The Bold and the Beautiful
Food for Heroes and Other Athletic Fare: A pan-historical take on the food of heroes, geniuses, explorers and the odd fantasy figure. In the ring are: Darwin; Galileo; Joan of Arc; Ghandi; Freud; Lawrence of Arabia; Scott of the Antarctic; Christopher Columbus; and Martin Luther King.
It would take a chance encounter at school with an ingenious enemy to make Darwin a little more cautious about who he’d mix with for an iced bun … Aged nine-and-a-half, at Dr Butler’s School in Shrewsbury, Darwin trotted into town with another young rascal, named Garnett, to tour Shrewsbury’s cake shops. Garnett, wearing a very distinctive hat, idled through the town centre, Darwin by his side, and led him into a very fine cake shop. Garnett ordered some delicious, sticky-looking cakes and buns and was asked to pay absolutely nothing for them. Darwin watched in awe: was Garnett blessed in some way? (Between you and me, Garnett was getting them on credit, as Garnett had clearly always returned to pay for his cakes at a later date). Finally, when he woke from the witnessing of this miracle of fortune, Darwin asked Garnett, “How did you do that?” And, in Darwin’s innocence, Garnett saw an opportunity.
“Why do you not know,” said Garnett, “that my uncle left a great sum of money to the Town on condition that every tradesman should give whatever was wanted without payment to anyone who wore his [my uncle’s] old hat and moved it in a particular manner?” Darwin looked up at the magical hat open-mouthed. So that was the secret! In a rush of kindness, Garnett offered, “Now if you like to go by yourself into that cake shop, I will lend you my hat, and you can get whatever you like if you move the hat on your head properly.”
A Great Betrayal was set in motion. While Garnett waited outside – no doubt tying his laces – Darwin breezed in, sporting the hat: the shopkeeper looked hard at him. Darwin then made a few well-chosen and vigorous movements with the hat, and ordered a box of cakes. The shopkeeper placed the sugar-dusted, sweetly heavy little cakes into a box. Darwin tucked the box under his arm and made for the door. Imagine his surprise when the shopkeeper suddenly rushed at him, grabbed at his collar, perhaps trying to place him in a head lock ... the cakes flew through the air and Darwin fled: as he sped along the road he was pursued by Garnett’s hyena-like shouts of laughter.
While Garnett’s treachery might have temporarily have put the dampeners on Darwin’s risk-taking, there is little sign of this in Darwin’s elephantine five-year journey across South America and beyond as recorded in the Voyage of the Beagle, beginning in 1831, when Darwin was now 22. His journey towards a theory of evolution was mirrored by a journey through food. Darwin’s eating experiences on that journey waver between the downright horrible, the acceptably odd (but tasty) and the delicious or, indeed, revelatory.
First, there was the downright horrible: what was on the table at the Tierra del Fuego peninsula. Through the moil of sleet that fell about him on the deck of The Beagle, Darwin could just make out the outlines of frighteningly wild, naked women, one breast-feeding through her entangled hair (while the hearts of many would leap at such a vision, Darwin wasn’t in the mood). And this wasn’t the worst Fuego had on offer: every day the natives scraped up whatever sandy, hunched shellfish clung to the wind-beaten rocks: sea eggs, even some gobbet of rotten whale, represented a feast. Darwin found this grimy, fishy diet daunting to say the least, the worst part being the local penchant for enormous donuts of whale blubber that the Fuegians would bury in the sand till they felt peckish. These fishy treats would be broiled and served up with a side of fungi (Fuego’s only vegetable) and berries. For Darwin, this fell very short of Shrewsbury’s cakes.
Worst of all was the ghastly rumour he heard that, in times of war and in the long, harrowing winters, Fuegians would revert to cannibalism. Scandalized, Darwin recorded that they killed the old women of the tribe for supper in hard times, rather than one of their numerous dogs, the logic being, as one traveller put it: “Doggies catch otters, old women no.” But let’s give the Fuegians the benefit of the doubt; after all, Darwin was fooled by Garnett’s hat story. Accounts of how Fuegians chose to dispose of Granny should be taken with a pinch of salt (boom boom): the said pensioner was apparently held, kicking feebly, over fire smoke until she choked to death, like some terrible on-the-spot kipper. Perhaps less surprisingly, when the nights drew in, it was rumoured that old women would flee to the mountains, and that these pensioners would dart about the murky mountainside, only be hounded by their menfolk back to the fireside where they would be cooked … well, Darwin fell for it …
In a beautifully ironic cultural about-turn, Darwin’s distaste for Fuegian dining ways was mirrored by one Fuegian: he accidentally touched the meat that Darwin carted about preserved in a ‘tin case’, (we’re talking early corned beef here) and, finding it horribly soft and cold, recoiled in disgust. Perhaps if it had been tinned grandmother he might have been more amenable …
Then there was the barely digestible on Darwin’s journey … no longer in Tierra del Fuego but in Uruguay, at a stopping off point on the Rio Tapalguen, Darwin was hungrily eating a bowl of meat. One diner asked whether this scrumptious meal was indeed a very popular Uruguayan dish? Now Darwin knew what that meant and had been hoping to avoid such Uruguayan delicacies, in this case the noisome snack of a half-formed embryo of a calf, aborted, and cooked for your supper. The veal-like taste and bridal-white flesh of what was in his bowl suggested the worst. He listened, fork poised, as the conversation developed. But no! It was alright! What rested in his bowl was puma, prized for its tenderness and delicacy, more uniformly popular even than jaguar. Thankful, Darwin popped another forkful of puma in his mouth.
