My grandmother collected beautiful china and old books. My memories of the china was that it actually wasn’t beautiful… At eight I found her collection of Staffordshire figurines rather clumsy, and her Meissen angels and other pieces a bit gutless and wishy-washy. (I think I still do – but give me Chinese blue and white, Japanese Imari, old Chelsea, and I’d feel differently.)
Her old books were heavily bound in leather, and were often large quarto volumes. I skimmed Foxe’s Martyrs, was appalled by the despair in the picture of the Slough of Despond in Pilgrim’s Progress, but was very taken with Robinson Crusoe. All these books were illustrated with engravings, protected by a flimsy piece of what seemed like tissue paper.
I hadn’t learned to take liberties with books back then, so I solemnly plodded through Defoe’s dense prose, until I came to the picture of Crusoe seeing other foot-prints on the island – Man Friday’s. I was as shocked and horrified as Crusoe at the implications of this find.
The real Robinson Crusoe was Alexander Selkirk, a sailing master, who in 1704 had fallen out with his peppery captain over repairing the ship. The captain refused, and in the resulting row Selkirk said the ship could go to the bottom without him. The captain seized on these words as a pretext to put the troublesome Selkirk ashore on the nearest island, Mas a Tierra being close at hand.
Marooning was the worst punishment of pirates, and offenders were put ashore with their sea chest, a pistol and one ball. Selkirk, no pirate, regretted his hastiness but it was too late, the captain was implacable. He was lucky in that his seaman’s chest held a Bible, a couple of other books, and various knives and practical items, including some mathematical instruments.
He built two huts from pimento logs, and lined them with goat-skin for insulation. One was his smokehouse and kitchen, the other, some distance away, was his study and sleeping quarters. He burnt pimento logs for cooking and heating in the winter, and found the wood was almost smokeless, and ‘refreshed him with its fragrant smell’
For the first few days he was sunk in depression, but in the long term, he constructed an interesting existence. There were plenty of vegetables planted by seamen who had called to replenish their water, goats had been left there to breed as a source of food for other seamen, while rats had swum ashore and bred so prolifically that cats had been released to control them.
Selkirk quickly ran out of ammunition, so was reduced to killing goats for food with his knife. With no alcohol, no tobacco, no salt-preserved meats, no sugar, dairy, grains or chemicals, no tea or coffee, and with plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, unpolluted air and water, Selkirk’s health improved so remarkably that he was able to outrun the fleetest goats, and often did so, notching their ears as a record of achievement or sign of ownership, if he needed no meat at the time.
The rats, which had swum ashore from boats anchored in the shallows while the sailors replenished their water were a pest, nibbling Selkirk’s feet at night, and invading his stores, so he caught kittens and tamed them, and, in time, dozens of cats shared his hut, protecting him and giving him company.
After a bad fall, he realised that his survival depended on being healthy, so he caught goat kids, lamed them and tamed them too, so that he had a ready source of food. He even taught the cats and some of the kids to dance for a hobby. When his clothes fell to pieces he made replacements out of goat-skins.
There never was a Man Friday – just two Spanish ships which called for fresh water, and getting a glimpse of Selkirk, fired on him and chased him. He escaped them, preferring to stay on the island to being killed or imprisoned and set to work in a mine. When Selkirk was discovered after five years and rescued by a British ship, he found the salt – meat revolting at first, but when he became used to it again, and resumed the habits of the sailors, within a few weeks on board he had lost his incredible fitness and good health.
The natives of the Marquesas Islands told missionaries – and whalers also reported – that they didn’t enjoy the taste of white men, they were too salty and very tough. White men could only be made palatable by boiling, rather than the usual baking in earth ovens! Presumably the seamen who constituted this diet were both skinny and underfed, but gristly with muscle from shinning up masts and pulling on ropes, and had salted themselves with all the salt beef and pork they had no choice but to eat.
So when Selkirk detoxified his body on fish and organically grown meat and vegetables, and lived under these conditions for five years, not just for three weeks at a health farm, he showed how healthy our bodies could be in ideal conditions, compared with the self-inflicted illnesses caused by processed food.
Now three hundred years later, it’s hard to know what to eat that is actually pure, fish is as much a victim to the pollution of our oceans as vegetables grown with chemicals in modern farming agri-businesses, meat reared on hormones and anti-biotics, or processed dairy products.
I suppose the one thing we can do is to cut out sugar, but for most of us, it’s a comfort food, and who doesn’t need comfort? At least sugar doesn’t make us drunk and disorderly. So bring on a nice piece of shortbread with our cup of tea, or the chocolate box, or even a simple coffee and walnut meringue gateau with a glass of delicious dessert wine, and let us laugh and be merry and enjoy the sweetness of life!
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
From the sublime to the ridiculous. In this case, from the bliss of coffee and walnut meringue gateau to the mundaneity of sausage and mash – one of my husband’s favourites. I found a wonderful gravy cum sauce to spice it up for him. Chop two large onions, and fry gently in butter and oil until golden brown. Add two tablsp of brown sugar and keep frying until it’s a deep satisfying brown. Stir in a tablsp of balsamic vinegar, and enough gravy browning or Oxo powder plus stock to thicken to your taste. Salt and pepper. Let it bubble up and serve with good sausages, or as we sometimes do, with a savoury vegetarian loaf of almonds and lentils. (recipe to come)
Food for Thought
I am most entertained by those actions which give me a light into the nature of man.
Daniel Defoe 1660 -1731 was a far more interesting man than his hero. He is considered one of the fathers of the novel, writing nine, including Moll Flanders. He was merchant, journalist, trader and spy, he wrote over 500 books and pamphlets and political treatises and created several newspapers and magazine which came out several times a week and which were written by him.
PS Still having production problems, but console myself with the optimistic thought that everything passes, even computer nightmares, and that the blog will be up and running again soon..