"The past is always present"
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
Alan Garner wrote those words - the title of today's piece - in a wonderful very short children's book called The Stone Book. The centrepiece of the book was when a father in a small English village, took his daughter, into a cave deep in the hill to see the handprints on the wall, and the footprints in the sandy floor of the generations that had visited the site since time immemorial. It was a sort of initiation ceremony as only a child could wriggle through the crack into the cave. I wish I could quote from it but alas I no longer have the book - I think I gave it to my son who also loved it.
Now I don't believe in ghosts, but I have to say that every now and then I have vividly felt the presence of some past person. Well not exactly a presence, but a recognition that a person from the past stood in the same spot. The most recent of these was at a Van Gogh exhibition here in Melbourne. I stood in front of one of these wonderful pictures - not one of the famous ones - I think it was an alley of trees - and I suddenly realised that Van Gogh himself had stood in this very place, but with a paintbrush in his hand and that he had actually touched this very picture. And that was the point of The Stone Book's, scene in the cave, particular the undisturbed thousands of footprints made by generations of small children. Each set represented a real person. Those primitive hands on the wall were made by real people. The graffiti you see in ancient ruins, carved into the walls of prisons and painted on today's city walls were made by an actual breathing person. Over time - particularly with the modern spray painted graffiti it will fade and die, but some remains. Like these old stone carvings in a prison in an old French castle, the nails hammered in the shape of initials (I think they are upside down), on one of the beams holding up our house, and the repurposed graffiti on a fence I pass on my walks. Who knows who NP was and when or where or indeed why he, or indeed she, made his or her mark, but it's fascinating to wonder - to touch the spot they touched too.
One of the saddest things, about Jenny's passing is that the rest of us are still here. We carry on doing very mundane things and she is gone. A vibrant life is extinguished and will eventually - in a couple of generations - be forgotten entirely. It makes one return to the eternal question of why we are here - ultimately I suspect for no reason at all. We just are. But being human we try to leave our mark, which we do in all manner of ways.
Since retiring I have become extremely interested in the family history thing - as many of my generation have. It's big business. What it made me realise mostly was what fascinating lives just about every one of my ancestors lived - even if those lives were superficially ordinary and unimportant to the world. So I tried to remember them all on my family history website - their stories deserve to be told - or imagined. (It is not at all complete - I still haven't got around to writing many of their stories). Mostly those stories are imagined probably as the further back you go, and the more 'ordinary' they are the less information you have. Sometimes just a birth, a marriage, a death and the name of the place where they lived. Particularly if you were female. But there's a little bit of all of them in me. Just a tiny bit, but a little, and some have left a little bit more.
We of course have photographs - my generation just a few. Frozen moments in time that remind us who we were - I carry on my water bottle a photo of myself and siblings looking freezing cold on a beach somewhere in England. I think I wrote about it some time ago. For memory, and remembering has always been important to me. Perhaps too much because really we should be focussed on the here and now and how we can assist the future. But honestly, without understanding the past we cannot improve. You would think people would learn from the mistakes of the past, but they seem not to. Politicians and rulers especially. Men more than women I think.
"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Søren Kierkegaard
Today, on my way back from the shops, I saw this. ANZAC day is coming up and this family have decided to remember the day - and the Australian war dead with giant poppies on their tree. Others will march at dawn and gather together to remember them. Which is good and, of course, those brave men and women, most of whom did not want to be there should be remembered. But what about the families they left behind? Or those who just had to go on living normal lives because they were too old, too young, disabled in some way or maybe just a woman? We should remember them too.
But I'm getting maudlin when really what I wanted to write about was "The past is always present'' in relation to food. This is supposed to be a foodie blog after all. Hence the apple next to the hands - an ancient fruit which, mythically at least, dates back to the creation of Man. And yes, even with something as nationalistic as ANZAC Day there will be special food - Anzac biscuits. Just think how many other such national memories are remembered with food - like Ramadan of course. Everything eventually leads to food.
There are one or two different aspects of the past always being present with relation to food.
"The history of every nation lies visible on its table. Its wars and victories, its occupation in defeat, the marriages of its kings, its religion, its overseas empires - all have left behind them a dish or two destined to be adopted into the national life." Robert Carrier
These are the very first words in Robert Carrier's introduction to his most famous book - Great Dishes of the World. Even though he was really talking about the part of the world he then knew - America, England, France and Italy really - this was before his time in Morocco - the same could apply to any country in the world - even those that have been hidden away in distant corners of the planet, or conquered by just about everyone. These days there must be few parts of the world that have not been influenced by somebody else's traditional food, even if it is just the dreaded MacDonalds and Coca Cola. Robert Carrier of course, was focussed on good food, but bad food too is spread around the world and has changed and been adapted in the process according to the local traditions. I'm pretty sure the lasagne you can find in Indonesia will not taste the same as the lasagne you will find in England, or Germany, China, or indeed in Italy. Not that lasagne is bad food - as I said the other day. It's delicious food - which is why it is so widespread.
