Basil, Language, & A Myth or Two

Once upon a time there was a farmer whose name was Rod. Rod was a pilot who also happened to be an organic farmer. He grew 100% grass fed beef, pastured pork, chickens and eggs, greenhouse tomatoes and cucumbers, and basil. Oh, and satisfying delicious flax cookies. At the Regina Farmer’s Market, which during the winter was held at a small community centre in the Cathedral District, Rod’s booth was right beside the one that I worked at. At first sighting, he instantly reminded me of a liberal version of my father. A little too opinionated and a little too forward you could tell that some customers didn’t know how to take him. Was he joking or was he being serious? Should you be offended or should you laugh? Rod was a proud farmer. Although, having said that I don’t know if I’ve ever met a farmer who wasn’t proud. I guess when the time comes and your truck has broken down and a crop has failed and the bank is knocking at your door it’s always good to hold on to something. Anyway, Rod was proud. His products were always more than what they appeared. His tomatoes weren’t just tomatoes. They were juicy and flavourful and were what tomatoes used to be like, not the hard, cardboard tasting ones we’ve become accustomed to. However, it was in talking about one item, in particular, when his tone would get a little lighter and a little more earnest, and that item was basil.

Rod would often have around ten little ziploc bags full of freshly cut sweet basil to sell. On the days when they didn’t sell out he would give me one. Almost every time he’d tell me, “I love basil. Sometimes I even put a little under my pillow so I can go to sleep smelling it.” Rod would always insist that I take good care of the basil he gave me, “Tuck a little moist paper towel in the bag, and never put it in the fridge. Ever.” This week’s episode is: Basil, Language, & a Myth or two.

I didn’t really grow up with herbs. As I mentioned in previous podcasts, my mom was a good cook. Full disclosure, my dad was a nonexistent cook. His idea of cooking was slapping together a sandwich. Two slices of bread, relish, mustard, and pickled herring was all he needed. My mom certainly dabbled in her spice drawer from time to time, although some of those spice bottles looked like they had been sitting there for a while and turned into hard clumps in a jar. Once late spring hit, my mom would put together a planter of herbs–sweet basil, thai basil, parsley, thyme, and rosemary. It smelled great, but I don’t ever remember using it. They remained in their pot, never picked, never pinched, never sprinkled. Perhaps, our lack of herbs was a side-effect of a Northern European diet, or perhaps a Northern European diet that had been cut and removed from some of its fundamental properties.  We were a family of Dutch immigrants and our food reflected more a need for sustenance than enjoyment. Meat and Potatoes were what we ate, and there was no need to fancy it up. Or, perhaps, it would be more apt to say that there was no thought that there was a need to fancy it up. The perfect word to describe this type of food is bland, and bland is the exact opposite of flavour.

It can be argued that the first time I ate basil was the first time I appreciated flavour. Basil has a subtle peppery flavour and smells entirely fresh, as if the wind has blown a thousand flowers towards you. Basil dances with your senses. It transforms food. From pizza, pasta, ice cream, pesto, curries, salads, food is often better with basil then without. It’s transformative effect on food and the people eating it is almost magical. In a way, all herbs, have this ability. The intensity of their flavour and their fragrance turns basic sustenance into what food should be. And in doing so has an impact that goes far beyond food.

