Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Good Food In Bad Times

Thinking about good food and good fortune this Christmas Eve...

The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, leaving the country in ruins. By the time I was born in the following decade, in Barcelona, decent food was still hard to get. Meat was tough, eggs and milk expensive, even bread was sometimes scarce. But I ate like a queen, thanks to my grandmother's basket.

It was an ordinary laundry basket, made of reeds. My grandmother, who lived on a farm, would fill it with whatever was in her larder that week, cover the top with a piece of burlap, fasten it with thick thread to the top edge of the basket, and send it by messenger on the train to Barcelona.

The contents of this horn of plenty varied with the seasons. In spring there were cherries wrapped in layers of grapevine leaves, and eggs for my nightly omelette, each carefully wrapped in a sheet of newspaper. In autumn the basket disgorged grapes, dried figs, filberts and roasted almonds. After the olive harvest, there would be a two-liter can of dark, fruity oil. My mother would sprinkle this on a slice of crusty bread, season it with salt, and add a piece of dark chocolate for my afternoon snack--pa amb oli i xocolata—a Catalan tradition.

After the first frost the basket brought sausages made from a pig raised under my grandmother's watchful eye: sweet black sausages that I only learned much later were made of blood, white sausages, red chorizos. There was also salt pork, to be eaten with white beans, and best of all, a grand serrano ham, salty and substantial.

But the most exciting thing my grandmother sent was the capon, which would arrive, annoyed but alive, just before Christmas. For a day and a night this stout beast became my pet. It lived in the laundry tub, and I sat beside him for hours, feeding him bread and inhaling his hot poultry smell. I don't remember making any connection between the empty laundry tub and the succulent main dish on the Christmas table. I just remember that, unlike the tough cow meat that we bought in the city, I had no trouble at all digging into my grandmother's capon.

In summer, there were no baskets. There were instead three entire months at the farm, where I gorged on rabbit in garlic sauce, lettuces picked as the table was being set, melons served still warm from the sun, all accompanied by wine which had spent the afternoon cooling in a bucket inside the well.

A day of rain was a cause for rejoicing: the minute the sun came out my grandmother would send me out on a snail hunt. When I returned, she would dump my harvest into special cylindrical lidded baskets where the snails would spend a couple of days “fasting, like we do in Lent,” as she put it. Eventually my snails would appear at dinner, in an orange earthenware casserole, still in their shells and swimming in a sauce of tomato, garlic and parsley.

Now that I have entered my grandmotherly years, I too I live in the country. My grandchildren live in a city that offers every imaginable food from all over the world. Yet these are also difficult times and food is again a source of worry—not because of scarcity, but because of what might be in it, how the people who grow it are treated, how long we can sustain this way of living and eating.

So I too grow food for my grandchildren. When we visit we take along a blue cooler filled with rhubarb, broccoli, spinach, green beans, sugar snaps, eggplants, and the inevitable zucchini. There are also jars of tomato sauce, dried peppers, and a couple dozen eggs.

All of it is organic, as my grandmother's provender was. All of it is more than food. Like my grandmother's basket, the blue cooler holds love as well as vegetables, biology lessons (you don't need a rooster to get eggs from a hen, and yes, manure is good for plants), and also the message that food is serious business and serious pleasure, grown and nurtured by human hands in collaboration with the earth.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

10 comments :

  1. a lovely tradition. a lovely post. i am starving now, just reading it.

    i have some books i think you would like----would identify with. do you know "clementine in the kitchen"? it's pre world war ii france, not spain, but there's a great chapter on snails....

    ReplyDelete
  2. "the inevitable zucchini". Yes, of course.

    I love reading what you write. Merry Christmas!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks, Laurie. I'll have to look up "Clementine..." Was it written by an American?

    ReplyDelete
  4. And to you, Bridgett! Do get some rest. I remember those late pregnancy days so well. I only had one child "on the hoof" while expecting the second, but it was quite a challenge. I'm sending you strength and good humor....

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is wonderful! I feel like I've been transported to another time and place. Lovely!

    ReplyDelete
  6. it was. Samuel Chamberlain. it was first published in 1941, and then republished a few years ago.

    more info here

    ReplyDelete
  7. Ah. This makes me want to be you as a grandchild and to be your grandchild!

    In other news, I just ran into your offspring et al. at the gym. Didn't I say I loved the gym?

    ReplyDelete
  8. P.S. See you in a few minutes, at the salon!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Such a rich set of memories, no wonder you love your garden and chickens so much they are tangible links to your past. And, living up to that tradition of plentiful food from your own hands, wow, your grandmother sounds great. Now I think I'll try a snip of the beautiful golden gift you gave us. It reminds me of summer sunshine and the smell of wild flowers.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Dona, Speaking of food, I just got "Nourishing Traditions" for Christmas...you know, the book that's all about fermented foods, among other things. I'll pass it on.

    ReplyDelete