Next, comes the acceptably odd. In Argentina Darwin enjoyed baked armadillo, tucked up in its own shell, but found that roasted kid made him far too thirsty. In Chile, Darwin loved charqui (dried strips of beef) and drinking mate. On the edge of the Sierra Tapalguen, giant musket balls of hail plummeted from the sky, felling wild deer and ostriches – the travellers had a tasty dinner of ostrich.– not only did he find himself eating peculiar meat most of the time, but he also found it peculiar to eat nothing but meat and was always glad of the opportunity to buy some biscuits. Mendoza held relief from carnivorous fare and they bought pinkly fragrant watermelon and half a wheelbarrow of peaches (scents of Darwin’s own English childhood).
Tortoise was the name of the game in the Galapagos Islands: the Beagle voyagers would roast the breast plate of the tortoise in the same way that gauchos cooked carne con cuero (a dish in which beef is roasted with its skin still on, protecting the succulence of the meat from the heat and which is sometimes unglamorously translated as ‘leather meat’) and they made excellent tortoise soups. Lizard, with its white meat, was reliably delicious: in inter-tropical South America, lizards living in dry regions were supposed to be the best tasting.
By the time the Beagle had reached Tahiti, however, Darwin’s dining opportunities were really beginning to look up: the glassy lagoons, long reefs under white hot heat, and dazzlingly green mountains all promised good food. And Tahiti delivered. One afternoon, after Darwin had been climbing in the mountains under a burning sun, a Tahitian met him with a gift of hot roasted bananas, pineapple and coconuts. Darwin declared that he knew of nothing more delicious after walking in the burning sun than the milk of a young, fresh coconut. Pineapples were better even than those in England – which Darwin felt was the highest compliment that could be paid to any fruit. They were so plentiful in Tahiti that they were as common and as wastefully consumed as the turnip in England.
Then there were the delicious fish, silver and clean from the water, and fresh water prawns. Tahitians, swimming like otters through the chambered lava rock cavities of inland ravines, would net fish and cook them immediately. Drinking with the Tahitians was comical: alcohol, introduced by Europeans, had already taken vicious hold over many, and some of the Tahitians left standing joined Temperance Societies run by missionaries. Darwin carried with him a hip flask and offered a sip here and there (though he really approved of their customary temperance). Each time a Tahitian raised Darwin’s flask to their lips, they would mutter – like an incantation to ward off evil– a single word: “Missionary”.
On one memorable inland expedition on the island, Darwin and the Tahitians happened on huge beds of mountain banana, with plants over twenty feet high, the fruit ripened and heavy with dense creamy banana: they decided to eat their find (both bananas and leaves) for dinner. Making a bed of a light wood from the flowering tree hibiscus tiliaceus, whose blossoms darken from yellow to deep apricot during the course of the day, the Tahitians prepared a fire. Darwin felt a sharp surge of pride when he succeeded in setting fire to the hibiscus wood, as it required skill and practice and he had learned well from the Tahitians. Stones ‘the size of cricket bats’ were laid on top of Darwin’s fire: within ten minutes the hibiscus had vanished and the stones were hot.
In parcels of banana leaves the islanders individually wrapped marbled beef, fish, stout bananas and ‘the tops of the wild arum’. These green parcels were placed on top of the hot stones and more hot stones laid carefully on top. Dug earth was piled over. Within 15 minutes the meal was ready and washed down with fresh water drunk from coconut shells.
As Darwin sat there, in the deep ravine, eating hot, sweet banana, the other men eating and talking about him, he gazed with new eyes on Tahiti and saw an edible landscape. His journey on The Beagle had taught him to look on landscapes in a new way, no longer so much as a European, but as someone who must survive in it and who, when times were good, should take pleasure in it and pleasure in eating what it offered. This richly generous, edible landscape was one in which he saw no less than man himself beginning.
He looked at the thick litter of uneaten bananas on the forest floor, close by where he sat was wild arum whose roots he knew by now could be baked and tasted good, and the young green shoots of arum leaves which tasted even better than spinach lay on his plate. Wild yam treaded its way across the forest floor, mingling and twining and springing up about were lilaceous ti plants, symbols of good luck (ti leaves are what make up hula skirts), with their waxy tiny lanterns of flowers, those same flowers springing up from a starchy rhizome that sweetened as the plant matures and which looked like, as Darwin fondly described it, ‘a huge log of wood’ and which, when roasted, became treacle-sweet.
Under the wild fruits and vegetation ran a narrow stream, eels and crayfish in its bright cool water. It was all so beautiful, Darwin thought, his plate perhaps forgotten now on his lap, more beautiful, perhaps, than the temperate zones of Europe. And it was then, Darwin wrote, ‘that I felt the force of the remark, that man, at least savage man, with his reasoning powers only partially developed, is the child of the tropics.’ Darwin had found his Eden and taken another step towards his theory of Evolution.