Eating, roll-overing and laughing our way to the Karoo and back

Intrepid braaier, biker and surfer dude Steve Pike, aka "Spike." With the lamb potjie on the fire, he left for a mountain-bike ride at dusk — and didn't come back till well past dark.

CAPE TOWN — Like the African honey badger — and you really must watch this video to understand the full context of this phrase — Steve Pike don’t give a sh*t.

Except when it comes to feeding people and showing them a great time.

Which explains why the South African surfer dude quickly emerged as one of everyone’s favorite pals during our stay in Cambridge during our fellowship year. Better known for surf-forecasting than sauteing, the 47-year-old Capetonian ended up becoming the go-to foodie for our entire Nieman class.

Catering a party for 60? Spike’s the guy to call.

Lamb chops for Janet's birthday on our last night (sniff sniff).

“Braai” was one of the first things he introduced us to when he demonstrated that a fire isn’t really hot enough to grill over unless you can hold your hand just above it and count to just 10 — any more than that, and you’ll get burnt. Braai is an Afrikaans word that refers to the practice of grilling meat over a wood fire while about 10 of your mates stand clutching beers and telling you what to do.

I watched a whole lot of braai-ing during our recent two-week vacation to visit Steve and his wife, Janet Heard, and my foodie pals are clamoring for some food porn — i.e., what I ate and what I learned about along the way:

 • Mix sweet and savory a la Malay cooking — just don’t forget the mustard seed. We had the best beef of our lives during our four-day stay in the Karoo. Sorry I don’t have a photo to show you here — this is actually a lamb stew on the left here. Apparently we were too busy devouring it to photograph it.

Steve prepared the fillet first by rubbing the entire thing in olive oil, whole mustard seeds and cracked black pepper, then searing it to create a crunchy coating. Then he braaied it to medium-rare in a pan set atop another blazing wood fire. At the same time in a separate pan, he carmellized a pan of onions in olive oil, red wine and about a third of a jar of apricot jam, which seemed to be featured in every meal he made. More jam was then slathered over the meat just before its final cooking atop the onion mixture.

And then: Lekker! (South African for “awesome.”)

• Embrace the potjie, which is essentially any kind of stew cooked for a minimum of two hours inside in a Dutch oven or potjie pot (pronounced “poiky”). Midway through our stay in the remote Karoo, about five hours northeast of Cape Town, Steve slow-cooked a lamb potjie this way, stewing the meat with butternut squash, onions, carrots and tomatoes and copious amounts of crushed coriander seed and — of course — apricot jam.

• Road food, African photojournalist style, is not the same as fast food. On our way to the Karoo,  Janet taught us how to make what she calls a “rollover.” She’d developed the lunch years earlier during a working road-trip with Richard Shorey, now a news photographer in KwaZulu-Natel. Leave it to the photogs to figure out a new way to consume chips, bread and meat.

The tension was palpable as our 13-year-old, Will, couldn’t wait for Janet to reveal the mystery of the rollover, which my husband, Tom, documented here on video:

What you end up with is a panini-like concoction, minus the butter and grill marks. (Back in Roanoke last night, Will asked me to make him one in our driveway, which was fun but not quite the same, although the Subaru’s tire print did make a lasting impression.)

A marketing gimmick, Ronnies Sex Shop is really just a pub out in the middle of nowhere.

• Sex sells, even if all you’re really serving is beer. During our journey to the Karoo, we also happened upon an attraction begun 13 years ago by a gray-braided hippie named Ronnie Price, who had the notion that he could actually lure tourists to his bar in the middle of nowhere if he named it “Ronnies Sex Shop.” (No apostrophe necessary.)

No sex toys, either, thankfully. Just beer. But as Ronnie put it: “Sex sells, you know.”

• Food tastes better outdoors. We four three glorious electricity- and cellphone-free days hiking and biking and eating many kinds of braai-cooked meat in the

Cottage caretaker Anne Reid embraces solace in the mountains — but loves company too.

Karoo, where I interviewed Anne Reid, the 63-year-old hearty soul who runs the lodge at Gamkapoort Dam and who joined us for supper most nights. The Karoo is a rugged, almost lunar landscape full of succulent plants, craggy rocks and thorn trees. It’s as ecologically diverse and as beautiful as anywhere I’ve ever been. When she’s not ferrying tourists and their bikes to the top of windy dirt passes, she uses her Land Cruiser battery to charge her computer, and when she needs to check e-mail, she drives an hour away to the top of another ridge. “You learn to do without,” she says. She gave me a start of the plentiful spekboom succulent, a lime-colored cactuslike plant that she swears will be the saving grace of the world. It’s known for reducing blood pressure, and for its amazing capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions.

