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We eat like peasants

(article, Mike Madison)

We eat like peasants, whatever’s at hand. An hour before dinner, I find myself rummaging in the garden, a few fennels tucked under my arm, my hat full of beans, tugging leeks out of the ground — ought to be able to make something out of that. On our place we grow olives, lemons, and figs; persimmons, mandarins, and apricots; prunes, nectarines, and grapes; tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant; fennel, radicchio, and artichokes; lettuces, carrots, and beets; squash, okra, and pumpkins; and a number of other things which I can’t recall at the moment. Some is intended for commerce, some for the use of the house. A manager with an MBA would be appalled by the seemingly haphazard plan of our farm, and by the unfathomable calendar according to which we operate. But he needn’t worry. It’s more or less under control. 

The list of crops, together with the etceteras, suggests a varied diet, and in the course of a year this is so. But in the course of any given week, there is much less variation. The characteristic feature of a peasant diet is that today’s menu is the same as yesterday’s menu is the same as tomorrow’s menu. 

Here’s a sample of our lunches from July. Monday: tomatoes with basil, grilled aubergine on toast, apricots. Tuesday: tomatoes with basil, grilled aubergine on toast, apricots. Wednesday: tomatoes with basil, grilled aubergine on toast, apricots. Thursday: tomatoes with basil, grilled aubergine on toast, apricots. 

[%image reference-image width=400 float=left caption="Fennel from the garden."] 

This changes slowly through the year, so that by October the grilled aubergine has given way to a sardine, and the apricot has been replaced by a persimmon, and maybe there are some new potatoes with mustard seeds alongside. 

Here’s the curious thing. Not only is this diet not monotonous, but with the passage of time, it tastes better and better. The Mexican villager who has been eating tortillas and beans and salsa every day for 70 years finds them more satisfying than they were 10 years ago. And the old Malay fisherman relishes his rice and fish with lime more than he did in his youth. 

With enough repetitions, a certain perfection creeps into things. The pianist who begins her daily practice by playing some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations finds that after 30 years, she has not become tired of the piece. Indeed, it continues to reveal new depths. This is not just because of the complexity of the relationships between each note and all the other notes. It also has to do with the 10,000 previous performances, some on joyful days, others on grievous ones, which have somehow permeated the score so that every phrase is laden with layers of memory. 

And our lunch of tomatoes with basil and grilled aubergine on toast is similarly freighted. It is not just a July lunch, it is also an unconscious echo of all those other Julys, the ones before we had children, when things were simpler, and then when the children were small and their little faces crumpled into dismay and betrayal at their first taste of aubergine. We’re not actively thinking of these things at lunch; but they are an unacknowledged condiment that flavors the experience. 

This is not to disparage novelty, which has its place. Like most peasants, we look forward to our holidays and feast days and gatherings with friends, and enjoy them as much in anticipation as in actuality. And if a new Thai restaurant opens in town, we’re sure to check it out. But these occasions have to be well spaced if they are to maintain the proper counterpoint to our mundane dinners. 

It seems to me that an unmuzzled compulsion to seek novelty is a mistake. The food enthusiast who travels to the remotest part of the earth searching for an unheard-of dish with which to jolt his jaded palate is missing something he could have got by staying at home. And that is the subtle and cumulative pleasure of eating like a peasant.


reference-image, l