Ordinary and exceptional
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
C. S. Lewis
I consider myself to be an ordinary person. Indeed a very ordinary person. I have no special talents and have never done anything exceptional. Like most of us. And yet.
Everyone of us is a miracle. There is a quote for that that I can no longer find, which expresses the thought rather more eloquently. A baby is a miracle. They come from almost nothing, from a moment in time, that by extraordinary chance brings them into being. Where there was nothing before, now there is something. Something potentially significant and memorable. And every single one of the over 7 billion people on this planet was once a baby. The vast majority 'ordinary' in just about every sense of the word. The exceptional, the heroes, the amazing, the talented are rare indeed. And some of the famous are, let's admit, actually very ordinary. Is a sporting star, once his brilliant career is over, still exceptional? Well yes maybe, but in a different way.
I have spent most of my life believing myself to be super ordinary if there is such a term. I was not a star in school - almost a star in primary school, but from thereon just middle of the road ordinary, although even this is not strictly true, as I was clever enough to get to a grammar school and then to university - at that time a very small percentage of the population. However, I now believe this to be as much the result of my parents' exceptional determination that their children should have a better life than their own, as my own abilities. Others with more ability just dropped out of school at the age of 16. Does this make me exceptional? No - just lucky I think.
I believe I came to realise pretty early on in my life that I was ordinary - mostly through failure in sport - complete and utter failure there - and to a lesser degree academically. I had no special talents - sport, academic, art, music. You name it.
And I remember saying this to my great aunt Jerry, whose real name I now realise was Jessie. We used to visit my two great aunts - Jerry on the left and Elsie on the right, in the old family home in Dulwich. It was a duty thing and we were a little scared of Aunty Jerry I think. I was anyway. But she said one of the kindest things that anyone has ever said to me and that I shall always remember. She had asked I think about hobbies, or some such, and I replied that I had no special abilities - well in the words of a child around 7 or 8 years old. And she retorted gently that everyone had some kind of talent. I might have a talent for colour for example. I had never thought that a talent for colour was an actual talent, and I certainly wasn't sure that I had it, but nevertheless it made me think that perhaps I could do something with what I had. Poor Aunty Jerry. I think she had a dismal life. She had never married, and had always lived with her domineering mother who virtually cut her out of her will for some reason. At least Aunty Elsie had been married and had a son, however brief that happiness had been because of the early death of her husband. And so after the death of their mother they stayed on together in the family home.
Sorry a long digression on exceptionality, and my own perceived lack of it. However, before I turn to food - this is a foodie blog after all - a couple of last thoughts - one geographical, one historical.
My own ordinariness, is of course, not the same as anybody else's ordinariness. I actually now live a very privileged life in every sense of the word. Even here in Australia that does not make me ordinary and when you compare with, say, a slum dweller in India, an Inuit in Canada or a Chinese factory worker, or anyone elsewhere in the world really, then I am a long way from ordinary. No my today ordinary would seem exceptional to the vast majority of the world's population, however ordinary it seems to me, whilst at the same time their lives seem exceptional to me.
When I retired, like many, I began to delve into the family history and if there is one thing this showed me it is that every life is exceptional. Most of my ancestors were very ordinary working people. There are a few exceptions, but not many. The women especially struck me as absolutely extraordinary. Two examples - there are many more. One, from my husband's family, who had nine children - all of them boys except for one girl, who tragically was the one to die very young. How on earth do you cope with that, not to mention the not quite complete poverty (her husband was a bricklayer), and the living conditions of the day - the late 19th century? Another lived a little later - now she had 11 children only two of whom lived into adulthood, and then the son was killed in WW1. I find this unbelievably difficult and to survive all of that, and then take in her niece's (my grandmother's) two illegitimate children and bring them up as her own is to me just amazing. There are so many other stories of this kind. As C.S. Lewis says "there are no ordinary people". Every person has a story - and a talent - even if it's only a talent for survival and caring for their children.
