'South Africans are jolly': A traditional South African braai unfolds on a Tennessee farm

People stand shoulder to shoulder around a long table-like braai in Franklin, cooking their family's share of meat.
Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Grant Hensley prodded a pile of coals, releasing clouds of smoke into the spring sky. Nearby, his wife Maresa Hensley, born Maresa du Toit in South Africa, set the fireside tables.

Descended from French Huguenots who immigrated to the cape of South Africa, Maresa Hensley grew up amid thousands of acres of vineyards farmed since the 17th century. Here, in Franklin, Tennessee, she and her husband host big, boisterous braais, or South African-style barbecues, on their 18-acre farm.

Kobie Pretorius said the braai brings community together. "You show up with your side dish, your meat for your family and all the families come together — and we braai."

Kobie Pretorius, a 26-year Nashville resident raised in South Africa's Mpumalanga province, was one of the first to arrive at the Hensley's first braai of the season. She hauled a potjiekos stew in a heavy cauldron-like potjie, which she settled on the edge of the coals. She also carried a stack of napkins printed with the phrase, "Suid-Afrikaners is plesierig," or "South Africans are jolly." 

There's truth in advertising, she noted, as the field slowly filled with a crowd of nearly 100. Some, like Pretorius and country-blues artist Roan Ash, were expats. Others were American-born, including Grant Hensley, whose grown children arrived bearing the braai, or the grill that served as the heart of the festivities.

Like the word barbecue, "braai" is linguistically fluid. You may throw a braai, where you may braai coils of boerewors, South African sausages, on the braai. One thing does not change: braai is an art, best performed over live fire. But to call a braai a "gathering" is to do it a disservice. It's a riot of food, a familial, convivial hubbub.

"It's a social event," Pretorius explained earlier at her home as her pap and sheba, or South African corn porridge with tangy-sweet tomato sauce, came together in the kitchen. "It brings the community together. You show up with your side dish, your meat for your family and all the families come together — and we braai."

People stand shoulder to shoulder around a long table-like braai in Franklin, cooking their family's share of meat.

A braai is at once a potluck and communal cooking event. Rather than one person standing solo flipping hot dogs, cooks stand shoulder to shoulder around the long table-like braai, cooking their family's share of meat.

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In Franklin, the grill was soon filled with sizzling rib-eyes, sausages and a dizzying array of lamb cuts from Scissortail Farm in nearby Columbia, Tennessee. Each arriving family brought their own battle-tested tongs and piled the table with more sides, which painted a picture of modern South Africa's diversity.

On the table: daltjies, or pakora-like fritters of chickpea flour, coriander, cumin, turmeric and cilantro, a recipe carried by Indian immigrants to South Africa. There was a dish of Bunny Chow, a vegetarian curry served on thick rolls, also influenced by Indian flavors. Among the desserts were sticky-sweet fried dough koeksisters, the recipe for which was brought to the cape by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. 

People stand shoulder to shoulder around a long table-like braai in Franklin, cooking their family's share of meat.

Then there was Pretorius's pap, one of many variations of African maize porridge. In South Africa, pap is served dry and loose, with a texture similar to couscous and perfect for mopping up meat juices. 

As the grill cleared of meat, on went the braaibroodjieor cheese sandwiches layered with tomato, onions and chutney. "These always come last," Pretorius said. But although there are customs, there are no hard rules at the braai.

"Whether it's corn meat, veggies or dessert, name it, it goes on the fire," she said. "It doesn't matter who, what, where you are in South Africa, or how long or short you've been there, the braai brings everyone together."

How to make braaibroodjie

Braaibroodjie is South Africa's answer to the grilled cheese sandwich. The name translates roughly to little barbecued sandwiches. At a traditional braai, they're grilled over open flame and served at the end of the meal. 

In Franklin, Tennessee, people gather for an annual South African braai.

Any white bread can be used in this recipe, particularly if it's small and square, Pretorius said. For the chutney? Most South Africans will have opinions about that. "We say you're not a full-blooded South African if you don't have a few jars of Mrs. Ball's in your pantry," she said. 

Properly called Mrs. H.S. Ball's Chutney, Pretorius said any flavor, including peach, is fine. If you can't find Mrs. Ball's, any fruit chutney made with a decent amount of vinegar will do. 

Serves: 4

Ingredients

8 slices of white bread

4 tablespoons softened, unsalted butter

8 ounces of grated white cheddar or gouda

1 white onion, thinly sliced

1 large beefsteak tomato, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons Mrs. Ball's chutney or other fruit chutney

Instructions

Preheat a grill or grill pan over medium-low heat. Butter each slice of bread on one side and place bread, buttered side down, on a tray or platter.

Spread chutney on four slices of bread. Divide the cheese over the other four. Over the cheese, layer tomatoes and onion slices, and then top with the chutney-spread bread, chutney side down.

Grill each side until toasty on the outside, melty on the inside. Use a grill basket to keep the sandwiches together if you have one. 

Also try:Pap and sheba with boerewors: Corn porridge and sausage with sauce

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen. Reach her at mlunsford@southernkitchen.com.

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