Why are we in such a mess about childhood…and parenting?

This subject has been hanging around in my head for many years but recent events have exacerbated the “itch”…Clearly there’s a mix-up in education which confuses the uniqueness of childhood with the delivery of education…as if there is only one time when education will work or information plant itself into the human brain…Bizarre given all the courses adults are tackling on-line.

The recent “Me Too” campaign has helped release the experience of thousands of women and men who have suffered various forms of sexual harassment, intimidation and abuse. The historic “memory release”  revealing the behaviour of famous names such as the actor Kevin Spacey has created a storm within the framework….My response as a mother may differ to the outrage of others because I understand the concept of childhood running parallel to adults responsible for that child; my immediate response to the allegation made by the adult recalling his experience as a 14 year-old child actor was to question the whereabouts of the adult with duty of care during the adult party. How could a 26 year-old man be free to invite a 14 year old boy to an “adult” party, let alone create a situation where the child ended up was sitting on his bed?

An unrelated comment by someone I’ve known for years revealed that I was regarded as “over-protective” towards my children…there’s also that offensive term “helicopter parent” which I suspect was created by childless teachers…As much as I want to acknowledge the good work of teachers I have witnessed so much inappropriate behaviour and language towards children to know that too many are ignorant and uneducated, both academically and in any intellectual understanding. Thus the notion that we as parents accept our duty of care and lay down boundaries is too often sneered at as “over-protective”

Perhaps times will change and “duty of care” will become more than a phrase bandied about but with little sign of implementation?  Child actor or not, no 14 year old should be free to be invited to an adult party by a 26 year old adult man or woman.

Childhood is a unique time framed by birth and those years when physical development brings about huge changes to a human from helpless baby to biological adult…individual children develop at different rates; some clearly appearing more mature than others, but all needing the protection of at least one adult…Sadly many politicians have swamped this time with manipulated facts about the ability to learn, removing any chance of a childhood not set within iron bars of formal education. That leads directly to re-think the big question “what is education” and what does it mean “to be educated”.

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Missing the Tomato Feast…

September is always a special month for me as my mind re-invigorates the memory of the arrival of my first-born; not a straight-forward story but one which might be used to illustrate the importance of the trusting relationship between patient and doctor which is pivotal to long-term good health…That sentence immediately leads into a discussion of the nature of the  ”patient” role and how pregnancy is not an illness, something I have spoken about at various times when childbirth and coping with motherhood were the main topic. It is something to write about here in the future.

So to explain the tomatoes of my title….

It always seemed that September brought a glut of fresh tomatoes as the long summer drew to a close and home-grown fruit ripened alongside the greengrocer’s varied offering…as I student I had a productive vegetable patch in the back garden of the “garden flat” I rented; the hours spent tending the plot were balanced by hours researching and creating dishes from the freshly-picked vegetables. Tomatoes did well in that town garden and thus my September breakfasts often consisted of toast covered with a glistening heap of gentry fried tomatoes. I can recall the delicious delight of these specimens as their intense flavour created a chemical reaction of deep satisfaction. Thus it is with such disappointment that I tackle the tomatoes on my plate now; they present themselves as perfect balls of tomato redness, but lack any flavour or hint that they are related to the garden-grown variety.  Checking the packaging they are being brought in from Holland; thus I wonder where and why the home-grown disappeared ?   The fancier types are also all imported from Holland, yet despite their green stalks and “vine” they offer very little in additional flavour; the only increase being one of cost to the consumer.

However some simple additions can perform a small miracle on these bland balls; olive oil, dried oregano plus salt and pepper will transform tasteless juggling items into a dish worth enjoying on toast or with bread.

In the days of the student garden it was a quick process to chop an apronful of the annual glut of home-grown “love apples”, placing them into a saucepan where a spoonful of oil was warming, adding the flavourings and gently frying to stewing point as the ripe tomatoes released their juice. The salt, pepper and herbs could be enhanced with a half teaspoon of sugar to knock back any acidic over-tones….Thus the glut became a feast.

The alternative method is to bake them whilst the oven is on for some other dish; the tomatoes need to be cut into halves and placed into an oven-proof ceramic dish with olive oil, freshly ground black pepper, salt and oregano. A layer of foil is required over the tomatoes but not placed too tightly and then they can go into the oven under the main dish. Long slow baking results in a soft but very moreish herby tomato which goes well with fish and as wonderful topping for fresh bread…the baked oil will also be packed with flavour so ensure you have some bread to dip in.

