What's cooking, Rika?
You could never accuse her of “cooking the books” because former bookkeeper Rika Knuffs Lanigan became an author of cookbooks by accident. She shares how it happened, the feedback she received after writing her first cookbook, and her writing plans for the future.
How did you morph into cook and then author?
Around 2011, I did some bookkeeping for a friend at the Ann van Dyk Cheetah and Wildlife Ranch in Warmbaths (now Bela Bela). One day I found myself in the kitchen while they were preparing a lunch for a group visiting from Denmark. A different group visited each Friday. What they were serving horrified me, so I made a few suggestions for the following week. This task became part of my job.
A month later, there was a group of international volunteers coming for a two-week period. The boss was busy, so I started organising transport around the farm, jobs for the volunteers, menus, and hundreds of other necessities. The kitchen and lodgings fell in my lap. Six groups of around thirty would come twice a year. For the rest of the year, I marketed other agencies and always had volunteers, 365 days of the year. I then became volunteer co-ordinator for volunteers from every corner of the world.
I'm not a brilliant cook, but served fresh meat and veg, basing the diet on A Drinking Man’s Diet which I had been on since the 1970s. The Americans, especially, were not familiar with fresh ingredients and loved what I served up. I did a survey on Facebook years later and all but one found they’d either stayed the same weight or lost. Only one who visited the tuck shop daily picked up weight.
For ten years, the volunteers nagged me to write a recipe book on what I had served them.
In 2019, being back in Durban, I attended a book writing course with author Val Waldeck. And then Covid happened. The bookkeeping job I’d been doing dried up and provided me with the perfect opportunity to write the nagged-for cookbook.
To me, it was an excellent way to pay tribute to the amazing group of volunteers. They pay an astronomical amount to volunteer and worked for free for two weeks to a year. The work they do is invaluable. Ann van Dyk did an incredible job of breeding cheetah to have a pure bloodline on hand should they become extinct.
I never do things the “normal” way. So the cook book has humour, is basic (like the meals I served), cost-effective, and offers healthy meals, pictures and stories unrelated to the meals. It even has a two-week menu.
How did you progress from the first book?
After I completed the first book, I came upon my late mother’s recipe book, which my niece had in her possession. This book has over 800 recipes. My mom was the cook. She’d been cooking her whole life for thousands of people, and even made meals for Kenneth Kaunda, the late president of Zambia. The provincial hospitals in Natal would send her to any hospital with a problem. Once she fixed the problem, they would send her to the next one.
So I started a series. There are too many recipes to fit into one book. So far I’ve done Braais and Potjies; Veggie Variety (good for vegans and vegetarians); Cakes, loaves and tarts; Sauces, gravies, Pickles, chutneys and atjars to finish off any meal. The next one will be on fish as I have a pescatarian friend.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a cook?
I am a basic cook. Before the volunteers arrived, they’d give you lists of each volunteer. What is gluten intolerant? How do you get around it? Lactose intolerant, vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, diabetic and all the different allergies. Oh, brother! You’re serving between 30 and 70 people and you have to factor all these into each meal. Catering for the first group was a nightmare, but I conquered the challenge.
Here’s a funny story… One of the volunteers was a diabetic with a fitted machine which registered her sugar continually. My 6-foot-something boss was also diabetic. He called the two of us into a meeting and told me I had to pay more attention to her meals. The little 5-foot-something girl stood up to him and demanded I didn’t change anything, as her blood sugar level had never been so low and consistent. So, diabetics, stick to the menu and your sugar level will be better.
Did the volunteers try out some of your recipes? What was their feedback?
The volunteers said they could actually hear me talking to them. Laugh out loud. They loved the recipes and are all now cooking much more than they did before. Family and friends who have bought the book have also sent me amazing feedback.
I send the books to email addresses. Many buy each book as they come out and print and file them. It makes sense to me as they can then add pics of their own meals with people present and also make notes of any additions they’ve made to make the meal more their own. In the books, I have encouraged readers to play in the kitchen and try different things with the recipes given. In my mind, many times cooks are put off from following recipes with scrumptious-looking pictures which they feel they can’t do. My books have no pictures for this reason.
What’s the best dish you make that has diners coming back for more?
Two recipes became firm favourites:
Chicken pie: Wrap chicken breasts in smoked bacon. In a bowl mix cream, a big handful of grated cheese and 3/4 large bag of Simba cheese and onion crisps crushed, but not too fine. (Must be Simba for the low oil content.) In an oven-proof dish, put a layer of the mix, chicken on top and cover with the rest of the mix. Take the ¼ packet of crisps left, crush them and layer on top. Bake in the oven at 120ºC (248º F). Yum!
Boil some pasta on the stove. In your potjie pot, fry onions, green peppers and mushrooms. Add the pasta, then add the cream mixed with tomato paste. Add biltong and lots of grated cheese. Let cook for a little with lid on. Now put a layer of grated cheese on top, cover and let cook until cheese melted. Make lots, it doesn’t last.
What meal reminds you most of home?
The ice cream my mother made especially for me. If you would like the recipe, drop me a line.
How would you describe yourself?
Sixty-nine and going on thirty. There’s an old woman in my mirror that haunts me every morning. Humour keeps me going every day. Now you can believe it or not, the Lord knows me so well. If He wants to get something important across to me, He often uses humour. We share many laughs. Yes, He has a sense of humour. There are no problems in my life, only challenges which I do my utmost to conquer… with the Lord’s help, of course. There are so many things I’d love to have more time to do, like painting and crafts, pottery, writing more books, travelling, gardening, but, most times there are more important things to do. The Lord has given me many talents and there are always new ones popping up.
Is there a motto you live by?
A couple. Honesty is the best policy. Anything easy getting isn’t worth having. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Okay, so that’s more than a couple, so it’s best I stop.
What is the best marketing tip you have received?
Val Waldeck has given me many tips. (If you’re a writer—whether new or old at the game—I highly recommend her course.) I’ve found that because I'm mainly selling to people I already know, I reach them by just being me and dropping them a line with my kind of language. I think people are tired of the normal sales spiels. People miss feeling more than a number, more than a part of a database, and more important than the money.
Do you have any event or book promotion coming up that you’d like to share?
Each book is an event for me. Let’s have a promotion for the CWOSA group. The books normally sell for R130. Buy three or more and get them at R50 each. You’ll love the recipes. So what’s on offer?
A Tribute to the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre Volunteers. Basic cooking meals for every day.
Braais and Potjies. More than just the stew type recipes.
Veggie Variety. Good for vegans and vegetarians and a good way to get veg-resistant people (children) eating veggies.
Cakes, Loaves and Tarts. Go on A Drinking Man’s diet and you can eat to your heart’s content.
Gravies, Pickles, Sauces, Chutney and Atjar. The ideal for topping off meals.
The next one will be on fish—good for pescatarians and anyone who lives near the sea or has a good fish supplier.
My other book is Faith building Thoughts, seeing God’s hand in your past. It is a bit of an autobiography to assist you in looking for His hand in your past. Once you start looking, it’s awesome to see how you’ve never walked alone, and how many talents He has given you along the way which you never even considered.
Each book has a bit of a story so people can get to know my family who are my inspiration for these books, which are tributes to them for loving me so dearly. I trust you enjoyed my journey with you and look forward to hearing from you.
Go here for a copy of Cook Easy with Rika
Here’s how to contact Rika:
Email: Rika.firstname.lastname@example.org; WhatsApp: 074 140 7744.