Give us Our Daily Bread and Maybe a Fish or Two
TEN TOP FOODS
Times do change. In Australia in the 1930s rabbit was the cheapest and most popular meat around. Today chicken is the cheapest and most popular meat.
You can measure how well the economy of a particular state or country is doing by the cost of essentials. Most people in NSW, Australia eat bread on a daily basis. When bread prices are on the rise you can bet there's inflation behind it.
Cats became sacred to the Egyptians because they protected the grain that would become bread.
There was rioting in 19th Century Britain over the price of bread. There was also rioting over the cost of bread in Berlin, Germany in the last year of the First World War.
Meanwhile, not so long ago, something weird went down when the English Olympics were on...Chips miraculously turned into French fries.
When the Olympics were on in England, McDonalds tried to introduce a typically English meal to their outlets here in Australia. They got the contents reasonably right but got the name wrong.
If you wish to celebrate what the English are doing with fish and chips this is fair enough. But celebrating with fish and french fries? I know that McDonalds is an American company but why oh why couldn't they have named the meal the traditional fish and chips? Very strange.
I don't know why but, when push came to shove, McDonalds could not give up their name for chips, which is French fries, in favor of the more British name. Would Australian consumers be confused with fish and chips? Certainly not as we have many fish and chip shops in New South Wales alone. They are mostly family owned businesses.
Strangely enough, across the street from where I live there is a fish and chip shop run by Chinese Australians who have relatives in England who often dine at fish and chip shops over there.
(Chips are technically only slightly different from French Fries. They are just a bit bigger. They are both, however, made from potatoes so it isn't as if the difference is enormous.)
Today McDonalds is selling oatmeal for breakfast in Australia. Why not call it porridge?
Food has had symbolic meaning since humans first came into existence. Special food is there when we celebrate and also when we mourn the passing of someone close to us.
There is the birthday cake. When I was growing up we also had Chinese food to celebrate birthdays because it made for a unique and wonderful culinary experience.
There is the traditional Angel's Food cake which is basically a vanilla job with white icing and cream in the middle. Then there is the Devil's Food cake with chocolate and chocolate icing and cream in the middle.
In the New Testament there is the fishes and loaves incident and also the Last Supper. Food is naturally essential to survival but it is how we prepare it and why that says something about ourselves and our civilization. Certain foods have traveled on the wings of certain cultures and have meant something to certain empires.
1. DAILY BREAD
Bread has been the mainstay of many civilizations. Even today, when times are tough, Western governments are at pains to make sure bread is available to the poor.
Why has bread always been so important? Part of the answer is that grain, what bread is made from, can be stored for years before use and still be good. The Bible has it that in Egypt a percentage of grain from seven years of good harvest was kept to ensure to people would not starve from the ensuing seven years of bad harvest.
In the centuries when the types of refrigeration we have today were only a pipe dream at best, a food that could be stored for a long time without going off and could travel well was essential to keeping large cities well fed.
The Lord's prayer begins with "Give us this day our daily bread" for a reason. It was, for many people, the most common food and also the food one could generally rely on. Whether made with grass seeds crushed into flour or flour made from wheat and/or barley, it could mean the difference between life and death from starvation.
When there were bread shortages in Ancient Rome there were also riots. What hastened the end of the First World War were bread riots in Germany. A handful of years ago, problems with supplying the people with bread started trouble in Iraq for the American authorities.
Though a grain in its own right, rice is considered by the West as a separate issue from wheat and barley and thus from bread. Rice cakes that have similar nutritional value to some forms of bread are also considered to be a separate issue. Even so, the cultivation of rice crops to produce rice is extremely old.
There is some evidence that it began in Burma and spread from there. Regardless, today it is part of the general diet of millions of Asians and Westerners. It was part of the diet of the Northern soldier during the American Civil War. Rice, like most if not all grains, has a long life which makes it attractive for daily consumption everywhere.
PIES, PIZZAS, CURRIES AND APPLES
3. THE PIE
The humble pie has been around almost as long as bread but doesn't quite travel as well. Where ever you find the British or the Americans you will find some form of pie. Americans call pizza a pie but I really don't get it. In Australia we simply think of pizza as pizza and a pie of any sort as a separate entity from pizza altogether.
What makes for good pie filling has changed over time. Back in Elizabethan times and even going into the age of Queen Victoria, there were special rat catchers. They were hired to remove rodents from places such as theaters and opera houses. As a sideline, they would sell the rats they caught to housewives and even pub cooks who would then make a lovely rat pie out of them.
Today we are a lot fussier than our ancestors as to what meat should go into a meat pie. There are regulations. If, for example, it is said to be a beef pie then it has to contain beef. Even so, British writer of the Disc World novels, Terry Pratchett, oft times makes merry with the suspect quality of pies, especially meat pies. The dwarfs of his world tend to like a bit of rat in their pie and complain if it does contain some other meat.
Fancy an eel pie with all the trimmings? It might be the best pie on offer in some parts of Pratchett's Disc World. There was also mention eel as a Londoner delicacy in an episode of New Tricks.
Many a football fan from London to Sydney would not think of enjoying a football match without a meat pie with tomato sauce.
Of course not all pies have meat or are destined to be part of the main meal. There are dessert pies.
My favorite in that line in the Lemon Boston which is tangy, lemony and just perfect for lunch after a summery dip in the surf. It is the pie version of a pancake with lemon juice. Just thinking about it makes me yearn for summer.
I first tried the Lemon Boston at Cronulla, south of Sydney. The pie shop who sold them, unfortunately, has gone the way of all things and I haven't come across a shop, at least in Australia, that nowadays sells such wonderful treats. I hope someone finds the recipe and does bring back the Lemon Boston to my neck of the woods.