The honey badger eats whatever he wants — and never gains weight. If he wants to, he can even eat an eight-pound ostrich egg after stumbling onto it during a bike ride and subsequently toting it home to Cape Town, where he fixed an omelette with a portion of it the next morning for breakfast.

That’s right: The homemade meals just kept coming, even as our trip sadly came to a close. On our last night, we were treated to a potluck to celebrate Janet’s birthday — with Janet’s mom’s boyfriend, Mike, bringing his to-die-for mussels that he’d collected himself and baked in a homemade cream sauce. (Mike did not, however, care much for the honey badger video, which became the joke of our trip. “Why’d they pick an American to do the narration?” he asked, of the campy voiceover that made the standard nature video so funny — at least to the 11.9 million folks who’ve watched the video so far.)

Vicki, Janet’s sister, chipped in delicious meat pies — which are as ubiquitous in South African as hot dogs are here. And Janet made one of her trademark salads that’s become my new very favorite thing: cooked-but-still-crunchy green beans with veggies (whatever you fancy), chunks of feta and a scattering of nuts, dressed in a lemon vinaigrette. With all the dieting I need to do now, I should eat this and only this at every meal and, luckily, it’s good enough that I can.

"To Hell 'N Gone" -- before our bike ride down the dirt road to Gamkapoort Dam.

I don’t know how many pounds we gained, but it was fewer than we would have had Steve not also been pushing us to take nine-hour hikes on Table Mountain and mountain bike rides in the Karoo and Tokai Forest Reserve.

Long live the real African honey badger, whose outdoor bonafides are as badass as any creature of the night. Steve challenges his houseguests, but I’m happy to report: He feeds them faaaaabulously well.

Best hosts ever, Janet Heard and master braaier Steve Pike. We missing you!

Notes from a South African newsroom

CAPE TOWN — They giggled when I mentioned relying on our news researcher Belinda Harris, who helps Roanoke Times reporters research background and hard-to-find cellphone numbers. Come again? — the South African reporters wanted to know.

When I talked about working on projects for six, sometimes eight or more months at a time (usually amid other quicker-hit stories), there was a similar rumble of indignation.

The nine reporters who fill the 50,000-circulation, five-times-a-week Cape Times newspaper were hungry to learn more about sniffing out stories that lend themselves to narrative writing, I learned during my July 5 talk at the Irish-owned South African paper. About 20 employees of the Times, along with their sister publications (the Cape Argus, Weekend Argus, The Voice and Cape Community Newspapers) sat in on my presentation, which I gave halfway through my 12-day family vacation to visit our Nieman pals Janet Heard and Steve Pike with their kids, Tyler and Ella.

The Cape Times reporters had just covered Michelle Obama’s visit and are more accustomed to reporting on crime, trauma and marginalized communities than I am. About 15 million South Africans live on less than 15 rand a day — the equivalent of $2 U.S. dollars — and two of three children go to bed without a meal.

As we learned on our earlier tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned most of his 27 years, the unofficial unemployment rate in the nation is 43 percent. Which explains why one former prisoner still spends day in and day out there: Not because he wants to relive the horror and drudgery but because he needs the tour-guide job. (Janet wrote an excellent piece about our visit to the World Heritage Site, explaining why Robben Island is due more praise than it has gotten in the recent past.)

At a rugby party on one of our first nights in South Africa, freelance journalist Tanya Farber recounted heartbreaking stories that she’s written in recent years, including a lid-popper about “corrective rape” — the township practice of raping lesbian women to “correct” them of their ways. Farber even managed to interview one of the perpetrators of the crime.

Most South African journalists seem to be so busy covering the plethora of breaking news stories, many of them routinely working 12 hours a day and reporting in three different languages, that they don’t have the luxury to write very many narratives — though their communities are teeming with juicy, heart-rending and heart-pounding stories to tell.

They’d also reported recently on the four Table Mountain muggings over the past two weeks — something Steve and Janet neglected to tell us about until we were well on our way up the eight-hour, 3,000-feet ascent up and around Platteklip Gorge — in the midst of a raging southeaster.

Janet, who is head of news at the Cape Times, said she found this point the most pertinent among those in my presentation:  If you’re bored at work, maybe you’re boring. Because face it, there are great stories around us EVERYWHERE if only we bother to look — and to listen, with pure intention and genuine curiosity.

It’s even OK to fall in love with your subjects, sort of, I told them — as long as you heed New Yorker writer Katherine Boo’s advice: “I’m not writing you a love letter. I’m trying to create a portrait of you that your sister would recognize.”

I talked about the need to follow up with subjects and develop relationships on your beat: the reluctant father of the soldier with PTSD who finally decides he’s up for being interviewed three years after his son’s death; the retired copy editor (“sub editor,” in South Africa parlance) who asks me to tell her story before dementia destroys her ability to remember it; the routine Mother’s Day feature on a missionary who ends up inviting me to report on a team of doctors treating cholera in Haiti — during the November 2010 riots.

