Chef and food stylist Khanya Mzongwana learned how important food and the pleasure of eating was for her during her time in a mental health institution. Meals and eating times were rigid and standardised and, although she doesn’t fault the institution for that, she lost one of the highlights of her day – planning and cooking her meals. After getting the rest and recovery she needed at the time, she found freedom in being able to do what she does best again.
When the pandemic hit and she lost cooking gigs, she realised she needed a new form of income, especially because she still had to pay for her expensive medication. As someone who knows how to style and photograph food in beautiful ways, she had the idea to put out an e-cookbook, pulling from her Instagram feed which was filled with recipes that many of her followers loved. Two weeks later, she released Sh*t’s Real, Let’s Heal, Eating in the Meantime, an anthology of recipes from her lockdown cooking.
The book’s conversational tone is personal, connecting readers to Mzongwana, and her story, struggles and passion. The recipes are exciting and comforting, for all kinds of moods and accessibility, and ultimately share a message about the healing power of food. She’s also conscious of the financial limitations that many are going through, especially right now, and puts together recipes that use a lot of staples found in many households, cooked in creative ways. Some can be cooked in big batches for large families, or smaller meals for the single person living alone.
Destigmatising mental illness
In the introduction to her book, Mzongwana writes candidly about her mood disorders and mental health struggles, citing chronic depression as “one of the sassiest of the lot.” While speaking about mental health is becoming somewhat less taboo than it used to be, it’s still rare in the professional setting. To her, it was important to include this in her book.
“I’m a real Virgo about my bipolar – I’ll mention it before you even ask!” she says, “I have had to actually do my research and read endlessly about my condition and I realised I had always been that girl, how did it take THIS long to realise it! And this is going to sound so ‘make-a-wish-ish,’ but being manic honestly feels like a super power. I do my best work when I’m manic! And I take full advantage of the high of being able to get things done. When I’m low, I tend to isolate and be moody, but I have a support system that doesn’t let me sink.”
While she acknowledges that everyone’s experience is unique, her journey and understanding of her mental illness helped her learn how to live with it and find ways to thrive. It highlights the importance of destigmatising the subject; it can help others to understand what they are struggling with sooner, and to not be ashamed of it.
“The reason it is so important to speak on mood disorders and mental illness is also to continue the work of normalising us. We’re your friends, teachers, daughters, leaders, partners,” she says.
Against diet culture
Mzongwana is overtly anti-diet culture, and it is clearly stated and shown in the cookbook. This is rare. So much of food writing contains diet-culture messaging and language and it has become so intrinsic to the marketing of food products that people do it subconsciously. Words and phrases like “guilt-free”, “guilty pleasure”, “naughty” and “cheat-day” get ascribed to foods and eating, perpetuating the disordered eating and charged relationships that many people have with food as a result.
Diet culture thrives off the capitalist system’s desire to profit from a highly fat-phobic society – one that is born from racist ideals, as Sabrina Strings writes in Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. While research has refuted the health claims of the premise that thinness is a measure of health, it’s a highly profitable idea for many companies who continue to market it as such. Diet culture becomes even more harmful when considering the rampant inequality in South Africa and the rest of the world, with the lack of access to quality healthcare and food being a problem for so many.
Mzongwana writes in her book, “We’re living in anxious times, and more and more people are clinging onto the redeeming comforts of food.” She eats freely, in a way that doesn’t subscribe to the idea of “bad foods” and “good foods”. It was important for her to include an explicitly anti-diet culture message in her book because of her own relationship with food.
“I’ve faced a lot of body dysmorphia stuff which has tinted my relationship with food in a way that I feel has been so unnecessary. It’s difficult to find joy in food when it is associated with shame all the time. This is an especially important message for the babies. When we’re talking about the business of really falling in love with food, it’s like having healthy discussions about sex. There’s never going to be a satisfying meal if it’s always going to be accompanied by feelings of shame or embarrassment about what you like, ie how much of it you like/need. Our appetites are all different.”
She chooses to centre pleasure when it comes to eating and the recipes she chooses and creates. While she writes that her medication helps treat her depression, food is what has kept her here.
She writes, “I decided I want to be the voice telling readers and eaters alike that it’s okay and normal to take refuge in food sometimes, and that finding comfort in food doesn’t have to be an irresponsible act. It doesn’t have to be falling face first into a tub of Neapolitan. It can be beautiful; it can be inspirational and it has the power to lift you out of a dark space.”
The journey to self-publishing
Mzongwana’s food career has been difficult in many ways. She started food-styling after working as a chef in restaurants and seeing the abusive environment for which restaurant kitchens are infamous. Her ideas were often taken, without her being credited in any way. She decided to craft her own path in the food industry and currently works in a variety of roles: chef, food writer and editor, food stylist and running the “No Rules Cafeteria” pop-up events.
While she credits her mother and grandmother for much of her food knowledge and skill, she was also inspired by the chefs she watched growing up, like Jamie Oliver and the women on the BBC show Two Fat Ladies. She credits them for offering another possibility of representation for women in food. Her current catalogue of food inspirations (which she humorously refers to as “much blacker and much cooler“) include people doing innovative things in frozen dessert and ice-cream, such as Tapiwa Guzha, founder of Tapi Tapi ice-creams, Lokelani Alabanza of Saturated ice-cream, and Sine Ndlela and her team at Yococo. She also admires chefs like Yemisi Awosan (founder of Egunsi foods), chef and writer Yewande Komolafe and Auzerais Bellamy (of Blondery).
When Mzongwana decided to put together this e-book, she wasn’t planning for it to be big, she just wanted a new project to help her back into productivity after a challenging time. After she managed to put it all together in such a short time, she was feeling encouraged. “Because I managed to do it in two weeks with a lot of things happening in my life. I don’t care that it isn’t perfect. Which is new for me.”
While she’s currently working on another (physical) book for late next year, the journey of self-publishing provided her a low-stakes project (which she distributes privately) and that made her feel very free. She wanted to make it now, do it her way and do it simply. It has been received with excitement by many who have been stuck at home during the pandemic, needing to learn how to cook or wanting to try out a new and delicious recipe.
“They’re all a piece of personal history for me and I hope you love them as much as I do. These recipes honour the act of eating as meditation and an emotionally charged experience.”
To get a copy of Sh*t’s Real, Let’s Heal, you can email Khanya at email@example.com You can also follow her on Instagram @undignifiedza