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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So hope for a great sea change on the far side of revenge…

EXTRACT from “The Cure At Troy” by  Seamus Heaney

“Human beings suffer,

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong

Inflicted and endured.

 

The innocent in gaols

Beat on their bars together.

A hunger-striker’s father

Stands in the graveyard dumb.

The police widow in veils

Faints at the funeral home.

 

History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

 

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

 

Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain

Or lightning and storm

And a god speaks from the sky

 

That means someone is hearing

The outcry and the birth-cry

Of new life at its term.”

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Animals for the Advent calendar: The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked

And figs grew upon thorn,

Some moment when the moon was blood

Then surely I was born.

 

With monstrous head and sickening cry

And ears like errant wings,

The devil’s walking parody

On all four-footed things.

 

The tattered outlaw of the earth,

Of ancient crooked will;

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,

I keep my secret still.

 

Fools! For I also had my hour;

One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was shout before my ears,

And palms before my feet.

 

GK Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936) paints this wonderful image which, in my mind, combines the physical presence of this beast of burden with a history dating into ancient times.

This month I learnt about a small charity working in Egypt to help the many horses, donkeys and camels which serve the tourist industry around the Pyramids. The charity called “Prince Fluffy Kareem” came up in my newsfeed as they endeavoured to gain votes via Ebay; the cash prize was to be awarded to the charity with the greatest number of votes from customers with an Ebay account.

Wanting to find out more I put their rather unusual name into the search engine; the time spent watching their video footage provided living proof that miracles really can happen…animals entering their compound suffering injuries, disease and severe malnutrition were treated by this small dedicated team, supported by local staff and veterinary professionals brought in for specific cases.   The “before and after” films were seemingly miraculous transformations, proof that individual care appropriate for each case could bring an animal back from a living death; crippled walking skeletons morphed into perfect specimens with glossy coats, whilst their powerful bodies employed muscular limbs to run happily on the desert sands.

However, what struck me was how these horse “rescuers”  understood the issues behind the various and often unsavoury medical problems suffered by these working animals; anyone visiting the “Prince Fluffy Kareem” website for the first time will be aware that there is no mention of blame;  the accusatory finger can only be pointed at human poverty framed by a very harsh physical environment.  Lack of financial resources is the underlying cause of disease and starvation; locals barely making a living will be trying to feed their families first, their animals only managing poor ranking. This might sound bizarre to those of us living in a different environment, surely the business owner must protect his assets?

Egypt is a country traditionally bound by low wages, poor infrastructure and no social security. Lack of education serves to multiply the effects of harsh conditions; traditional remedies and old wives tales may be well-rooted but, in practice, are completely unfounded as treatments, carrying a strong possibility of more injury or on-going sickness for the animal.

Ignorance often breeds more ignorance and what we might want to label as cruelty….However, lack of knowledge as to how to access up-to-date information cannot be blamed on folk without books or the internet; although internet cafes are to be found on dusty unpaved Egyptian streets they are not heaving with folk googling…even the modest charges for an hour or two are well beyond the pockets of ordinary workers who may only bring home pence after a full working day. As with so many industries , that serving tourists is open to the vagaries of both Mother and Human Natures; whilst Mother Nature may only play the friendly game for a few weeks before sending a terror, humans tend to want things cheap. Of course these two “pillars” also exist in the political map; Egypt’s own crises are far greater than hits the headlines in Europe, the deposing of one leader did not create “happy ever after”; political uncertainty affected the numbers of tourists willing to travel, creating a direct knock-on effect for all those whose living is based around Egypt’s ancient monuments.

Working animals are assets to nurture but when there is so little care for a human population it’s no surprise to find the voiceless creatures falling victim to hard times.

This week the Prince Fluffy Kareem page featured a frail donkey greatly in need of medical attention and rest; what was also made clear was that the owner couldn’t manage without his little worker due to his own diabetes which was affecting his feet. Apart from attending to the medical and nutritional needs of this “tattered outlaw of the earth” the charity’s director pointed out how a human suffering diabetes needs good quality shoes and clear instructions about foot care. Neither of these are automatically available to an old man living in hard times. Making sandwiches for visitors to the Pyramids is like making sandwiches anywhere; fresh ingredients must be purchased and transported; if there aren’t many customers the takings will be low; not much chance of buying the quality footwear needed to protect his feet.

In a land where plastic flip flops and sandals are the norm poor folk will envisage budgeting for leather shoes even if their health requires such an investment; human health often requires professional advice and guidance…a luxury in many countries especially one which has gone through turbulent times. Transport by donkey has a long tradition dating far back into biblical times; with the continuing upheaval and poverty, donkey-power has much to offer.

So what of his poor little donkey? Huge efforts are being made to restore it to health…and to source quality shoes for the owner; credit to the many humans following the story who were all offering to fund the shoes. Not much of a “miracle” maybe, but a tale of goodness.