I do miss the tomato glut with its potential for this gloriously simple feast; over the years here I have managed to grow a good handful of tomatoes but the garden is not ideal and the tomatoes outside were all hit with something nasty…I suspect those bland Dutch imports have been modified to be resistant to disease whilst producing in quantities suited to their industrial production method. ….they certainly exude no character except sterility!

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The news and other events…

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July 2017…one hundred years ago….

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June did not rid the world of May…

So the month shifted from May to June, but the surprise General Election did not clear the political slate, nor did it provide the Prime Minister with the strong mandate she desired to pull the UK through the Brexit process….May is still Prime Minister of the UK and many British citizens continue to ask why politics is so warped given the results and clear shifts in voting behaviour.

Many ask why we don’t have PR [Proportional Representation] as opposed to the “First-Past-The-Post” system which allows the candidate with the greatest number of votes to win the seat, even if they only achieve one solitary vote over their opponent.  This method means that, overall, the votes cast do not result in the allocation of parliamentary seats representing the wishes of the entire electorate; the total number of votes cast for the Green Party, for example, would provide greater numbers of Green MPs to influence the decisions taken in Parliament as well as working at a local level to deliver changing attitudes within their constituency. Although Green Party voting support has dropped since 2015, it was still the choice of well over half a million adults who bothered to vote. The bizarre reality is that the 292,316 votes cast for the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party [DUP] gave them TEN seats in Parliament whilst those 525,435 Green voters are forced to make do with one solitary MP.

The situation with the DUP has historically been a useful example to illustrate the distorted allocation of parliamentary seats, to show how some voters’ choices, despite their numbers across the entire nation, are not being appreciated by the First-Past-The-Post system.  However, the current political scenario with Theresa May being free to draw upon the DUP to support her minority government, underlines how ridiculous and totally undemocratic this traditional counting method really is.  With their ten unearned Parliamentary seats the DUP can vote for all measures put forward by a minority government, and that is what they will do to earn their billion pound bribe.  There is a sense of despair across the nation but it’s clear that there are many who wish to re-energise the fight…Of course politics provides various fields of battle but for ordinary citizens the one which counts is the election process.  As I work through the decades gathering life experience I know I am repeating myself; education must include learning about the democratic process and why it is so very important to understand that there are very few corners of our lives not touched by politics.

Having studied English Social History at “O” level in the late 1970s I am grateful that the group into which I was placed at school was led by the very inspiring history teacher “Mr Lee” who cleverly revealed how present-day politics tied in with the fight for the franchise in the 19th Century; the Chartists,  Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Co-Operative Movement were meaningful details which have remained bubbling away on the hob which is my brain over the last 40 years.  Both “Distress and Discontent” and that slogan “We must educate our masters”  still ring through my head as many argue about Brexit, the reasons for that result last year and why so many of the potential electorate repeatedly fail to claim their vote…I suggest future history books will continue to be able to draw these connections regardless of the outcome, although perhaps in the long-term it will be so evident that future history students will understand why the battlefield was so-shaped in the 21st Century.

This month of June should receive more than a passing mention in future history books, not only for presenting the expected politics surrounding the General Election on the 8th, but also for the shocking news stories which delivered sudden, and very deadly blows to ordinary people living ordinary lives; citizens and tourists walking along London Bridge and enjoying Saturday night drinks with their friends, and those who went to bed in their tower block home never to see the new dawn.  Politically-controlled decisions were clearly at the heart of the spread of those deadly flames which closed the lives of 80 or more, trapped in a building where running costs were the biggest factor despite fire safety legislation and building regulations which should not have allowed such a tragedy to unfold in a modern capital city.  The frame which is politics touches everyone; for the poorest it would seem that this frame is often made of razor wire, whereas for the wealthy it can be as soft as the silken fabrics associated with Versailles.  A couple of days ago a, clearly wealthy, “friend” on social media posted some dubious research about people who complain…the gist of which was that anyone who complains is just a pain in the arse.  In recent years I’ve learnt the power of not posting a comment…although I am still tempted to point out that for whose lives were placed in Grenfell Tower a few more complaints being heard might have meant that a young mother and her baby would have survived for mother to watch her 6 month-old move from crawling to running in one of London’s beautiful green spaces…for that mother to enjoy her baby’s babbling to become speech and for that little girl to grow up to become who she was going to be, to reveal what she might have had to give to her community and the world.

My inspiring history teacher Mr Lee did not lecture us convent girls, but in his methodical and clear manner he helped teach us to think…He was clearly elderly in 1977 so I’m sure his retirement ended possibly decades ago, but I can still hear his voice and I’m sure he would have been able to lead any group of teenagers, and adults for that matter, to understand where politics and history met in London in June 2017.

