Oct 102017
 

Today is World Porridge Day, an international event first held in 2009 to raise funds for the charity Mary’s Meals, based in Argyll in Scotland, to aid starving children in developing countries. The organization feeds the nutrient-rich maize-based porridge Likuni Phala to about 320,000 children in Malawi each year. The 2009 day included gatherings in the United States, France, Malawi, Bosnia and Sweden. There’s a lot to say about porridge, starting with the word itself.

My father always insisted on spelling the word “porage” which is an alternate spelling that he believed was somehow more traditional or more Scottish, presumably because of the spelling – Scott’s Porage Oats – on the box of the brand we used. The spelling “porage” is, indeed, slightly older than “porridge” but it was a general word for soupy things, a variant of “pottage” from the French “potage.” In the 1530s, when the word appears in English, it was spelled “porage” and meant a soup of meat and vegetables. The word may have been a bastardized mix of “pottage” and “porray” (“leek broth”) from Old French. The spelling with -idge is first attested from c. 1600, and is first attested as specifically a dish of oats in Scotland in the 1640s. The Scots Gaelic is brochan, which my father, if he really wanted to be a Scots traditionalist should have used instead of porage.  Ah well – he frequently got adamant about things Scots that were largely pointless and often wrong. It’s generally not a good idea to argue with an ex-pat Scot about Scotland.

The World Porridge Making Championship has taken place alongside World Porridge Day since 2009. The Championship has actually been running since 1994, but became connected to World Porridge Day when it was launched. The Championship is divided into two categories: Traditional and Specialty. Traditional porridge must be made from only oats, water, and salt, and is judged on taste, look, and texture. The main prize for this category is the Golden Spurtle trophy and the title “World Porridge Making Champion.” A spurtle is the traditional tool used to stir porridge. The best Speciality Porridge must also be made with oatmeal, but contenders can add other ingredients of their choosing. The competition takes place at the village hall in Carrbridge, in the Cairngorms National Park and is run by volunteers on behalf of the Carrbridge Community Council

Porridge is certainly as old as the domestication of cereals, and was a ubiquitous staple wherever cereals were domesticated.  Porridge can be made with any cereal imaginable and goes by different names in different cultures. If you want to call it polenta or grits or congee or whatever, go ahead. It’s all porridge: boiled grains in water. Generally, the word “porridge” throughout the UK means oat porridge. It was a breakfast mainstay in my family in the winter months. I ate it with sugar added, but my father preferred some milk and salt.

The general recipe for the day is starkly obvious, but the choice of porridge is entirely up to you. Mary’s Meals, who began the observance of World Porridge Day, sponsors Likuni Phala making in Malawi. At present Mary’s Meals provides porridge to about 25% of Malawi’s primary school age children at their schools. More information can be found here – http://mamalita.org.uk/2016/09/28/focus-on-likuni-phala/

Likuni Phala

Ingredients

1 cup ground cooked soy beans
4 cups coarse cornmeal

Instructions

Mix together the ground soy beans and cornmeal. Place in a large cooking pot with 15 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time to avoid sticking.

As with any porridge, Likuni Phala can be served as is, as a main meal or side dish, or you can add whatever ingredients you want. In Malawi peanuts and fruit are the commonest additions.

Sep 212016
 

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Today is the International Day of Peace, sometimes unofficially known as World Peace Day, dedicated to world peace, and specifically the absence of war and violence. To inaugurate the day, the United Nations Peace Bell is rung at UN Headquarters (in New York City). The bell is cast from coins donated by children from all continents except Africa, and was a gift from the United Nations Association of Japan, as “a reminder of the human cost of war.”  The inscription on its side reads, “Long live absolute world peace.”

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The United Nations General Assembly declared, in a resolution sponsored by the United Kingdom and Costa Rica in 1981, that the International Day of Peace be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace. The date initially chosen was the regular opening day of the annual sessions of the General Assembly, the third Tuesday of September. The United Nations was, of course, founded in the aftermath of World War II to prevent another such conflict. Obviously there has not been another world war, but the body has not been especially effective at preventing smaller wars.

The ineffectiveness of the UN should not come as any surprise, but, nonetheless, we can applaud the ideals. It can be admitted that the UN has been successful in a great many areas through its numerous organs such as WHO and UNESCO. The problem is that world peace is certainly a goal that I am sure the majority would support in principal, but the practice is endlessly elusive. This is because the causes of conflict are seemingly impossible to eradicate. There are many causes, obviously but I would like to focus on two: human temperament and profiteering.