There are three words. The first word is Basilisk. In “Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets”, the second installment in the series, the book ends with Harry Potter battling the Basilisk, a monstrous snack-like creature that can either kill you with his poisonous venom or kill you by simply making eye contact. The Basilisk wasn’t the figment of J.K Rowling’s imagination, on the contrary the Basilisk has been apart of European Mythology for a millennia or two. Literary references to Basilisks are found in the Bible, Shakespeare, and some 18th century literary works which I won’t bore you with. The Basilisk was known as the “King of Serpents” and is from the Greek word “basiliskos” which means “little king.” The second word is Basilica. Basilica is a word to describe a type of early Christian church. These Christian churches tend to have similar architectural motifs. At one end, the entrance, at the other a semi-circle known as an apse where the altar sits. Basilica is derived from the Greek word “basilike oikia” which means “royal house.”   What is fascinating about language is that the words we use can act as clues to the past. They reveal relationships and commonalities that we otherwise wouldn’t think exists.The third word is Basil. Basil is derived from the Greek word basiliskos which means “kingly.” Three words used to classify a snake, a church, and a herb. What binds them together is their royal status. Basil is not just a regular herb it is “The King of Herbs.” However, the Basilisk and the Basilica are also representative of how the Basil has been shaped within our culture. They represent binary opposites, good and evil, heaven and hell, that are linked by a thread, and throughout our cultural history they have pulled Basil into different directions. At different times and different places Basil has been both demonized and canonized.

Basically, since the time the first herbalist was roaming about, Basil has always been associated with snakes and scorpions, and some not so positive conditions. The ancient Greeks believed that Basil caused madness and often alluded to poverty by picturing a woman staring at a basil plant.  It is thought that the connection with Scorpions and Snakes, which were closely linked to the mythical  basilisk,  is due to the simple fact that both the plant and animals enjoy warm, sunny places, and one can often be found with the other. There were ancient tales that warned people that if they crushed and smelled a Basil leaf that Scorpions would breed in their brains.  Or, if you crushed basil with two stones and then placed a glass container over it that you could create a Scorpion. In general, there was no limit to one’s imagination and folks created many scenarios in which a basil plant made scorpion babies.

 

On the other hand, for others, Basil represented the exact opposite. Really, I’ve never met a plant that involved so many contradictions. In this case, Basil was more synonymous with it’s name, a herb because of its sweet fragrance, that was fit for royalty. Those who had high esteem for the plant, perhaps connected Sweet Basil with its cousin, Holy Basil or otherwise known as Tulsi Basil, in India. Holy Basil is honoured as a sacred plant by Hindus, who place the plant before their doorways to drive away evil spirits. The spiritual connections continue with stories of Basil springing up along the path Jesus was forced to take during his Crucifixion. Everywhere a drop of his blood fell to the ground a sprig of basil bloomed. Throughout Persia, Malaysia, and Egypt basil is placed at the graves, a part of a ritual to send loved ones off to the next life. Basil can also be a symbol of love and friendship. In Moldavia, Italy, and Portugal basil is given as a token of one’s devotion.

One can really be unsure of why Basil has forever been portrayed amongst a myriad of contradictions. How can one herb represent poverty and royalty, the devil and God? Perhaps, contradictions happen randomly and without thought, the same way language comes about, maybe. And, perhaps, it depends on who is telling the tale. To me, Basil, with its peppery taste and sweet fragrance, can transform something that is bland into something that is flavourful and wonderful. It brings joy to food. For others, perhaps there is something valuable within the blandness, and one not need be tempted by a scent or flavour.

It is a lovely thing to visit my parents now. What once was untouched herbs in a planter has transformed into large mint plants in the garden and fresh herbs on the table. Herbs are enjoyed and appreciated. They are experimented with and played with. Maybe, a sign that a deeper connection is occurring between us and our sustenance.

Seaweed: A Complicated Relationship You Didn’t Know You Had

I had once gone to a wedding in upstate New York. After the ceremony, a dance, and the presentation of food, it was time for the speeches. The best man stood up and went to the microphone to say a little something about the groom,his brother. What he said, which I thought was poignant at the time, was that his brother above all else was nice. Nice is such a simple, overly spent word and, yet, I thought it was the best word to describe my friend. It is a quality that does not come and go, depending on who you are interacting with or what is happening around you, it is a part of you. As the speeches continued, I briefly zoned out and thought to myself, “Hmm…nope, I’m definitely not nice.”