Having visited Egypt and seen the realities of life for both humans and their equine labourers, discovering the existence of the charitable organisation “Prince Fluffy Kareem” underlined everything positive about humanity working for good.. Learning about their direct involvement with the community makes for compelling reading; listening as well as looking is key and they have created a sense of trust with many of the animal owners. Whilst the video footage sets the scene, for almost miraculous recovery, it’s not shy of revealing the harsh truths and sadness of loss when injuries, disease and suffering are brought to a humane close.

[photo + link to come]

 

 

 

 

 

Now dark November closes to reveal the brightness of Christmas…

 

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Halloween…switch off the lights!

It seems that every year the “tradition” becomes even more of a tradition in Britain, being used as marketing ploy by every household name; my inbox has been swamped with assorted offers to help me “celebrate” in restaurants, cocktail bars and adult-themed parties. At the end of the summer a company selling  corsets advised the styles I should invest in suitable for Halloween whilst Debenhams department store sent a glossy beauty page suggesting I purchase an entire new make-up bag so as to create the required scary Gothic face….surely a few extra dabs of mascara and eye make-up would do the trick?

Walking through a Marks and Spencer food hall last week involved wading across huge piles of orange-wrapped sweets and chocolates disguised as pumpkins and ghosts; today I’m wondering if it all sold or will it be returned to the warehouse?  If so what will happen to it?  Perhaps it can be unwrapped and re-moulded into hearts for Valentine’s Day?

Of course children need special events to help them mark the year; I clearly recall how 50 years ago, in the army school in Rheindahlen,  our teacher showed us how to make a pointed witch hat with black paper, decorated with moons and stars. That was our treat. Halloween was sold to us children of the “scientific” 1960s as an ancient festival; there was no chocolate involved, pumpkins were an old-fashioned vegetable linked to Cinderella and an American sweet pie.

Today also marks the birthday of John Keats in 1795;  his gaining his apothecary’s licence in 1816 gives him a special place on my shelf. And his death from tuberculosis. A “romantic” poet who perhaps helped to create a less bloody image for this ghastly disease which plagued so many in the nineteenth century, and which still does.  This week I read of a British vet working in Africa who had recently contracted Bovine TB; the story tells of his shock given that so few realise how easy it is to catch this killer illness. I find this somewhat odd as I had watched a BBC “Horizon” programme in the late 1980s and had researched the increase in Britain and the USA in 1990.  The “scientific” 1960s sold the public a world without the old-fashioned diseases; humans had conquered space so there was no way a few germs could work their nasty magic. However, “Nature” holds its own secret spells; humankind needs to invest in finding new answers but, bizarrely seems fixed on consuming masses of energy in selling to consumers.

My other “big” memory of Halloween is arriving in New York city on October 31st during a two-week road trip in 2009. The rain poured but every character imaginable swarmed about Times Square; SpongeBob SquarePants walked alongside Batman while ghosts, ghouls and skeletons clustered around nuns in black habits. At the bus station, I admired a lone witch seemingly floating down the escalator; her beautiful face reassured us that she was no fairytale hag!  Celebration was the theme and it offered a shared moment of humanity; the mounted police made their way along Fifth Avenue smiling for the cameras pointed to catch this moment in time.

 

 

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August…the great debate; what to wear on the beach?

When it comes to clothing what does “modest” mean?

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Where are we now?

A historic month to put it mildly!

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“School was like chilblains, something to be endured”

Although the reference to chilblains might not be understood by small children in 2016 the notion that school is “something to be endured” may well click with even the youngest pupils starting their journey through education. The current situation with the re-writing of government-imposed SATs tests has finally created a protest movement amongst ordinary parents who feel they have had enough….or perhaps more precisely, that their children have had enough. Spending the majority of their school days being stuffed with facts and grammar terminology in order to pass tests set by a government, school pupils are not receiving the broad creative education desired by parents and promoted by educationalists for decades before the enactment of the National Curriculum.

It could be argued that an education suited for life in the 21st century requires numerous components found in the “schooling” of previous generations alongside the ability to adapt to technical and creative industries unheard of in the school rooms of grandparents and great-grandparents. As an example take the basis of  ”a classical education”; whilst the study of Latin and Ancient Greek serve relatively few scholars today, the ability to speak a foreign language, (or more than one), will enhance the employability of those working in a wide range of industries; global markets appear to use English as the international language of trade which makes negotiations easier to thrash out. However, this linguistic ease might be at the expense of British workers who find themselves in competition with foreign-born employees on home soil, the latter having mastered English sufficiently well to be free to consider moving to Britain in order to work; these rival education systems are delivering a skill and thus the freedom to seek employment in a country offering more opportunities, and very often a much higher standard of living. The on-going issues of migration belong to a separate debate, however, the key for many is their ability to communicate sufficiently well in a language other than their mother-tongue. Surely this factor is a direct link between the historic “classical education” and the needs of modern life? Mastering another language with fluency and confidence can be a reasonably enjoyable experience these days, especially given the many tools available via modern technology and printed material; the range of dual language books created for children, (with prices starting at a couple of pounds), should be reason to celebrate the potential for introducing a foreign tongue alongside the joy of stories and picture dictionaries in the early years of formal learning.

