Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Travellers' Tales: a Nile voyage, 1857

About travel, the writer James Michener said “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” This is as wise as travel wisdom gets.

Travel is no longer a rare event, available only to the lucky or adventurous few, as it was in the past. Nowadays we are all familiar (or can easily become familiar), with the food and customs of any land that we might chose to visit. I am deeply puzzled by those modern travelers who go to the expense and trouble of ‘going overseas’ and then do reject the food, customs, and people they meet. In the past, I think, this attitude was more understandable (but no less silly and unforgiveable) because the traveler was, by definition, well-off, and therefore of ‘a certain class’- and more likely to take class and national prejudices along with the physical baggage.

The New York Daily Times in 1857 published an account by a traveller and ‘special correspondent’ of a voyage on the Nile. There were eighteen crew and twenty-two passengers aboard the Phantom, and the voyage was to take three months. The writer has the usual (for the era) patronising tone when he discusses the locals. The captain is a ‘tolerably good sort of fellow in his way’, and the boatmen ‘of all shades of colour’ use a ‘respectable English tone’ towards the lady guests. He waxes lyrical about the ‘thousand comforts’ aboard the vessel, basks in the ‘delicious’ weather, is suitably awed by the grand sights, and takes with enthusiasm to the loose, comfortable ‘Eastern articles’ of clothing which they adopt in the evening. But the food – with the exception of some token exotic fruit and sweets, is straight from home. 

The writer notes that the boatmen have bread and onions for breakfast. For the guests, however, ‘…. breakfast … is always delicious; coffee of Mocha, and eggs whitened with lemons before the water touches them, and a broiled bird and chop’

Dinner is even more elaborate. The writer goes on to say:

“. ….. giving our bill of fare for dinner today. I give you my solemn assurance that this is a correct list of the articles on our dinner table today, and this is on a Nile boat, ten days out from Cairo: Macaroni Soup, boiled chicken, fried brains, roast lamb, roast pigeon, roast wild goose, fricasseed chickens, macaroni au gratin, potatoes, plain and mashed, native beans, and the usual pickles and other small articles. For the last course, custards in cups, plum pudding, patés of sweet preserves, calf’s foot jelly, with pomegranate, and then fruit, oranges, apples, pomegranates, figs, dates, and finally a delicate conserve of citron, rose-flavored, and rahot-lo-koom*, know[n] in America as fig-paste, though there is no more fig in it than there is fine-cut. Nor is this an unusual fare. I have given today’s bill of fare because I can remember it more easily. But yesterday, and every day, it was the same, and will be the same, I doubt not so, so long as we are on the river.”
[*lokum, or ‘Turkish Delight’]

As the recipe for the day, I give you fig paste (made with figs, believe it, or not.)

Fig Paste.
Fig paste is easily made: pare the figs when ripe; mash and spread upon dishes and set in the sun; so soon as you can turn, without tearing, take a knife and slip it under the paste and turn it over – this will be on the second day after the past is put out. When dry, sift some sugar, and place two or three sheets of paste one upon the other, with a press on the top. To dry the figs, select those that are ripe but still firm – pare – leaving on the stem or not is a matter of taste; place on dishes in the sun; should be turned over at least once during the day; if it should be over-ripe it will be liable to sour – turn dark etc.
Our Home Journal, Vol. II (New Orleans, 1871)

Quotation for the Day.

So counsel'd he, and both together went
  Into the thickest wood; there soon they chose
    The fig-tree, not that kind for fruit renowned,
      But such as at this day to Indians known
        In Malabar or Decan spreads her arms,
          Branching so broad and long, that in the ground
            The bended twigs take rood, and daughters grow
              About the mother tree, a pillar'd shade
                High overarch'd, and echoing walks between.
      -John Milton, Paradise Lost

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