One of the great things about getting older is that, if you are wise enough, you can start to see patterns within your own life. One pattern that has dogged me since I was very young is a type of divisiveness that I create. As my husband once said, “Leanne, people either love you or hate you.”  This fact, that every few years the later, gets smacked in my face is hard to swallow and as I get older I do try my best to avoid it. A quality that is as true to me as my friend’s niceness and the main cause of the divisiveness is a type of blatant honesty that I share. In recent years I’ve mitigated the fallout by choosing not to say anything at all. Unfortunately, my face betrays me more often than not, and folks can tell what I’m thinking regardless.  People either hate my honesty or they love it. It is the same quality, but often comes with different reactions.

It might seem like an odd, ill-thought segue to start talking about seaweed right now, for what does seaweed have to do with my divisiveness issues? What is divisive about seaweed? Heck, what do we even know about seaweed? Unless, you live in Asia or are of Asian ancestry, your connection to seaweed is probably pretty limited. A little Nori in your California sushi roll and that is probably it. At least that is what you think. Seaweed is actually pretty pervasive even in a North American diet. However, it is the fact that we aren’t fully aware of its presence or the names that it is hidden under that allows us to create a division that we aren’t really aware that we are creating. You might not know this but seaweed is in your chocolate milk. It’s in your toothpaste. It’s in your canned beans. Essentially, seaweed is the source of a few of our most used food additives. You might see the words carrageenan, agar, or monosodium glutamate (yes, folks, that’s MSG). All derived or originally derived from seaweed. In some food circles, these additives are put on a big blackboard and labeled, “Watch out, that shit’s bad for you.” On the other side of the spectrum, seaweed, like Chlorella or Spirulina, are bottled up in vitamin capsules and presented as a wondrous super food that will be your source for boundless energy. It will prevent inflammation, while at the same time your seaweed derived additives will cause inflammation. Supposedly, it can be both at the same time, and perhaps it can. When you manipulate food anything can happen. This week’s episode Seaweed: A Complicated Relationship you didn’t know you had.

There is something called the Coastal Route Theory, which is basically a theory that explains how humans first arrived in the Americas during the last Ice Age. In school, when it was the 90’s and I was young, naive, and full of dreams I learned about the Bering Land Bridge Theory, which suggested the Americas was populated by folks walking from Russia to Alaska. Well, the Coastal Route Theory suggests that South America and Western United States was first populated by Southeast Asians or Polynesians who hopscotched their way across the pacific ocean on boat, by either crossing south or north of the pacific. Along with the Coastal Route Theory is another theory called the Kelp Highway Hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that forests made of kelp and other coastal ecosystems may have helped nourish our very early explorers during their trip across the pacific and during their time on the American coast as they settled on the new continent. There are little dots of evidence found along the pacific coasts to support both theories. In southeastern Chili, remnants of eleven different species of algae were found, including partially burned and squashed fragments on stone tools that give weight to the idea that humans were consuming seaweed. The interesting thing to note is that the evidence suggests this occurred 14000 years ago, 1000 years before the Bering Land Bridge Theory is thought to have taken place. This means that these folks in southeastern Chili, could very well have been the first humans on the Americas, and it was seaweed that could very well have provided them with a dependable supply of food to help establish their populations. Once established on the coast, these peoples started to move inland and populate the continent.

Even back during the last Ice Age, those early explorers were using seaweed for more than just food. Seaweed has always been versatile, and for centuries humans have adapted seaweed to an industrialization model. First, the ash of burnt brown seaweed was used as fertilizer. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seaweed was used to make soap and glass, and in the nineteenth century it was used as a source of iodine. Today, there are four different types of seaweed which are the most widely grown–nori, kelps, carrageenophytes, and agarophytes. Our food additives, carrageenan and agar, are derived from red algae and alginates are derived from brown algae. They are primarily used for their ability to emulsify, stabilize, and thicken. Nori, which is used in sushi is also from red algae. Then there is green and blue algae, which are marketed as Chlorella and Spirulina. You will find these ones in medicine bottles in the health food stores.

The pervasiveness of seaweed production is quite dumbfounding to me. Unbeknownst to me, although production is concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region, seaweed is actually produced and cultivated around the world.  This peculiar feeling I have might have to do with the fact that in regards to the matter of seaweed I have to acknowledge my ignorance. When you think of processed foods and additives what do you think of? For me, I think of corn and soy. A couple of our largest food commodities. It’s easy to not forget. I go home to visit my parents and I drive by fields of corn and soy and think, “Oh yeah, there in everything. The Corporatization of Food. God Damn you world.” Seaweed, on the other hand, a commodity, in most everything?  I had no idea. If I don’t see it, then it doesn’t exist, and I don’t tend to drive by many seaweed farms. The fact that I have found myself blindsided on this one may say something about my relationship to processed foods? Whenever I dabble in the pre-packaged arena, this tends to be my process. I look at the ingredients. Read a list of words which half of them mean nothing to me. Assume they are all bad. Go home. Eat. And then feel guilty. The amount of times I have gone home and plugged in one of these words into google to see what they are. Maybe, once. This assumption that what we do not know and what we do not understand must be bad for us has, perhaps, pushed me into a corner.

There is a word that you may have heard of. The word is Umami. There are five basic tastes that we have: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Umami is what you taste after cooking a pot of chicken bones on the stove for 12 hours, or after you eat a slice of parmesan cheese, a garden tomato, or a bowl of miso soup. Umami was coined by Kidunae Ikeda, a Japanese Professor, who after tasting dashi broth, which is made from Kombu seaweed and bonito flakes, couldn’t pinpoint the taste. It wasn’t sweet, salty, bitter, or sour. What was it? Professor Ikeda figured out that seaweed contained glutamate and that glutamate was what he was tasting–umami. In order to use glutamate he needed to stabilize it with salt and water, and thus, created monosodium glutamate. Otherwise known as MSG.

I’ve definitely been there, shaming someone for having bought Clamato Juice that had MSG in it. “Don’t you know it’s bad for you?.” If I could go back I would ask myself, “How do you know it’s bad?” I must have heard it from someone, on the chain email of life. I never looked into it. What did it matter? I’m sure with all the sugar added to the Clamato Juice it isn’t that good for you anyway. However, by not looking into it and by assuming it is bad because it is an additive what have I done?  Have I unknowingly created a false division. We so often make assumptions on things we do not understand or things that look a certain way. If it’s in this package, it’s bad for you, but if it looks like this then it’s good for you. How do you know? Seaweed is complicated. For some of us, we can’t imagine eating it, for others, we dutifully add it to our smoothies in a hope that it’ll make us feel better. Regardless, It has a history and footprint that is wide and far. It has been used for thousands of years, whether that was to nourish our bodies or to feed an industrialized revolution. It can be both at the same time. It’s neither good or bad, but one thing is for sure, it’s umami.      

The Unfortunate Case of the Sweet Potato & Yam Debacle

If you’ve ever had the pleasure or misfortune of getting stuck in a conversation with me, you might notice one thing. I most always say, “Well, I think.” or “Well, I’m pretty sure.” I don’t tend to talk in certainties. It may be because I am more concerned about being wrong rather than being right. My belief system is a perfect example of my ambivalence.  “Is there a God? Maybe?” I wouldn’t want to completely discount it. Either way, the day I finally find out the answer to that question no one will be able to say that I was entirely wrong. I just hedged my bets. And then in one scenario I will definitely be sent to purgatory.

