What do you do when a virtual friend dies? A friend you’ve never met in real life, but for the past 10 years your engagements with one another on social media have been supportive, mutually admiring and meaningful. Your heart is sore but other than crying and dripping tears over your cracked phone screen while reading the outpourings of love for her on Twitter, there is not much else you can do. Sindisiwe van Zyl’s death devastated both those who loved her in real life and those (all 290 700) of us who forged friendships with her over the interwebs.
I first “met” Dr Sindi van Zyl in 2011 when the Twitter bio of this doctor and health advocate caught my eye. It stated that she loved “God, Google & Woolies”. Later, I would learn that she also had a passion for Louis Vuitton “neverfulls”, popping Champagne corks at precisely 11:59 pm, Le Creuset pots, Woolies’ malva pudding with fresh vanilla custard, cookbooks, music, dresses with pockets and long Twitter threads. But mostly she loved her “husbae”, the bearded Afrikaner, Marinus, who only on the rare occasion indulged her wish to dress in matchy-matchy outfits, and her beloved children Nandi and Manie, who she affectionately referred to as her Caramellos.
Over the years Sindi would occasionally tweet or Instagram a pic of the cover of my cookbook long after everyone else had forgotten I had ever written one. She referred to me as “uMama ka Sebastiaan”, which made my heart burst. She was generous in her praise and honest in her criticism. She was loved. Sindi also had a complete collection of every issue of TASTE that has ever been produced. She loved food and cooking although, like me, it wasn’t a skill that came easy to her. In 2011 I was supposed to write a story about her cooking for her family but instead, in her words, she fell apart and her “Mamazela” ended up cooking. In the end we titled the story “SuperShopper” because Sindi mostly bought ready-made Woolies food for her family. She loved the feature.
When I learned of her death, I grieved, and then vaguely recalled her once saying she had wanted to learn to make a good lasagne. And so, in her honour, I tried to make lasagne myself, for the first time. I was inspired by Jamie Oliver who, in one of his recipes, replaces béchamel sauce with crème fraîche – something I can totally get on board with. Béchamel frightens me. So does layering many things. I truly am a lazy cook. But the flavours were truly Italian, with hints of oregano and basil and the Bolognese was a lot better than the one I have, until now, prided myself on. And the crème fraîche was a brilliant replacement. The layering, however, was just one step too far for me.
So the next time I made it, because it is so good it needed to be made twice, I deconstructed it using fusilli pasta, served in a bowl with generous helpings of Bolognese, a smoosh of crème fraîche, torn basil and loads of Parmesan. My family loved it, which made me enormously happy, but it also saddened me when I thought that there were so many things that Sindi, uMama ka Nandi, uMama ka Manie, would no longer be able to do for her children. Then something told me to go back in my emails and there it was, the email in which Sindi told me she had learned to make lasagne. “I’ve mastered the béchamel sauce,” she wrote. Of course she had. Of course she would. Some people just do more in their lifetimes and with their lives than others do. Those are the ones whose spirits live on.