You never know where a subject will lead you.  Jonathan Ancer, the narrative writing guru and group trainer for Independent Newspapers who hosted my talk, is about to publish a riveting five-part serial tracing the journey of his checkbook after it was stolen from him in a burglary earlier this year.

Reporters in South Africa face different challenges than we do. But they stand up at noon to cluster around the TV, checking out the competition, just like we do. They struggle mightily with limited resources, just like we do (maybe even more so, actually). But their biggest challenge isn’t just the Internet; only 10.8 percent of the country has Internet access. It’s also illiteracy, combined with new and very serious government threats to press freedom.

Yet in Cape Town alone, there are about five daily newspapers, more including the tabloids. Two of the broadsheets are written in Afrikaans.

And every day reporters at the Cape Times work doggedly to ferret out stories of corruption, filing multiple stories and speaking multiple languages and knowing in their hearts that if they don’t write it, nobody will. Their tenacity was downright inspiring.

Hours after my talk, a young Capetonian e-mailed me asking me to read and offer feedback on several of her stories. “I am open to criticism,” she wrote. “It is important for growth.”

Trainer Jonathan Ancer, Editor Alide Dasnois, Head of News Janet Heard and me.

60 hours in New York: 4 feet, 3 ferries, 1 train, 3 buses, 6 subways and a taxi ride or 2

In order to understand your place as well as your people, sometimes it’s good to get away for a few days.

Last week I spoke about my work to a group of library patrons in Southampton, N.Y. (a topic I’ll save for my next posting). To get to the tony Long Island community, my fantastic South African traveling companion Janet Heard and I took an Amtrak train, followed by a cross-sound ferry, followed by a car ride that took us on two more ferries — including through Sag Harbor, where we looked longingly, without success, for hometown studboy Alec Baldwin.

The next day, we toured New York City, by way of the Hampton Jitney bus (complementary muffins and New York Times), several subway rides, a city bus and a carriage ride through Central Park, guided by a nursing student named Mamet, a cheerful Georgian immigrant who mistakenly thought we were gay. “Sorry to disappoint you,” I said.

Not that our feet didn’t share the burden of transport. We figured we put in 60 city blocks in as many hours. On St. Patrick’s Day morning, I found myself in total heaven: standing elbow-to-elbow  amid a cacophony of kilted Irishmen, Smithwicks in hand. The bar was called Molly’s Pub and Shebeen, and we chose it from the throngs of standing-room-only Irish pubs because my Capetown buddy swore that Shebeen was a South African word for an after-hours bar. Turns out it is, not unlike a Southern nipjoint, only the word is Gaelic in origin. (Where matters of drinking are concerned, I defer — always — to the Irish.)

At a trendier-than-thou restaurant on Broome Street (where our Barbie maitre d’ wore runner-laden black pantyhose under the tightest, shortest black skirt on the lower East side), we met our writer pal Ashton Applewhite, who was fresh off her six-week stint as an “interpreter” in the Tino Sehgal show at the Guggenheim — and still high with excitement. “The only time in my life I’ll ever be in The New Yorker and The New York Times in the same week.” It’s the only time in my life I’ll ever know someone who’s been in The New Yorker and The New York Times in the same week!

After a night showing of “Fela!” — a jamming musical/dance tribute about Fela Kuti, a kind of Nigerian Bob Marley — we capped our trip off with a woefully short two-hour visit to MoMA, where South African artist William Kentridge’s haunting drawings and multimedia works chronicled Apartheid and its aftereffects. (Note to MoMA visitors about to hop on a bus: You’re not allowed to check your suitcase at the museum, but a nice lady at the museum may encourage you to pretend you’re a guest at the nearby Hilton so you can stash your bags there with the Egyptian bellman . . . who may also inquire if you are gay. [Whattup? Was it the newsboy hat?])

For a while it felt like we’d gone to New York to learn about . . . Africa. Which is fine and good. But I did have to smile when I spotted this photo in another MoMA exhibit with a dateline of Radford, Va, circa 1930s.

I asked my buddy Ralph Berrier, font of all Radford knowledge, if he’d ever seen the photo before, and he said no. But his characteristically Ralphy reply made me miss my hometown all the more: “We ain’t got no MoMA in Bigg Lik, but we got a lotta Hot Momas!”

By the way, Ralph’s book, “If Trouble Don’t Kill Me,” will be published by Crown this summer. It’s the wild, true tale of his musician-grandfather who was within a mosquito wing’s width of reaching fame and acclaim. So New Yorkers, get ready to pull out your fancy pantyhose and break out the Smithwicks: Big Lick’s coming to town.