This maybe surprising, but working in the food industry has pushed me to double down on my “Well, I think” and “Well, I’m pretty sure.” It is an intentional pushback against all of those fellow co-workers and customers who over the years have talked in absolutes. GMOS. Bad. Vaccines. More Bad. Bone Broth heals everything. Reishi Mushrooms cures cancer. Absolutes that always seem to be based on anecdotes and not scientific consensus. Perhaps, for those of us who are not doctors or scientists should be a bit more humble in our certainties when it comes to areas where we have no expertise. For sure, I am not completely immune to the random moment of righteousness. A couple of years ago, after I moved back to my home province of Ontario and started a new job I found myself on the wrong side of a pesky, yet not an inconsequential debate. What is a sweet potato? And, what is a yam? For my new co-worker, the orange skin and orange flesh elongated root was a sweet potato. For me, it was a yam. I explained that I was a produce queen. I had spent the last three years knee deep in organic produce splendor. Sunchokes, kiwi berries, burdock, broccoli leaves, passion fruit, persimmon, you name it I’ve tried it. With a few caveats.  I gently explained, perhaps, with a bit of a condescending tone that I had already had the yam / sweet potato conversation with a produce distributor, and that they explained that the yam was the orange skin and orange flesh root, and that the sweet potato was the purple skin white flesh root. So, yeah, my apologies, but I’m right. Well, I was wrong. Which brings us to this week’s episode: The Unfortunate Case of the Sweet Potato and Yam Debacle.

You know once in awhile I wonder if the time and money I put into my English Degree was worth it, and then more often than you would think as I do research on my next podcast a book will come up, and I say to myself, “Wait a minute. I’ve read that book. I have that book. That book is upstairs.” This was one of those times. The book is called, “Things Fall Apart” and the author is Chinua Achebe. Now, let’s be clear I remember precious little about this book other than the fact that I liked it. That goes with pretty much every single novel I read throughout my university career. Robertson Davies was my favourite author. Why? I don’t remember. In “Things Fall Apart,” which is set in Nigeria, there is a chapter that describes “The Feast of the New Yam.” In the book, the festival is held every year prior to the harvest, to honour the earth goddess and the ancestral spirits of the clan. The festival marked the season of plenty and a new year. Old, shriveled up, fibrous yams would be disposed of, for the new year must begin with new, fresh yams. Needless to say, spiritually and culturally, the yam is interwoven into West African culture. A variant of the word “yam” in some tribes actually means “to eat.” So, yeah, if it’s synonymous with the act of eating then it must be important.

The yam is a tuber, similar to a potato. And, a tuber, is basically a storage vessel that grows from the root system to then create another plant. A sweet potato is a root. They are not related.  The yam originated in West Africa and Asia, and the sweet potato came from South America. So, if they came from different parts of the world and are not related then when and why does this collision occur? I was reading this handbook written in 1921 called, “The Sweet Potato: A handbook for the practical Grower” and within the handbook the author lists the many different types of sweet potatoes. The sweet potato plant is prone to mutating so there were a lot of varieties and subsequently a lot of confusion over whether there was any differences between certain varieties or whether some sweet potatoes still existed at all. Amongst the extensive list of sweet potatoes was one variety called the “N-word” killer or “N-word”choker. It had purplish skin, and as the author writes, “the whitesh flesh of any potato.” The quality was poor, and was mostly given to livestock to consume. Needless to say, this is one fucked up sweet potato. Yet, it gives us one big clue into where and how this confusion between the sweet potato and the yam began. The location is the southern United States and the way is American slavery. Also, it gives insight into who, at the time, felt they had cultural ownership over the sweet potato and who perhaps is to blame for the confusion — white people.  

It is thought that the relationship between the sweet potato and yam occurred when Africans were enslaved and forced to move across the Atlantic to America. They arrived with their language, but not the yam, and they were given sweet potatoes to eat. Whether they intentionally substituted the word “yam” to refer to the sweet potato or were using a variant of the word “yam” to just simply imply that they were eating,the white people around them heard the word “yam” and said, “Ahh, they are talking about the sweet potato.” However, for the white people, there was no real confusion, a sweet potato was a sweet potato was a sweet potato. It had been apart of their diet since the time of Christopher Columbus, whether they resided in Europe or the Americas. Just because they were eavesdropping on Africans doesn’t mean they automatically thought, “Shit, maybe we’ve been calling it the wrong word after all.” No, if white people were going to create a little food chaos it wasn’t going to come from a place of humility and an idea that they were wrong. Instead, it was going to come from a place of opportunistic advantage.