As a professional anthropologist I do not believe in some notion of universal human nature. All cultures are different, and some exist globally and in history, who seek/sought to live peaceably. Conflict is not in our natures; we learn it. In fact, a very good case can be made for the argument that genetically we incline towards cooperation. There’s also a good case to be made for the argument that prehistoric hunters and gatherers were peaceful people. It was the development of domestication and, thereafter, cities, that created the conditions for war.

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What little we can glean from contemporary foragers is that it is in their best interests to share and live at peace. Presumably that was also true in prehistory. Unfortunately prehistoric foragers lived in conditions that no longer exist. The most obvious ones that have vanished are abundant natural resources and low population. Under those conditions, when local groups grew too big to be sustained by local resources they could simply fission and move to new territory without conflict. That state of affairs is long past.

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The Genesis story of Cain and Abel is probably a fair summation in parable form of the state of affairs in Mesopotamia at the time of domestication. Their parents, Adam and Eve, were simple foragers when they lived in the Garden of Eden. They lived off the bounty of the land. But when they were expelled they had to grow their own food by the sweat of their brows. Whether foraging or farming, people need both vegetable and animal products for survival (as a general rule). Foragers can provide both for themselves by dividing up the labor and then sharing their resources. With domestication comes a problem. It’s not as easy to create communities that can both farm crops and raise animals. Both activities benefit from the same kinds of land, but if there is not enough to go around disputes may arise.

In Mesopotamia there was a simple solution to such disputes. Farmers could take the fertile river valleys and pastoralists (animal herders) could take the rugged hill country that was not useful for farming. Of course, the hills are not good for cows and pigs, but they are perfect for sheep and goats. Enter Cain and Abel. Cain raised crops and Abel kept sheep. With this division comes the need for trade: the farmers need meat and the shepherds need bread. One way to accomplish this is through peaceful negotiation. The other is to take what you need forcibly. Pastoralists have historically subscribed to the forcible course of action because they have the means at their disposal to be successful. They slaughter animals routinely, so they can turn the technology of death from animals to humans. In addition, they live in rugged highlands that are easily defended.

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To protect themselves from such attacks, farmers need to build cities with walls and train soldiers for defense. And there you have it. Once communities develop with different interests you have the potential for conflict. Then as now the question is whether you are going to fight over resources or trade in harmony, and, then as now, fighting often seems to be the better option for one reason: profiteering. To put it in a nutshell, people have always gone to war to make a profit. Other factors come into play of course, but at heart someone is making a profit – always.

If it were illegal to make a profit from manufacturing guns and bombs no one would do it. But the fact is that weapons manufacture is hugely profitable. At this point, if weapons manufacture were outlawed national economies would collapse. What is more, if weapons manufacturers ran the risk of dying through the use of their products, they’d run a mile. But that’s not the case. One group of people makes weapons and makes huge profits, and a different group of people uses the weapons and die.  There’s the problem to be solved if you want world peace. As long as we live in a world where we’re content to let a small minority get fat at the expense of others, we’ll always have war.  We need to beat our swords into ploughshares.

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My solution is in some ways simple, yet impossible to put into effect. Put the people who advocate war in the forefront of battle. If you want to make guns, you have to be the first one to put on a uniform and use them. If you want to declare war, you have to be on the front lines. I don’t doubt that conflict would cease instantly under those conditions.

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Eating together is, as I have said many times, one avenue towards peace and harmony. We’ve all had fights over the dinner table, of course, but in general sitting down together for a meal promotes goodwill.  Some of my best times have come when circumstances required me to share a meal with strangers. I’d have no trouble filling a book with stories – passage from Australia to England sitting at tables for 14, a fish camp in the Appalachian mountains where everyone ate at one long table, hostel kitchens worldwide, barbecues in China, potluck suppers . . . the list is endless. Let’s talk about potlucks. Everyone brings a favorite dish and we all share. Perfect for a day dedicated to world peace. In the past my contributions ran the gamut from pies and pasta to creamy desserts. In the end I opted for bringing mounds of raw vegetables of all kinds with a dipping sauce because at every potluck there were oceans of casseroles and pies with not a vegetable in sight. My contributions always vanished in a hurry.