"This book assembles some of the most famous dishes of the world ... each one of them is a part of the story of mankind." Robert Carrier
'The story of mankind.' How far have we come from mankind's beginnings? In one of life's little coincidences, here is a picture from the latest Coles Magazine that begins a section called Around the Camp Fire. All carefully composed and posed of course, and probably set in a suburban garden, but it does demonstrate that the primitive memory of gathering around a fire to cook one's food with one's clan is still with us. The equipment may be completely different - a metal fire pit, rather than an actual fire, a modern tent instead of a cave, chairs to sit on and various complicated implements with which to cook - but the 'back to nature' origins are still there. Most evident of course in the barbecue traditionof which I talked just recently. And what is the food those beautiful people are cooking? Well not just a hunk of roughly butchered meat, or indeed a whole carcass. What Coles suggests is an utterly delicious looking Buttered Mac'n Cheese with Pumpkin Seed Crumb.
Now how much history is there in that! From the first direction "Prepare a camp fire", to the pumpkin seed crumb that is sprinkled on top. All the way from prehistory to 2021. Some of the history - the fire - is ancient, some more distant - the Italian macaroni and cheese which dates back to at least the 14th century - the American name and the very trendy and 'healthy' (not really) pumpkin together with the even more current pumpkin seed topping. The other offerings in this section of the magazine included variants on garlic bread from France, nachos from Mexico, chicken pot pie - from the UK?, and baked bananas - Pacific? A multi-cultural and historical mix anyway.
It's not just the dishes themselves that have a history either. It's the ingredients they are composed of:
"When one thinks of the civilisation implied in the development of peaches from the wild fruit, or of apricots, grapes, pears, plums when thinks of those millions of gardeners from ancient China right across Asia and the Middle East to Rome, then across the Alps north to France, Holland and England of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, how can we so crassly, so brutishly, reduce the exquisite results of their labour to cans full of syrup and cardboard-wrapped blocks of ice. These gardeners were concerned to grow a better-tasting fruit or vegetable, a larger and more beautiful one too, but mainly a better-tasting one." Jane Grigson
Let's set aside the deterioration of quality for the sake of commerce for the moment - that's a
whole other issue. Although now that I think of it, that too is something that tells us about the
history of modern food.
"It's odd that we should have clung on to traditions that hardly matter - beefeaters, Swiss guards, monarchies, the paraphernalia of the past - and forgotten the true worth of the past, the long labouring struggle to learn to survive as well and as gracefully as possible." Jane Grigson
This is an olive tree that we saw in Puglia. It has been carbon dated and is said to be at least 2,000 years old. And yet it still bears fruit which is made into olive oil that you can buy and use in your kitchen. Somebody, 2,000 years ago planted that tree. Hundreds, if not thousands of people have tended it down the centuries. The seasons and the years have shaped it too. Standing before it was similar to standing in front of that Van Gogh painting.
Still in Italy, and also related to a recent post, here are the wheels of Parmiggiano Reggiano stored in that small factory - too small perhaps to be called a factory - on shelves after their carefully crafted making in the front part of the building. Centuries of work have gone into refining the process, and the equipment to create this world famous cheese. Think of that next time you grate it plentifully over your bowl of pasta.
Alongside these centuries of agricultural and processing innovation, there has also been a continuing search for new varieties and new ways of growing, even creating food, not just for the commercial convenience of less fragile fruit and vegetables and larger yields and animals, but also for new and, yes, better tasting food. The increasing awareness of climate change will also make its mark on what we eat, indeed it already is.
When you look for quotations on the past, you will find that most of them tell you not to dwell on the past that we have to live for now and for the future. Which may well be true, but we cannot escape the past - it is always, always there. "We are what we have been" - another of my very favourite quotes from Penelope Lively this time. So let's remember the past with interest, honour the people who have made us what we are, and learn from it so that the future will be a better place.
So next time you bite into an apple - there are some delicious new varieties to try these days - think of all the people who have laboured through the centuries to bring that taste sensation to your mouth and the history of the farming family that grew it, just for you.
“The past beats inside me like a second heart.” John Banville