As noted before there were a lot of different varieties of sweet potatoes. Some were white, purple, orange, or yellow. In the 1920s or 1930s the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station released a new type of sweet potato. This new sweet potato had orange skin and was deliciously moist, and it became popular. Soon it’s popularity spread into areas that prior to had been dominated by a more dry, white fleshed sweet potato. Louisiana wanted to make sure consumers knew the difference. So, in 1937 the Louisiana Sweet Potato industry coined the word “yam” as a national marketing campaign to differentiate their sweet potato from the rest, and it is at this time that our modern day confusion over what is a yam and what is a sweet potato began.

I find the origins of the “What is a sweet potato? And, what is a yam?” debacle a bit unnerving and deeply unfortunate. To confuse the yam, which in most respects is an important aspect of West African culture, to a sweet potato, which in a way, like cotton, could be seen as a symbol of American Slavery does a great disservice to the former. It is just one example of how white culture had co-opted something that is not theirs only to suit their own gains and ambitions. Yet, time is a wondrous thing. As the yam is important to West African culture, the sweet potato is now important to African American culture. African Americans have taken a root, that in a way can embody a history of violence and turned it into something that is theirs. During Thanksgiving in many African American households you would be served sweet potato pie rather than pumpkin pie. Which by the way, I’ve just recently tried and believe that it is the superior pie. Yet, what does it say about us and our own culture that we still allow this debacle to go on? That many industry insiders still choose to label a sweet potato a yam? Is it right for us to take a word from another language and another culture and use it for our own means? Or, if we completely corrected the mix-up would we then be erasing a part of history. Perhaps, the fact that some sweet potatoes are still called yams is a little reminder to us of the systemic issues that have affected our past and present. Regardless, it’s about time we all knew that when we walk into our big box grocery store we’re looking at a sweet potato and not a yam, and I’m very certain about that one.

Barley and Oats: The Lost Hope

Our fears reveal quite a lot about us. It reveals our biases, our phobias, weaknesses, and our privilege. What we fear sheds a light on the worst part of us. The really ugly part. There are conversations that I have had that come to mind. However, if I am too ashamed to share the worst part of myself then I certainly have no right to share the worst part of others. Suffice it to say at the end of these conversations I had one thought. Perhaps, what we fear says a lot about our station in life and our inherent privilege. What a privilege it must be that your worries and fears are not about what you don’t have, but what you do have and what you are worried will be taken away from you. There may be no logic or reason for this fear, but there it lies. Those who have the most in our society are perhaps those who fear the most. Building walls around their money, their families, and their power. How this contrasts with the fears of those who have nothing I am not too sure. I know what it feels to have not a lot, but “not a lot” is a far cry from nothing and “not a lot” is highly relative. Perhaps, if one has nothing, one goes beyond a state of fear. Fear is a luxury and one’s actions move in a direction that is motivated solely by getting to a place in which you have something rather than nothing.

If we were to consider individuals who have nothing, perhaps the most appropriate indicators of nothingness is whether or not that individual lives under a government that acknowledges and respects their inalienable rights. If you have no right to vote, no right to hold office, no right to own land, no right to own property, no right to worship, and no right to your own language then in reality you are living under conditions in which nothing is really yours. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century this was the reality for Irish Catholics. After a series of failed Irish uprisings against British rule, the British government imposed, what is called, the Penal Laws which quickly stripped the Irish Catholics of their rights. These laws were devastating to the Irish Catholic community. In 1640, over 50% of land in Ireland was owned by Catholics, by the mid 18th century this number decreased to just 7%. The intention of the Penal Laws was to push Irish Catholics into a permanent state of subjectification, and in turn remove a perceived threat to British Rule and the English homeland. You see, that’s the funny thing. Over the centuries, Irish Catholics had fought against the English for the sole purpose of regaining autonomy and control over their own land and their own country. However, the English did not see it that way. The English saw Irish rebellion as an existential threat to England’s power. How the English could confuse a fight for freedom with a fight to invade is curious. At the very least it takes an absolute lack of empathy and complete self-involvement for the English to see themselves as the threatened ones in this situation. They were the colonialists and yet they were worried about being colonized.

