Friday, April 24, 2009

Food for Thought 2

In yesterday’s blog I described Nigel Slater’s father as tyrannical. It would be fairer to say aloof, distant, obviously bewildered at his rather unusual son and unable to cope emotionally with the death of his wife. Every night for ages the poor man leaves two marshmallows beside Nigel’s bed because the boy had written an essay in which he said they were his favourite food. They were not – it was poetic license. The mother’s death had a huge impact on Nigel. Very early on, writing about her, he says you can’t taste a hug or smell a cuddle but if you could it would smell and taste like her bread and butter pudding. The hunger is also sexual as described by the growing child. His bewilderment as his father becomes besotted with his new lady is obvious, plus the abandonment of their old home for an isolated place in the country.

What a revolution has taken place in eating tastes since his childhood and mine. Garlic and olives were completely unknown in my youth. Now I eat them all the time. Likewise salami and blue vein cheese. In 1953 on her visit the Queen asked Prime Minister Sid Holland whether New Zealand made any other variety of cheese than cheddar. He replied innocently there were no other kinds.

My first taste of pizza was in Rome in 1971, now they are cooked everywhere. I was amazed how many pizza parlours there were in Japan. An Italian peasant dish has conquered the world. A different Japanese memory is from my second visit; near my Tokyo hotel was a basement garlic restaurant. Every dish had garlic in it – my favourite was garlic beef with mushrooms. The aroma attracted me as I walked past and I went there for a week experimenting with different dishes. I was welcomed warmly as an old hand after my second meal.

Huge world-wide and local distribution improvements have been both good and bad. They even out seasonal production – the good side we can now buy grapes all year round, the bad side we lose that contact with nature and often fruit from overseas is tasteless. Imports also affect local production. On the supermarket shelves all jars of pickled onions now come from Australia. We actually import pork. But against that in Wellington we can buy avocado, tamarillo, papaya, mango and persimmon. Anne thought lemons were only collected from trees until she came to Wellington. I’d discovered tree tomatoes (as tamarillo were called) when I was at university. When I lived in Thames for three years I was delighted to have a tamirillo tree on the section. Still seasonal, Bluff oysters and whitebait are now available, though very expensive, throughout the country when available. Finally, distribution world-wide is not equitable.

Cooking appears to be a dying art. A pity. Something very human is at stake. Mass production and fast food takeaways replace the skill that Slater celebrates, even if his mother wasn’t a great cook – haphazard might be the more appropriate word. (Her class were raised not knowing how to cook). I know what he means. Childhood memories. My comfort food is lamb loin chops followed by jelly and ice cream, Anne’s is tomato soup. Preparing and serving a meal for friends is one of the great forms of hospitality. (I regret that my health now prevents me doing this – even pancakes are beyond me now). Shared bread and wine carry the same significance as part of a religious ritual. All peoples have traditions of fellowship around food and particularly in the presence of visitors and guests.

Sadly the world has two epidemics. One is obesity. The other, even worse, is starvation. The fact that the two exist in parallel is a blight upon our species’ presence here.

Harvey McQueen

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