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May ends…how will June greet May?

So there’s a riddle to close the month…

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Spring….Garden Notebook

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

 

Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

 

And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.

 

AE Housman

 

Such a wonderful poem combining language and great visuals to convey how brief our time is on this planet…how many springs do any of us have left? How many cherry trees will we have the pleasure to witness in their colourful burst of fresh life?

I love spring; watching bare branches sprout green shoots is surely to witness a miracle?

This year I’ve been fortunate to be free to watch a vast array of plants and trees going through this process and have discovered swathes of wild flowers of such variety to create a substantial catalogue in my private notebook. There has also been a glorious collection of traditional domesticated spring flowers; in January I spotted a very small cluster of snow drops as they broke through the untidy layers of last year’s abandoned foliage…a few hyacinths returned from the dead along the scrappy driveway whilst the bright shock of yellow from the bank of daffodils announced March and defied the “lion” as the wild weather shook the garden.

Tulips with petals that can only be described as “raspberry ripple” presented a view which could almost be tasted…Having the time to stop and look closely, to really examine the structure as well as colour is a feast, perhaps exaggerated after the bleakness of winter….but there’s no denying a beautiful sight.

 

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What is home?

Many thoughts to compose…on its way!

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Batter before the fast…history delivered via a simple recipe

Mix a pancake

Stir a pancake

Pop it in the pan.

Fry the pancake,

Toss the pancake,

Catch it if you can!

 

A late Easter means “Pancake Day” doesn’t clash with Valentine’s…pancakes supplying a moveable feast which always seem an odd ingredient to mix with the blood-red bouquets and gold-foiled chocolates brightening that non-negotiable day celebrating lovers in the darkness of mid-February.  In theory a late start to Lent should be better received by the faithful, providing a longer period in which to recover from Christmas and the likely excesses of dried fruit and fat; mince pies, plum pudding and festive cake deliver millions of calories after hearty roast meats with their traditional greasy trimmings, not to mention the Stilton and port wine.  In reality there might be cause to bring the “fast” forward to Epiphany for those following the British Christmas!

As a child I always enjoyed eating pancakes although I thought them too simple a recipe to be able to claim the day when the ingredients had to be used up before the Lenten Fast. Being brought up as a [sort of] Roman Catholic I learnt early how Shrove Tuesday led immediately into the darkness of Ash Wednesday and a nasty time called Lent.  Decades later my research into food history confirmed the linguistic connection with lentils which, as a thinking but careful child, I’d never dared ask about knowing I’d have been called a stupid fool by my mother.  However, the lentils of Lent must be assigned their own pot for discussion another day in order to let pre-Lenten pancakes reveal something of their history, and, therefore, appreciate how rich the recipe might have been in former times, and thus their claim to be the food before the fast.

ingredients for pancakes (the flat variety as opposed to the thicker but fluffy American version, referred to as “hot cakes” by one of my Japanese students, a label echoed in a hotel in Havana on their English menu…the scene remains an example of “lost in translation” because, when my husband tried to order “hot cakes” for breakfast the puzzled waitress returned bearing a slice of warmed-up gateau):

plain flour, eggs, milk (some recipes admit this can be milk and water) pinch of salt, fat or oil for frying, plus sugar and lemon, or jam, honey or syrup for serving.