After two centuries of living under the punishment of the Penal Laws Irish Catholics made a strange bedfellow with Irish Presbyterians, who also felt that they were being unduly treated by their British overlords. Together they formed the United Irishmen to fight for emancipation under the Penal Laws and for a free Irish Republic. With their diplomatic efforts squashed in 1798 the Irish turned to violent Rebellion once more. There is a poem written about the 1798 Rebellion titled “The Wind That Shakes The Barley”, and it reminds me of why I’ve never really been much of a fan of a lot of poetry. Essentially this is how the poem goes. Boy loves Girl. Boy loves Country. Boy hates the British. Boy decides to fight for country, but boy doesn’t want to leave girl. Girl gets shot. Girl dies. Boy fights for country. Boy dies. The end. (Play song)  The imagery that is stitched throughout the poem is that of barley shaking in the wind. The 1798 Rebellion did not go well for the United Irishmen, and in response the British killed tens of thousands of them. It is said that when the Irish men and boys went off to fight their doomed rebellion they stuffed their pockets with barley and oats. A little source of nourishment for the journey ahead. As the thousands of dead Irishmen were buried in unmarked graves and the seasons passed random patches of barley and oats started springing up from the ground. A reminder of British cruelty and of continued Irish resistance.

 

As an outsider, when I think of Ireland what comes to the foreground, unfortunately, is the Potato Famine. The Potato Famine or otherwise known as the Great Famine occurred in Ireland between 1845 – 1850. I first learned about the famine in school as a child. The story we were told was a simple one. The Irish depended on the potato as their main source of food. Then blight rotted the potatoes in consecutive years. The British Government created working programs, set-up food kitchens, and poor houses to mitigate the effects of the famine. Despite British intervention, at the end it was estimated that around 1 million Irish died from famine and disease and another 1 million emigrated. If I wanted to talk about the potato then perhaps that is the story that I would have told–a little more elaboration and a little less simplified. However, I have vowed to never write a story about potatoes. I have nothing against potatoes. I eat them all the time. It’s just never going to happen. Let’s just say I already know too much, that I wouldn’t find writing about it the least bit interesting. Yet, how do you tell the story of the Potato Famine without talking about the potato? Well, it’s amazing how the story can change when you switch directions. This week’s episode within an episode, seemingly, is Barley & Oats: The Lost Hope.

The historical set-up to Ireland’s Great Famine is important. No, it’s vital. Vital to the understanding of why the famine occurred in the first place and why it was as bad as it was. As noted earlier, by the time the Great Famine rolled around Irish Catholics only owned 7% of the land in Ireland, and this was the shit land as over the centuries they were driven off of the more fertile land onto bog land and rocky mountainsides. The Irish Catholics grew potatoes on this land, as it really was the only thing that they could grow. However, if Irish Catholics grew potatoes on 7% of the land in Ireland then what the hell was happening on the other 93% of land that the Irish Catholics didn’t own. Well, first, from our story that we did on the Coconut Farmers in the Philippines we learned how important it is for farmers to own their own land. Without land ownership farmers and their families are at the whim of their landowners. And, the same can be said for the Irish. Around the same time the Great Famine was about to occur, English Landowners were increasing rents and kicking the Irish peasantry off of the rented land in an effort to modernize their farms. There was a widespread effort to consolidate landholdings into larger farms. In effect, the English were turning an agrarian Irish agriculture into an agricultural industrial model. Food was to be grown for export not domestic consumption. If the English had an “Irish Vision” so to speak then that vision would be of Irish workers living in towns and cities and getting food from their wages not their labour. With that vision in mind, the English actually really didn’t like the potato. For the sole fact that the potato was an enabler of an agrarian lifestyle. Farmers did not need a lot of land nor did they need that land to be particularly good in order to feed their families. The English really thought that the potato was an obstruction to improvement and progress. They did not want people to be self-sufficient and eating potatoes. They wanted them to eat grains.

