One of my favorite traditions in South African culture is the building of a good braai fire. For those not familiar with the term, a braai is “a structure on which a fire can be made for the outdoor grilling of meat”. In the United States, especially in the South we might call this a grill or a barbecue. I prefer to call it a braai because although I just learned the term last year, it just sounds more significant.
As a man there is something inspirational about a structure that is made to hold fiery pieces of wood. The fact that it is also described as a place for the “grilling of meat” is an added bonus.
Braai is a complex word that can ambidextrously serve as a noun or a verb. You could say something like “Let’s build a fire on the braai.” or “Let’s braai.” Either way you are in for a good time.
In my experience the building of fire is a multi-purpose activity. It is one of the few diversions that passes for food preparation and entertainment. When we moved to South Africa last year my wife was pleased to discover that men regularly take over cooking duties when raw meat is involved. She did not protest when I invested a significant amount of money in all kinds of “braai accessories” to ensure that I fit into our new culture.
In the United States, “grilling” or “barbecuing” is a culinary activity normally reserved for weekends or holidays, not so in South Africa. Here, we braai whenever the mood strikes us. Meat cooked on an open flame? Yes, please.
The braai as a vehicle for entertainment is also quite noteworthy. My neighbor here in Stellenbosch once told me that “People will try to tell you that the national sport is rugby. It’s not. It’s one man telling another how to braai properly.” I have found this truth to be self-evident. I have witnessed and participated in many great debates about the proper way to stack wood, whether it is permissible to use a fire-starter brick, or how to determine when the coals are ready.
Whenever two men are together and there is “a structure on which a fire can be made for the outdoor grilling of meat” you can be sure that the men will not communicate until a fire is built. This is free advice for women out there. Men need an activity to facilitate talking. If you want to talk to a man suggest that he burn a pile of wood first. That’s why I think the braai is a perfect wedding gift.
The braai is good for my spiritual life too. One of my favorite places to connect with the Lord and with other people is around the fire. There is a calming and focusing quality to the activity of building and nurturing a fire. It provides enough activity to allow for pauses and silences that are needed for good conversation, but not too much distraction to draw attention away from people or from God. On a cool night a fire also causes people to draw close to the warmth it provides, softening the barriers of personal space, and moving people towards people.
I look forward to building a fire tonight. In doing so I’ll make dinner, serve my wife, relax and hopefully have some great conversations too.
Zoroastrians, beware! Seriously, Gabe, you’ll need your own ‘signature fire’ to impress those South Africans who are born able to braai before they are weaned. May I suggest some magnesium and iron filings secretly added to the wood before lighting the fire?