Let me tell you about the gingerbread first. It was wonderful, being both soft and spicy in a mild and inoffensive way. I did wonder if I should have left it for the texture and flavours to deepen over time but it was pleasant enough to eat fresh. However, when I gave a few pieces to E to take to work, they were forgotten for a few days and he liked them much more when he rediscovered them.
What first piqued my interest about the recipe was that it had dried mixed peel in it. Not many recipes do these days. I used to hate mixed peel as a child, never being a huge fan of all things citrus, but now I have come around to appreciating it. However I noticed that while it can be found in dried fruit mixes, it is not easy to find by itself in shops any more. So that got me wondering why. Here is my hypothesis – once upon a time, our grandmothers couldn’t buy an orange for love or money and all they could get was dried mixed peel but today recipes often call for fresh orange or lemon zest because it is so easy for us to buy.
Maybe I am wrong but it did make me think about how much we take for granted these days. We don’t have to wait for fruit and veg to be in season, we don’t have to wait for our hens to lay eggs, or to deal with a glut of zucchinis from the garden. Even in Scotland, where in E’s childhood fruits such as watermelon were rare and exotic, you can find many fruit and veg these days.
Thinking along these lines made me interested in an excellent recent article on Nutrition Unplugged questioning the pithy advice Michael Pollan writes in his books. I love the way he writes (and have written about Michael Pollan previously but I did start to think about the assumptions underlying his suggestion that we should not eat any anything that our grandmothers would not recognize as food.
The assumption is that our grandmothers were wholesome and healthy, eating only the food produced by the land. The assumption is that they would be horrified to see what we are eating today because they loved baking bread every day and collecting eggs from the chookhouse every day. The assumption is that they were right and we were wrong.
But let’s think about their lives. Our grandmothers had hard lives. We only have to look at some of our processed foods to understand this. Take for example one of my favourites: condensed milk. I love it because it is sticky and gooey. Our grandmothers loved it because sometimes it was the only way they could get any sort of milk. I have always loved my mum’s tomato sauce and was surprised to learn that the secret ingredient is Wild’s Ezy Sauce. This is a spicy liquid flavouring. More recently I fell in love with my grandmother’s tomato chutney and found it had the same ingredient.
I love using my own blend of spices for chutney but it is easy to buy a whole range of spices these days and I only make chutney when I choose. However if I had to make chutney to deal with the tomato glut, or because we had to be frugal to make ends meet, or because we had to make do with whatever was available, then I might welcome any help I could get. Ezy sauce has become part of my heritage now and one day I might find myself using it because the taste is a comfort to me and reminds me of the food of my foremothers.
When Pollan talks about not eating food our grandmothers wouldn’t have recognized, it suggests they had nothing to do with overprocessed foods and our lack of connection with the source of food. In fact many of our grandmothers would have been delighted at the new world opened up to them by processed foods and bright shiny supermarkets. Of course there were other forces at work – industrialization, the entry of women into the workforce, colonization etc. But when I think about it, I think that maybe our grandmothers would recognize and welcome more of our foods than Pollan suggests. His advice is a warm and pleasant sentiment but it ignores the reality of how and why our food culture has changed.
But all this discussion is not to forget that our grandmothers knew how to make do far better than we do these days. I live only 5 minutes walk from three supermarkets that are open long hours as well as many small fruit and veg shops and middle eastern food stores. I am spoilt.
So I always feel a little pleased with myself when I am able to make do. Having a small child about makes it a little harder to rush out to buy what I need. On the day that I made the gingerbread, I discovered that although I had mixed peel, I did not have eggs or buttermilk. Milk with a splash of lemon juice could be substituted for buttermilk and bananas were substituted for eggs.
Ironically, it is not from my grandmothers that I have learnt these skills of substitution but rather from the blogging community. Nevertheless I like the idea that history is cyclical rather than linear and that my foremothers might approve of such resourcefulness.
Previously on Green Gourmet Giraffe:
This time last year: Pumpkin Hummus
This time two years ago: Condensed Milk: Heirloom Comfort Food
This time three years ago: Choc Chip Cookies go Bananas!
Gingerbread Squares with Peel
from Scottish Home Baking by Judy Patterson
- 450g plain flour
- 225g soft brown sugar
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- pinch of salt
- 175g butter or margarine
- 50g mixed chopped peel
- 4 tbsp treacle
- 160ml buttermilk (I used milk with a generous squeeze of lemon juice)
- 2 eggs (I used two small bananas)
On the Stereo:
The Köln Concert: Keith Jarrett