My food suggestion du jour to celebrate the idea of world peace is to hold a potluck or something of the sort to bring people together to eat. My favorite potlucks have been the multicultural ones where you wind up with one pots, curries, pastas and whatnot. So begin by imagining what you could make that would delight an international crowd. I’m spoilt for choice because I’ve lived in so many places and cooked so many different cuisines. Recently on this blog I showcased rice dishes as good for the masses. Here’s one I invented for a New Year’s potluck. It’s a burrito casserole. They all called it lasagna but loved it anyway. I don’t have a formal recipe because I made it up on the spot. You’ll get the idea.

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Start by sautéing an onion, chopped, over medium heat in a little olive oil, and when it has turned translucent add ground beef and brown it. Add a little powdered cumin also, plus salt and pepper to taste. I didn’t add any hot pepper flakes but I would have if it were just for me. When the meat is nicely browned add some crushed canned tomatoes and beef stock to moisten. Simmer for about 40 minutes until the sauce is reduced and thickened.

In a separate skillet make a tomato-based sauce with crushed canned tomatoes, beef stock, and spices. Garlic and cumin are the mainstays, but you can add some others if you wish. Cilantro is a good addition.

When the beef is ready, take out some flour tortillas. Make individual burritos by wrapping the tortillas around the beef to form a roll. Place the burritos in a row in the base of a baking dish. You can make one or two layers as you wish. Don’t make the burritos too fat because you want a balance of tortilla, meat, and sauce (like lasagna). Pour your tomato sauce over the burritos so that they are covered, with a little on top. Cover the top with shredded cheese, and bake in a medium oven (300°F/150°C) until the cheese is melted and bubbling.

Mar 012016
 

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Today is National Pig Day one of many pseudo-holidays held in the United States to celebrate the pig. The holiday celebration was started in 1972 by sisters Ellen Stanley, a teacher in Lubbock, Texas, and Mary Lynne Rave of Beaufort, North Carolina. According to Rave the purpose of National Pig Day is “to accord the pig its rightful, though generally unrecognized, place as one of man’s most intellectual and domesticated animals.” The holiday is most often celebrated in the Midwest where pig farming is extensive. Seems like a suitable holiday on which to indulge my ramblings.

National Pig Day includes events at zoos, schools, nursing homes, and sporting events around the United States. It is also recognized at “pig parties” where pink pig punch and pork delicacies are served, and pink ribbon pigtails are tied around trees in the pig’s honor. According to Chase’s Calendar of Events, National Pig Day is on the same day as pseudo-holidays Share a Smile day and Peanut Butter Lover’s day, so take your pick if you don’t like pigs. The question of whether the holiday is a time to honor pigs by “giving them a break” or to appreciate their offerings is an open question.

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Archaeological evidence suggests that pigs were domesticated from wild boar as early as 13,000–12,700 BCE in the Near East in the Tigris Basin being managed in the wild in a way similar to the way they are managed by some modern New Guineans. Remains of pigs have been dated to earlier than 11,400 BCE in Cyprus. Those animals must have been introduced from the mainland, which suggests domestication in the adjacent mainland by then. There was a separate domestication in China which took place about 8000 years ago. DNA evidence from sub-fossil remains of teeth and jawbones of Neolithic pigs shows that the first domestic pigs in Europe had been brought from the Near East. This stimulated the domestication of local European wild boar resulting in a third domestication event with the Near Eastern genes dying out in European pig stock.

The adaptable nature and omnivorous diet of the wild boar allowed early humans to domesticate it readily. Pigs were mostly used for food, but early civilizations also used the pigs’ hides for shields, bones for tools and weapons, and bristles for brushes. In many parts of Asia, pigs have been domesticated for a long time for pig toilets. Though ecologically logical as well as economical, pig toilets are waning in popularity as use of septic tanks and sewage systems is increasing in rural areas.

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A pig toilet (sometimes called a “pig sty latrine”) is a simple type of dry toilet consisting of an outhouse mounted over a pig sty, with a chute or hole connecting the two. The pigs consume the feces of the users of the toilet. Pig toilets were once common in rural China, where a single Chinese ideogram (Chinese: 圂; pinyin: hùn) signifies both “pigsty” and “privy”. These arrangements have been strongly discouraged by the Chinese authorities in recent years; although as late as 2005, they could still be found in remote northern provinces.

Pigs were brought to southeastern North America from Europe by de Soto and other early Spanish explorers. Escaped pigs became feral and caused a great deal of disruption to Native Americans, who had no domesticated livestock. Domestic pigs have become feral in many other parts of the world (e.g. New Zealand and northern Queensland) and have caused substantial environmental damage.

Pork is a well-known example of a non-kosher food. This prohibition is based on Leviticus 11:2–4, 7–8 (as well as Deuteronomy chapter 14):

These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the animals that are upon the land. Everything that possesses a split hoof, which is fully cloven, and that brings up its cud—this you may eat. But this is what you shall not eat from what brings up its cud or possesses split hooves—the camel, because it brings up its cud but does not possess split hooves…and the pig, because it has split hooves that are completely cloven, but it does not bring up its cud—it is impure to you and from its flesh you may not eat.

Why pork was prohibited in ancient Israel is a source of ongoing debate. When undercooked pork was discovered in the 19th century to be a cause of the parasite trichinosis, many scholars jumped on this fact as the principal reason for the pork taboo in ancient times. But this is a lame argument. Animal borne diseases such as salmonella (chicken) or anthrax (beef) are much more virulent and harder to get rid of. Trichinosis can easily be avoided by cooking the pork properly.

Structural anthropologists, such as Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, have argued that the taboo comes from ancient Israelite cultural categories propounded in Genesis. Israelite cosmology adamantly believed in the existence of three zones – land, sea, and sky – that were created by God during creation and should be kept separate. Not only that, each zone has animals that truly “belong” and those that do not. Fish (with fins and scales), for example, belong in the sea because they swim and can breath underwater. Lobsters do not belong because they walk on the bottom. Amphibians that can live in water and on land are an abomination. In this cosmology, sheep and goats belong and pigs do not, because the former eat grass (land food), but pigs eat everything.

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Marvin Harris in Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches takes up a more ecological argument. Why, he asks, do some cultures despise pigs, while others, such as people in highland New Guinea, love them? For the ancient Israelites, he argues, sheep and goats were environmentally beneficial, but pigs were destructive. The core lands of ancient Judah (around Jerusalem) are hilly and difficult to farm. Sheep and goats can be grazed in mountainous regions that are not suitable for arable, eating herbage, and, therefore, turning otherwise unusable land into meat, milk, and bone. Pigs can’t do this. They have to be kept in urban environments.

I have spent a lot of energy asking the question why city-dwelling Jewish priests in Jerusalem despised cities and loved mountain herders, and, in brief, I think the answer lies in Israel and Judah’s constant subjugation to multicultural cities in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. I think I can combine Douglas’ and Harris’ ideas, therefore. In part I think they are both right. Jerusalem priests wanted to be left alone and were afraid of assimilation into these vast multicultural empires in which their ethnic identity would be lost. This led to a theology that valued the separation of different things – which included animals, types of cloth, peoples etc. The word “separate” in Hebrew (qadosh) and “holy” are the same. Multicultural cities were evil; the wilderness of shepherds was good. Great leaders such as Abraham, Jacob, and David kept herds. They dwelt in lands that made them tough and fierce fighters. Cities bred arrogance and sloth. Pigs were the food of city dwellers and symbolized their habits: dirty, greedy, and slothful.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Be that as it may, pork is incredibly versatile. I couldn’t even begin to list the food products containing pork – sausages, hams, bacon, etc., never mind chitterlings, pork rind, trotters, boar’s head . . . and on and on. Lard is a great medium to fry in and makes superb pastry. I won’t go on. This site is a fairly broad listing of pork dishes around the world – enough to make you salivate.

http://www.wikiwand.com/en/List_of_pork_dishes

Ok, OK, pork fat is not tremendously good for your arteries. I get it. But, as with all foods that can be harmful, moderation is the key. Four years ago I moved from Argentina which has the lowest per capita consumption of pork of countries where pork is not taboo, to China which has the highest consumption. Even so, Argentina was the first country where I found pork kidneys for sale in markets, and they were delectable. In China I could have drowned in pork. If you ask for “meat” (肉: ròu) in a restaurant you’ll invariably get pork.

I won’t prejudice you with a recipe. You pick – lentils with ham hocks or pig’s trotters, prosciutto, a BLT, black pudding, chicharrones, pork pie

. . . have at it. Here’s a small gallery:

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