Thursday, 15 September 2011
We are what we eat.
One of the ways that groups of people differentiate themselves from others is by the food that they eat and how that food is prepared. This is no more than an amusing cultural footnote most of the time but the bringing of religion into the equation can make it very unamusing indeed. Proscribed foods, such as pig meat or holy cows, can take on a life or death importance in some societies. My own experiences in this area, while nothing like as dramatic as the Indian Mutiny, for example, have shown that even the most rational and open minded people would think twice about eating something that they were just not used to. Take "her indoors" for example. Coming from a Polish family she was brought up eating beetroot as a hot vegetable and of course as the main ingredient of borsch while I had never eaten it other than as a pickle or salad vegetable. When the subject of beetroot comes up down the allotments I find that the majority of growers still consider it to be something to steep in malt vinegar and eat with summer salads. Strange, but not mind you as strange as Jon Snow's recent revelation that he had never sampled the delights of HP sauce (what?). Britain is full of odd regional culinary variations but surely none more idiosyncratic than the one that I encountered as a teenager. Thames bargemen hailed from either North or South of the Thames Estuary and on the whole Essex and Kent crews got along pretty well. We drank in the same pubs, endured the same bad weather and suffered at the hands of the same owners. But in one important respect we were two distinct tribes and that concerned the famous, or infamous, bargeman's duff. No meal was considered complete without a steamed suet pudding. This monster of the deep, liberally laced with raisins, was wrapped in butter papers and a tea towel ( none of that effete pudding basin nonsense) and plunged into a vat of boiling water and simmered for a couple of hours. Now we come to the contentious bit. Whereas those tough blokes from Erith, Gravesend and the Medway Towns would have the duff as "afters" sprinkled with sugar, the Essex Bargeman preferred his duff to be served with his meat, gravy and spuds. Each side avowed that the other were no more than "fucking savages" but both agreed that any leftover duff should be fried with a few rashers of fat bacon the following morning. I can taste it now.