Okay, Lebanon has kibbeh (pine nuts, lean meat, racked wheat), Brussels has tomaat garnaal (shrimp stuffed tomatoes), Barbados has fried flying fish.
Cape Town has – wait for it – pink polony.
There is hardly a child brought up in the last 20 years who has not tasted it. My mother, a stranger to nutrition, thought it was nourishing, particularly for school sandwiches.
There is something science fictiony about pink polony; a friend has witnessed vomit from a polony eater which she swears was luminous. It has a strange supernatural appearance, a sort of culinary dysplasia, a stonking amount of chemicals, that gleam on its gelatinous surface, giving it a comic book relevance, not a real food, but something that might smack Barbie in the kisser.
How did it this strange moon food, this astro turf, this chemical gargle, this vermilion coloured limbo of nerve ends, entrails, heart valves, uvulas, ventricles, butt hair, ducts, ligaments and eye sockets, became such an essential part of the South African diet? It looks like a lab slide of chlamydia.
Well for a start it was cheap and it was French, what a seductive combo my mother would say, “It’s French polony darling.”
It was not only the slaphappy colour but its very rare consistency, somewhere near creosote. Chopping up my school eraser, I felt that same rubbery resistance, the same plastic bounce. It was kind of addictive.
But it had its uses, once when I cut my leg, our gardener put a piece over the wound to stop the bleeding and it’s great for exfoliating.
A grand woman staying with me once said,“ Oh darling, its such a vulgar colour, didn’t they have anything more pastel?”
Its taste is more interesting and difficult to describe unless you have had occasion to eat a bit of your hot water bottle or been unlucky enough end up with a mouth full of road tar. But have you ever smelt it? It smells like the soil from a newly dug grave, slothy and otherworldly; you feel it might disengorge an earthworm.
I crept into the supermarket with a pencil and notebook to write down the heady ingredients of French polony. I was surreptitious, faintly embarrassed, shifty as a shoplifter. I need not have bothered, they are proudly proclaimed all over the web page: mechanically deboned chicken (we all know what that means). pork, water, vegetable protein (soya), starch, salt, cereal (wheat gluten), sugar, phosphates, maltodextrin, msg (flavour enhancer), spices (irradiated), spice extracts, acidulants, hydrolysed vegetable protein, flavourants, sodium erythorbate, preservatives (sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate), colourants (erythrosine ci45430; caramel e150). Contains: soya, wheat gluten.
But perhaps the most riveting phrase is ‘remove packaging prior to serving’. In truth it is very difficult to tell the packaging from the product, a slice of wrap might not taste much different from a slice of polony.
But it is not ashamed of itself, oh no, it doesn’t creep into a culinary cave hiding its excessive almost menopausal pinkness, oh no, it proclaims its ingredients and skeeves you out in the most uncanny places. “French polony is delicious with pap, in meaty stews or sliced in sandwiches, ” it intones.
The total market size of chilled processed meats in South Africa, according to Nielsen, specialists in retail measurement, is 92 000 tons, polony makes up 50% of this, the rest are foods like viennas, bacon, sausages.
In China processed meats are thought to be status symbols and visiting Beijing I was asked to dinner and hoping for fragrant rice and crispy vegetables and gleaming dark brown duck, I was faced with fried pink polony. “This is palani, lovely palani, imported from England,” the host said.. Recall John Cleese’s restaurant scene, “We have eggs with spam (the UK equivalent of polony, slightly less toxic) sausages and eggs and spam, eggs, sausages and spam, and just spam, spam, spam.”
According to my mother during the war you could bargain a tin of spam for a pair of nylon stockings.
A few months ago our office spun with excitement, it was Gatsby Day. The Gatsby is the national dish of Cape Town. Our office manager was in festive mood as she layered this precious ‘heritage’ food of the Cape flats into a roll cut in half. First a layer of margarine, then pink polony, then slap chips, then viennas and the whole shebang doused in a creamy chemicalised tomato sauce. TIK seems comparatively pure in comparison.
Processed meat can be delicate, air dried, filled with sweet smelling herbs but the readymade polony you buy in shops tastes like snow and dirt, snirt as it known as, a great munchball that has little to recommend it as a food substance.
Polony itself is an ancient way of using scraps of meat off a carcass and if made properly can be almost eatable. My Italian grandmother used to grind up some meat, veal I think, chop in some parsley and lard and parmesan and pound them together and then add saltpetre as a preservative. She lived on an island in the Venetian lagoon called Sant’Erasmo (territory of desire) and this preserved meat – we called it salametti — would last her through the winter months.
I haven’t eaten polony for years ever since I once saw a dead horse in the street and its owner said, “Hell man don’t cry, I can make it into polony.” The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) in a review that covers more than 7,000 clinical studies says bluntly:”Processed meats are too dangerous for human consumption.”
I asked my 5 year old niece what she thought of polony. “Polony,” she shrieked, “That’s pony.”
Well, if only it was, so much better than all those truant E’s.