4. THE PIZZA
The Pizza became popular in Australia in the late 1950s. As the name implies, it is an Italian idea that has traveled to many parts of the world.
When I first started work in Sydney there was a small pizza parlor not far from where I was employed. They made the most wonderful pizzas and always with the freshest mushrooms. To this day I don't really appreciate a pizza unless it has fresh mushrooms and anchovies.
Unfortunately, a lot of the chain store pizza places don't put either fresh mushrooms or anchovies on their pizzas. Ah, but there is a small pizza parlor up the road from where I live and they do take pride in their pizza making and they do have fresh mushrooms and anchovies. In my novel Ghost Dance, which is partly set in Italy, there are naturally excellent pizzas.
There are, of course, frozen pizzas in supermarkets. They come in cardboard boxes. Sometimes I think the box might be just as tasty and just as nourishing as the pizza it contains. Ah, but a pizza straight out of a pizza oven is hard to beat - especially with fresh mushrooms!.
This was something that connected India with Britain and also other parts of the British Empire. Queen Victoria's cooks had curry powder on hand. Curry was the flavor of India and thus the flavor of the jewel in Queen Victoria's crown. There are many fine curries. I prefer a sweet curry with sultanas but you can please yourself and most people do. To many Westerners there is still something exotic about a good curry, even one they have made themselves.
It is said that apples originated in Asia Minor. This may be so, but they certainly have impacted over the centuries on Europe, the USA, Australia and New Zealand.
Today there are over five hundred varieties of apple. In Australia alone we have some beauts such as the Pink Lady and the Golden Delicious. The people who imagine all apples to be red simply haven't traveled enough. To such a person I would happily toss a Pink Lady. It is sweet with a lovely crunch. The green Granny Smith isn't as sweet but it does refresh with the fragrance of spring.
'She'll be apples' meaning that everything will work out all right is an Australian saying older than I am. In the USA they talk about mom's apple pie as representative of one of the good things in American life (when I conjure up in my mind the smell of a freshly baked pie I find it difficult to argue against such a view except to say that it is probably just as British and just as Australian as it is American.)
An apple a day keeps the doctor away, I believe, is an American saying with some value. Whereas the ancient Greeks would argue the same toss with honey, I feel that this American view does have its merits. Apples are good for your teeth and your health in general. Right now I do feel like munching into one.
In the USA there is also the legend of Johnny Appleseed. There was a time in American history when the planting of apple trees or apple seeds was thought to be in aid of taming the wilderness.
During medieval times, artists depicting the garden of Eden often chose the apple tree as symbolic of the tree of knowledge. In truth, the date or the fig might be more appropriate if this garden really did exist and was an oasis as some scholars today believe. Even so, medieval artists living in Europe drew on what they knew and they knew what apple trees and apples look like. Also, congregations were familiar with the apple as a fruit and the tree of knowledge is known to be some kind of fruit tree.
FISH AND CHIPS
7. FISH AND CHIPS
Fish and chips is a popular meal from London to Australia to New Zealand. The Americans tend to call hot chips French fries but, even so, it is good, nourishing tucker as cheap as it is popular.
The Potato comes originally from America. Even so, potatoes grow well just about anywhere and have been a popular source of food in Europe for centuries.
Fish is popular everywhere too and there was a time when a true Christian would not think of having anything else but fish on a Friday. Certainly there are many a Christian today who would not think of having anything else but fish on Good Friday.
The drawing of a fish is an early Christian symbol which has made a come back in recent years. If you see someone wearing a fish design chances are they are Christian or else work in a fish and chip shop or both.
World fish stocks are down. How long the British, the Australians and the New Zealanders will continue to be able to enjoy fish and chips from their favorite fish and chip shops is uncertain. How long fish and chips will remain cheap enough for the average fellow to tuck into is also uncertain.
8. THE HAMBURGER
The hamburger is eaten from London to New Zealand. It is also becoming popular in the East.
Its place of origin, as the name implies, is Hamburg, Germany. It does, however, take on the characteristics of the places where it does land or, at least, this was the case until the big American food chains took over.
The hamburger I grew up with consisted of a meat paddy, lettuce, tomato, onion (unless you say no) and beetroot on a bun with the choice of tomato or barbecue sauce on the meat. If you wanted a cheese burger it would cost extra and you would get a slice of cheese with the rest. If you wanted the lot you would get cheese, a fried egg and a slice of pineapple with the rest. Unfortunately, thanks to American culture infringing upon my own, the Australian hamburger only exists nowadays in a few fish and chip shops. It is a pity since it is, in my opinion, superior in taste to the American hamburger.
9. THE HOT DOG
Once referred to as the frankfurter, the hot dog has its origins in Germany but tends to go well with the American pass time, baseball. It is popular in most if not all major Western cities. It is especially popular in New York. It went from being a frankfurter to a hot dog as America entered WW1. It would do no good trying to push a food back then that sported a German name.
10. THE LAMB ROAST
Nothing like a good lamb roast in winter. My preference is for leg of lamb with baked potatoes, gravy, peas and pumpkin. It was the best meal my mother made and the whole family looked forward to it. Even on the most miserable of days when it was cold and wet the roast was there to cheer you up.
Where the idea of the lamb roast first originated I cannot say. Certainly the Ancient Greeks would have been keen on it. Greeks today love their cooked lamb and I can't blame them. It is definitely popular in Britain, Greece, Australia and New Zealand. Sometimes I love my lamb roast with mint sauce. According to Rene Coscinny, French writer of the popular Asterix comic book series, mint sauce on boar or any other meat is a culinary blasphemy. Of course the French are notorious for not being terribly keen on how the British prepare their food and the mint sauce business does seem to be a British notion so I suppose that is fair enough.
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