Issue 106, Spring 1988
Everyone in Upper Parkview, even people who did not know the Engelbrechts socially, knew about their Elijah, and how he not only cooked and served at the Engelbrechts’ excellent parties, but also suggested the dates and chose the wine. It was said he kept a record of who owed the Engelbrechts and whom they owed, and that people who offended him got shifted down the list. He carefully read the Domestic Intelligence columns of the Johannesburg Star every day in case an item should prove relevant, and indeed would not recognize that a birth, death or marriage had actually occurred if he did not see it in the paper.
His faith in the written word was what had originally got him the Engelbrecht job. Mrs. Engelbrecht had advertised Wanted—clean honest native cook/houseboy. Elijah, then nineteen, had presented himself: a tall young man with a trusting, monkey-like face and a sparse beard.
“Can you cook?” Mrs. Engelbrecht had asked.
“Yes, Madam,” Elijah replied.
“Where did you learn?”
“I have not learned. But I can read.” He held out a school certificate. “If Madam gives me a cooking book I will make like it says.”
The other, more experienced natives who applied looked scruffy or had work permit problems or ambiguous references—Works well under supervision,” “I believe him to be honest”—so Mrs. Engelbrecht had taken Elijah at his word, engaged him on trial and given him Home Cooking for the Young Housewife. There was a fund of amusing stories about his early days: he threw away the soup and kept the soupbone; reported in consternation that the jam marked caviar stank of fish; put a rand note instead of a silver coin in the Christmas pudding; and so on. Mrs. Engelbrecht’s favorite anecdote was of being held up in a traffic jam for four hours before an important dinner party. Arriving home only twenty minutes before her guests were due, she found the meal ready, and exactly as she had intended. Elijah had explained: “I thought Madam will say, 'We’ll have the leg of mutton, Elijah’ and she will say, ’It will be nice with rosemary, that will be a change from mintsauce.’ And Madam will say, ’It’s a heavy meal, so we’ll need a cool dessert, that’s why I bought those pawpaws and grenadillas. You can put in a few slices of grapefruit, too, Elijah.’ And Madam will say, ’Now mind you don’t use the bitter kind like you did that other time, eh, Elijah.”