England’s attempt to modernize Irish agriculture and to industrialized the Irish economy held one facet that other countries going through similar transformations did not have.  For, the English wanted to modernize an economy in which the people of that land held no rights. In essence, what they created was an economy built for the benefit of England, and the Irish were left out. Therefore, when potato crops started to fail and the Irish Catholics starved there was a whole other economy churning completely separate and oblivious from the suffering that was occurring. Up to 75% of land in Ireland was devoted to wheat, oats, barley, and other crops that was grown for export. In 1846, 191,770 tons of oats, 37, 346 tons of wheat, and 18,571 tons of barley were exported out of the country.

When the potato crop first failed in the autumn of 1845 the question of prohibiting exportation of food was brought up by Irish leaders to the British Government. Countries in continental Europe were also experiencing the hardship that came with the potato blight and stopped exporting food to mitigate the effects. It is believed that if the exports were halted at the beginning of the crisis that there would have been enough food to feed those affected. However, unfortunately, for Ireland the main importer of their food was England. Ireland was essentially England’s pantry and the British Government was first beholden to their own people. Therefore, the British reaction to the Irish famine was not a reaction based on morality but a reaction that was politically motivated. And that political motivation was founded on bigotry and fear.

 I find it rather bizarre, but it appears that England was really obsessed with the size of the Irish population. It is true, thanks in part to the heartiness of the potato, that Ireland’s population had risen significantly over the past few decades leading up to 1850. In 1841, it was around 6.5 million. (If anyone doubts the significance that the famine had on the country. Ireland’s population today is only at 4.5 million. Two million less than almost two hundred years ago.) However, England’s population in 1841 was more than double Ireland’s figure. So, it’s not like the Irish population was crazy high. Yet, the Irish were seen by the British almost as sexual deviants. It is maddening reading from excerpts that were written by British officials at the time. They viewed the Irish history of rebellion as a sign that the Irish were uncivilized and unruly as a people. They feared the rise in their population. A force that perhaps could not be controlled. In the end, sadly, for those who held the power the famine was seen as a good thing. An event that would lower the population and force the Irish into the industrialized model. Charles Trevelyan, the British Treasury Secretary in charge of Famine Relief wrote “The Irish Crisis” at the end of 1847. Trevelyan ignorantly believed that the famine has neared its end. Instead, while Trevelyan was writing his book historians believed this to be the critical midpoint of the famine. At the end of his book, he writes, “The deep and inveterate root of social evil remained, and this has been laid bare by a direct stroke of an all wise and all merciful Providence, as if this part of the case were beyond the unassisted power of man. God grant that the generation to which this great opportunity has been offered, may rightly perform its part, and that we may not relax our efforts until Ireland fully participates in the social health and physical prosperity of Great Britain, which will be the true consummation of their union.” It is widely suggested that Britain’s motivations during the famine were simply based on economic theory. Ireland was a test plot in free market access. But, perhaps more accurately, the Great Famine was one long horrible moment. In which what preceded and lead up to it, was hundreds of years of those with everything fighting up against those with nothing. Barley and Oats was their hope. England was their reality.

Black Pepper: The Stories We Tell

We all have a story that we would like to tell. The stories we choose to tell to our friends, family, acquaintances, and coworkers say a lot about how we would like to be seen. In marketing terms, our stories help create our brand. There are some that we frequently repeat when there is a new person to meet. They can be about lost relationships, nightmarish jobs, and great adventures. