Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cultural Survival

And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me . . . immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents . . . and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.

- Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Remembrance of Things Past

After a Long Emergency, when the economy has begun to rise from the ashes of self-immolation, when there is some semblance of normalcy and people are no longer focused on obsessive thoughts of where their next meal will come from, your family will look around and wonder,

"How did Mom make pot roast?"

"Do you remember Grandma's pecan pie? Man, I wish I had a piece of that."

"I thought I remembered how to make this, but it just isn't turning out."

This is cultural survival, and if you really believe your family has a chance of surviving a crisis, it is important. Do not impoverish your children's future by allowing them to inherit a world in which they physically survive, but the memories and shared experiences that they have known and loved perish, never to be recovered.

In my Texan, barbecue-loving, deep-fat-frying family, only two generations removed from the farm that my grandfather grew up on, food is love made visible, a ritual that we re-enact every year as we come to the table to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. There are the black-eyed peas that my mother cooks every New Year's Day to bring us luck, served steaming over a golden slab of sweet cornbread to sop up the bacon-flavored broth. There is the rose-colored Christmas ham, encrusted in its sugary glaze, studded with fragrant cloves and bejeweled with translucent pineapple rings the color of sunshine and ruby-red maraschino cherries. And there is the pot roast, a humble piece of garlic-studded beef served with potatoes, onions and carrots roasted alongside, dressed with ivory ribbons of thick cream gravy flecked with pepper.

And there are the recipes that haven't survived. Two of my grandmother's recipes are gone, probably forever: her divinity, a temperamental meringue-like dessert made of egg whites and sugar that melted like a cloud on your tongue, and her corn souffle, kernels cut fresh from the cob, mixed with whole milk, obscene amounts of butter and somehow roasted in the oven until the middle was tender and the edges - my favorite - were brown and chewy.

I suspect most families' shared experience revolves around food. Even Jesus made a point of holding a Last Supper, now symbolically re-enacted weekly by millions of followers around the world who break bread together.

While you have the chance, please make a list of all the dishes that your family has made countless times over the years -- the ones you grew up with, the ones that you ask for every time you go home. Ask the resident Food Priest of your family to help you write down the recipes for these dishes, and then make them yourself. Trust me, you will think the recipe is clear until you are half-way into it, the pot is boiling on the stove, and suddenly you are grabbing the phone to speed-dial your mother to ask her why the gravy isn't thickening. You will understand exactly what you don't know, you can analyze why it didn't quite taste like mom's, and you will have the chance to hone your skills so that you can get it right -- now, and after the Long Emergency.

Knowledge survives best when written down and widely disseminated. Once you have your catalog of recipes, you can publish them and provide copies to every member of your family so that no matter what, the family culture will survive, despite time, distance, and separation.

A final thought from Marcel Proust:

"I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it - our life - hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.

But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The picture you paint of the Christmas ham is absolutely delightful! I swear I can see it in my mind's eye. Luckily with the technology we have these days, we can utilize blogs as a resource to publish family recipes and keep them accessible for all. And if you lose the link, there's always Delicious! I have a running tab of my recipes here: