A new book examining Nelson Mandela's life was launched, along with a feast that included everything from the spaghetti casserole he was brought in jail to the soured milk he longed for while living underground.
After all, what he ate, where he ate it and those who prepared it serve as the basis for "Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela."
Although Mandela was absent Saturday, many of those who first prepared the dishes — including former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — were on hand for the banquet organized by his daughter Zindzi. The event was part of the national celebrations for Mandela's 90th birthday later this month.
Rural women were flown in to prepare dishes from Mandela's native southeastern region of South Africa, and lamb on the spit was grilled to the exacting standards of George Bizos, the Greek-South African lawyer celebrated for defending anti-apartheid leaders.
Readers curious about the fare can use "Hunger for Freedom" as a cookbook, complete with instructions involving an ax and a pig's head for one stew. Few cookbooks, though, come with such extensive personal stories.
The book's author, Pretoria-based anthropologist and chef Anna Trapido, calls it a "gastro-political biography," weaving in the stories of the men and women who struggled for freedom alongside Mandela.
"You can always understand the society that produced the food by looking at the food," said Trapido, whose previous book, "To the Banqueting House", was an award-winning survey of African cuisine and its influence on what the world eats, written with Burundian-Belgian chef Coco Fathi Reinarhz.
The society presented in "Hunger for Freedom" is a pot bubbling with ingredients from Africa, Asia and Europe, and a range of classes, religions and politics.
Mandela, a country boy who quickly took on city sophistication after arriving in Johannesburg in the 1940s, samples Chinese food there for the first time, and becomes a connoisseur of Indian specialties.
But he also hungered for familiar foods. In his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," he writes of placing a bottle of milk outside to sour when he was underground at a white comrade's apartment in a part of town where blacks were not allowed to live. He knew it was time to change hideouts when he overheard black servants wondering why a white man was preparing "our milk."
"In a society that is so divided by race, it is possible to tell all sorts of things about what's going on behind closed doors, simply by a bottle of milk on the window sill," Trapido said.
Trapido read Mandela's prison letters and other documents in the archives of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. She interviewed Mandela, and scores of other people, including his children, wives, friends, even his prison guards, one of whom attended Saturday's book launch with his wife, who used to bake Christmas cakes for Mandela and other prisoners.
Trapido also sat in the kitchen of the home in Maputo, Mozambique, where Mandela and his Mozambican third wife, Graca Machel, spend part of every year. She cooked with some of her subjects.
"Food is such a good way to get people to remember the broader political context," Trapido said. "In making the food and tasting the food and smelling the food, they suddenly remembered all sorts of things they hadn't remembered before."
Zindzi Mandela said Saturday that being interviewed for the book helped her reconnect with the people who helped her father and her family "during those most very, very difficult times."
It meant revisiting the days when she could not go home because her father was South Africa's most famous political prisoner and her mother, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was often jailed. The curries and cakes other people prepared for her during those times are also part of the book.
While at some points the book was like confronting "one's ghost," Zindzi Mandela said in the end it was a celebratory experience for her family.
"It's just brought people back into the circle," she said.