And so to food. The quote which is the title of this particular post is from Rachel Roddy of The Guardian, talking about Pizza Rossa:
"Which is ordinary and exceptional, thin and crisp (although still very much a pizza, not a cracker), with a thin layer of tomato sauce and glistening with olive oil."
An ordinary everyday Roman snack made from a very few basically simple ingredients. But exceptional in its taste, and exceptional, no doubt in its history. But I'm not going to talk about pizza rossa - that's not my ordinary food. Well pizza is indeed an ordinary food these days. No I'm going to talk a little about an ordinary food of my childhood - fish and chips.
Fish and chips can be very ordinary indeed. It can be greasy and soggy and salty, even stodgy. But even the worst fish and chips of my youth, and I'm sure I had many, were exceptional to me because they were a sort of treat. Mostly the fish and chips we ate at home were cooked by my mother, and we did love them and she probably did a better job than the fish and chips shops, but when we got them from the fish and chip shop they were special.
I remember two in particular. One shop was just around the corner from my grandmother's house in Portsmouth and looked a little like this one. I can remember standing in there with the counter towering above me whilst we waited for our order of plaice or cod and chips with some 'Tizer the appetiser' - a soft drink of the time. When it was cooked it would be sprinkled with malt vinegar and salt, and wrapped in newspaper to be rushed back to grandma's round the corner and consumed straight away. The other I remember was by the Woolwich ferry. We would often drive to my grandmother's home in Portsmouth for a few days, which involved crossing the River Thames on the ferry. On the way back there was always a queue for the ferry with time to nip out of the car to buy some fish and chips for us all, which we ate in the car, crossing the river.
Thus this very ordinary meal became exceptional. And it is exceptional too for the history behind it. The relatively recent history of the Jews bringing fried fish to England in the 17th century, to nineteenth century shop owners who thought of the batter, and combining it with the chips whose origins the Belgians and French are still fighting over. Each step along that evolutionary path was taken by exceptional people. And who, anyway was the first person to think of frying fish? When did that happen? When did frying happen? When did people - even pre-people if you can call them - that realise that you could eat fish anyway. And I have often wondered who thought that you could even eat something as unappetising as a potato, let alone cut it into sticks and fry it in deep very hot oil?
And the evolution continues. This photograph features the traditional newspaper wrapping, but nobody would be allowed to wrap fish and chips in newspaper these days. Health and safety won't allow it. So I wonder how much poison I consumed as a child? Note also the lemon, and the sauce tartare. There was none of that in my youth.
When we first came to Australia fish and chip shops were largely run by the Greek immigrants. I don't know if that is true anymore, but there are obviously thousands of exceptional immigrant stories to be gleaned there. These days if you cook fish and chips at home you won't be cooking them like my mother did. You might be microwaving a frozen dinner such as this one - surely the bottom of the heap as far as evolution is concerned, although it is, of course, the result of the development of freezing food. Or you might be cooking in your air fryer, or roasting the chips in the oven. We have learnt over the decades about the dangers of too much fried, particularly deep-fried, food. I used to have a chip pan - no relegated to The Gatehouse as an extra saucepan.
It's a very ordinary meal fish and chips. And fish and chip shops still exist although I no longer patronise them. I do however, when holidaying near the sea - Tasmania, Port Douglas, consume fish and chips whenever I can. The main picture on the Home Page of the website - here it is - is of me sitting in the exceptional setting of the Port Douglas Yacht Club, sipping on an exceptional glass of white wine, waiting for my fish and chips to arrive. A far cry from the Woolwich ferry. A far cry from the me of then. And here they are as served, completely with newspaper oh dear - is that allowed? Lemon and sauce tartare I see - and a healthy green salad.
An ordinary meal but quite exceptional. I would like to think like me, although I fear I am still nearer to the ordinary than the exceptional.
And for dinner tonight - Cornish pasties - also very ordinary but very exceptional too - we don't have them often enough.