Firstly, the basic metal surface of historic frying pans would have demanded far more fat for frying than a modern non-stick utensil and eggs were often much smaller, especially if laid by pullets; a dozen eggs would make a far lower yield than our regulated “medium-size”.  Eggs have, of course, from ancient times carried cultural symbolism as well as their scientific value as representative of life and re-birth; I recall my first official encounter with diet away from cookery and biology books whilst studying “Anthropological Perspectives on Food” at university.  To my horror I discovered how, in some African tribes pregnant women were denied eggs as it was feared their unborn babies would grow to be greedy if they received this symbolic nourishment in the womb.   In European society eggs and milk have traditionally been ascribed high value as foods specially suited for invalids and infants, loaded with a perceived “digestibility and gentleness”.  On a practical note, milk soon went off without refrigeration, hence the widespread production of cheese to convert fresh milk into a controllable, portable basic foodstuff usually with a shelf-life extending over several years. In the Middle East and Asia this milk was often converted into yoghurt, perhaps due to the speed of the production process which would have suited nomadic peoples; cheeses designed for a longer life require months or years maturing in a suitable environment.  There is an entire history to the finely-milled wheat flour which we probably take for granted as a cheap store-cupboard basic; those plump 1.5kg paper bags waiting to be re-formed into all manner of carbohydrate-laden savouries and sweets, as well as our present-day understanding of “pancakes” in their flat and puffed-up manifestations.  Medieval peasant populations for whom the Christian Church was as much the law as their Lord of the Manor and monarch, would have regarded fine wheat flour as a high- status desirable, most likely limited to the banquets of their “betters”.  The fact that impoverished peasants would queue at their Master’s back door to receive the “trencher” bread plates on which quantities of meat and gravy had been served at banquets for the already well-fed, must surely reveal levels of hunger as well as any devotion to the niceties of a social order in which these, albeit used, edible utensils were eagerly accepted as valuable gifts.  Grain was the European staple before the arrival of potatoes from the New World, with both wheat and barley featuring in ancient “frumenty” puddings, although these stodgy concoctions were special-occasion dishes too.  On the subject of staple crops, the Romans had, in fact, introduced rice as they marched across Europe but the necessity for flooded fields limited its production to suitable areas; in Britain rice was a foreign import which did find its way into milk puddings presented as part of the huge menu served at Medieval banquets.  Researching food in history reveals feasting on a scale which even present-day consumers would find OTT, but it’s crucial to appreciate how the participants at the feast belonged to particular, limited social groups; unlike the feasting, fasting was a shared experience imposed on the entire community, although how much those existing on an impoverished diet would notice the restrictions is another matter, given their limited food choices.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 This all-too-brief brief analysis represents a mere crumb in the history surrounding pancake ingredients but, hopefully, serves to assist in laying the foundations for an understanding of how the basics required to form batter were recognised as “high status” foods and thus a target for those setting down religious law.

As for the simple lemon and sugar topping; these ingredients definitely belong to the era of trade and imperial conquest; sea voyages brought citrus fruit while imperial plantations supplied the cheap sugar which kept the Victorian working class topped up with a regular supply of hot sweetened tea.  At the same time the mass publication of cook books for the middle classes propagated the perceived need for a vast array of sugary cakes and bakes to accompany their afternoon tea; this baking tradition was a continuation of the consumption of spicy and fruity treats which had once been limited to travelling fairs, accessible only on feast days and “Holy Days”.  Oranges and lemons, although exotic, were more transportable than many other fruit; being colourful and tangy must have added to their appeal in the centuries before any mention of Vitamin C and health-giving properties.  The history of lemons in Britain introduces them as an expensive treasure, worthy for presentation to a monarch, whilst the oranges carried by Nell Gwynn probably helped carry her name and reputation into the future.

Thus the mixing and frying of a simple batter provides a bigger platter on which the history of food may be served.  The present-day habit of supermarkets to present a “Pancake Day” shelf display suggests that maple syrup was always there at the family celebration…golden syrup maybe, but not this imported product now so beloved of those seeking “clean eating”.  Maple syrup is definitely an import from “across the pond” which might have been found in specialised grocer’s stores before they all closed down with the expansion of supermarkets.  There’s a chapter to write on this which is in my notebook; from an anthropological, political and environmental viewpoint, maple syrup has buckets to offer the food historian and scientist.  In reality no ingredient should be disregarded, from the fine white wheat flour which represents what “flour” is for most consumers to the pinch of salt and the sprinkling of sugar.

 

Last week I decided to experiment with “gram flour” to create savoury pancakes; exploring the local Gurkha grocery store for Nepalese tea I had spotted a colourful bag containing a half kilo of these finely-milled chick peas.  A small quantity of gram flour, olive oil and cold tap water whisked together produced a wonderfully light crispy pancake layer on which to lay various vegetables fried gently in olive oil…a delicious meal which didn’t require any eggs or dairy ingredients, and certainly a long way from the egg, milk and butter pancakes of Shrove Tuesday.  With gram flour boasting its gluten-free credentials I would dare to suggest that these pancakes can feature in the Lenten diet without breaking any fasting rules….except that which tries to stop the enjoyment of food within the bleakness of religious austerity.

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Progress…the horror and sadness finding out it was never real

Where is the world now? As I read the news and watch yet another horror unfold, the bloody sandwiched between political lunacy, my mind automatically retrieves memories of growing up as a child desperate to understand the world; the idea that the planet was steering its course on an automatic line towards progress was a solid “fact” in my childhood. I’m pretty sure it was the space race and that “one small step for mankind” on the surface of the moon which constituted the backbone to this notion. Studying history at university I enjoyed the challenge of trawling through original documents which illustrated times that were far more cruel, less meritocratic, and where the accident of one’s birth determined whether bed-time was hungry, and whether there were any covers on that bed.

to be continued…

 

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