the pieces of wood are forever collapsing inwards and have to be rearranged. More beers are consumed under these conditions. You will observe that food prepared from these fires are fed to the children and elders first, the able bodied being served at a later stage. This has nothing to do with survival, but all to do with extending the available drinking time. The tower construction is that of philosophers. Fires that consume more than six beers. Here you will note that food is served on a request basis. The hungry will be fed amicably on demand. In fact there are usually two fires and one will produce coals while the other will be used for braaiing. These fires will burn until the early hours of the next morning.
One thing common at all fires is the far away stare men get while holding the drink of their choice and staring into the dancing flames, mesmerized by the moment. Urban man is at one with nature. Intellectual conversation is not an option.

The choice of meat is not the subject of this observation. Sufficient to say is that there will be more than required. However, one rule will prevail. Despite the frequent turning and churning, addition and subtraction of coals, the meat will at best be burnt and at worst cold. It amazes me that he will take a trip to the butcher, buy the best fillet, bargain for matured steak, select homemade wors and whatnot. The meat is then treated with a special sauce, nurtured and marinated for 24 hours and then promptly cremated in a few minutes on a fire. To compound this comedy of errors the meat is then dumped into a single container and left to simmer over a few dying coals while the last round is taken before the meal starts. The meat is confused, fillet swimming in dead animal matter juice, steak in sosatie oil. Senseless. There is however an exponential relationship between the amount of alcohol consumed and the taste of the meat. The greater the level of intoxication the better the meat tastes. As mentioned before, nobody questions the abilities of the Man.

The braai is synonymous with alcohol. A braai without alcohol is akin to coitus interruptus, it’s just not the same.
AND believe it or not, one can relate the consumption of alcohol to our Neanderthal origins. Firstly one must bear in mind that in Neanderthal times the order of the day was discovery and not invention. Existing things were discovered, man was not able to invent things yet. Man was fond of berries and fruit. Once he became a hunter the lesser task of gathering fruit was delegated to the women and juveniles. The problem was that the fruit became overripe very quickly and had to be discarded. This problem still exists today, ask any airfreight exporter. So the Alpha male of one tribe set a challenge to his underlings to think of a way to have fruit last longer. A number of ideas were tested and all failed. One bright spark however noticed that fruit in direct sunlight did not last as long as fruit kept in the shade. So what he did was place fruit in a number of hollowed out coconuts, replaced the lids to keep the bugs away, and kept them in a cool place for a number of days. When the Main Man tested this fruit after a week it tasted like shit and was pronounced poison. So he banished the unfortunate discoverer to modern day Kalahari, which is the subject of another tale. Now, to complicate matters the Main Man had a harem. In this harem was a shy young lady who never really caught the master’s eye. Never experienced the pleasure of been banged over the head with the ceremonial club and been dragged off by the hair to the master cave room. So in desperation she decided to run away. This was a serious decision, given the perils of the time. While contemplating her decision in solitude she stumbled upon the remaining coconuts. Knowing it was poison she downed one and waited for the inevitable. Nothing happened so she downed the second one to hasten the process. By now she was feeling much better and took a third for the hell of it. After the fourth one she marched into the master cave room and physically threw the flavour of the night out into the wilderness. Then she told the Man what she thought of him, and herself, and then introduced him to amorous activities that not even she had dreamed of. Needless to say from then on she was the nightly visitor, and always brought along a coconut. Hence the saying, “every time a coconut”.

In any event, it will benefit man not to loose these eating skills. As Albert Eienstein said "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." And the braai will be re-instated to its original Neanderthal glory, proof that evolution can be reversed.


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