However, can the same be said for children undergoing the updated National Curriculum which demands that 7 year olds are sufficiently drilled to answer questions on complex English grammar terminology?  Young children brought up with English as their mother tongue will certainly enjoy the ability and freedom to pen their creative imaginings; they don’t need to explain how a sentence structure works to attempt creative writing. They do need time and opportunity to access a variety of books, to see and hear language being used well and to enjoy the creative possibilities enhanced by good diction and grammar.

A broad education which teaches the basic skills of literacy and numeracy alongside a wide range of creative arts allows for the opening of doors….sometimes doors have to be broken down as not all children glide smoothly to arrive at “normal” academic milestones. At least a creative approach is more enjoyable and interesting, providing opportunities for individual interests to be uncovered, and hopefully to shine. These points are being articulated by thousands of parents who have joined forces to make a stand against the recently-restricted curriculum.

For decades governments have spouted a desire to improve life chances, to create a fairer educational environment for its future citizens; for this to happen it must be possible to develop potential and allow every child a chance to find their talent or forte. SATs were originally devised and deployed to test the performance of schools so they could be positioned on country-wide “League Tables” and yet they are being marketed as a way to measure pupils’ success or failure… The pieces simply do not fit together but, up until now, most parents have swallowed the government-imposed testing as being the necessary hurdles to finally reach the desired number of GCSE passes at secondary school, never mind that this is almost 10 years after the infant pupil sits their first round of SATs.  Reading the comments posted by parents on various and differing pages on social media it’s clear there is by no means total agreement on the method, or role, of education, but parents do seem to want “a good school”. What does this mean and where is the magic key?

In my mind the route to academic success is cobbled, it’s not a smooth surface; the pavement is not always clear and the road is not always well-lit. There is no certainty as to where young people will end, nor how many times they might well trip up as they find their way. However, the education journey is a very special one; the British education system has the means for every child to receive the academic and creative input alongside the opportunity to develop essential skills such as critical thinking. Every child holds the future potential to discover, design or deliver anything from free energy to fashion textiles to world peace; not everyone will go on to make their mark in such a way, but the years of compulsory education should be ones where potential is released. Smothering the natural curiosity, energy and voice of fresh lives serves no purpose and it may well be the cause of numerous wide-ranging  future problems.  Young children only have their parents to speak for them; next week’s action will show them that they care as much for their present and future as they did in those early days when the joy of new life was so precious. In the 21st century it’s all too easy for parents to be so consumed with earning a living that the worries preying on the minds of their offspring are lost into inexplicable tantrums or moody silence. Perhaps we need to see those inflamed, angry red sores of Victorian chilblains to understand how acute is the problem of this current punitive neo-Victorian education programme?

The banner for this protest is LET our KIDS be KIDS – TUES 3rd MAY

*title quote is from Joan Kent ‘Binder Twine and Rabbit Stew’ (1976)

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Recipe for Spring…the greening of the Earth

Spring

 

Nothing is so beautiful as spring-

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush

Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring

The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush

The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush

With richness: the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

 

What is all this juice and all this joy?

A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning

In Eden garden.-  Have, get, before it cloy,

Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,

Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,

Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

 

written in 1877 by Gerard Manley Hopkins (b. 28-7-1844  d. 8-6-1889)

published in Poets and Poetry of the Century, 1894

 

Introduced to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins in second year of senior school, I can still hear the crisp voice of our no-nonsense teacher, Mrs J. Smith, as she read her selected poem aloud whilst seated on the teacher’s desk; the modern windows of that section of the convent made for a bright setting in which her voice opened the door to new words, new names and, what was to me, the grown-up world of proper poetry.

I enjoyed experiencing the alliteration of her choice “Pied Beauty”…all these decades later I’ve come to understand my learning style and how the imagery allowed my mind to create the pictures, bringing the words into a tangible existence inside my head.

The weekly poetry lesson allowed for one poet and her selected example, with notes on links to other poems from the same man; all the poets were men in those days…I never heard one female poet in all my years at school!

Being an introductory stage we were not set the task to discover more of the same poet for ourselves which was a pity; I know if my own children had undergone this education I would have piled my own references  and extended material in front of them.  The school timetable was a balanced programme, delivering the arts and sciences, as well as compulsory music and singing lessons, plus religious studies and religious education based on Roman Catholicism. Given his background, Gerard Manley Hopkins was an obvious choice; reading his poetry the Christian references are forceful, but in those days it was the frame for my existence at school, thus nothing to be scared of.

When I think of the arrival of spring this poem comes to mind, with its “long, lovely and lush” weeds….In the real world the mass of  ”sticky weed” which suddenly takes off in my garden throws out such long strands; although not exactly “lush” its power seems symbolic of all wild plants pushing their way out of the soil, surviving every attempt to pull them up. They appear to work in conjunction with Nature as their seeds stick to the numerous wild animals which share our space; I suspect this weed was really the work of the devil and not part of the flora of Eden.

 

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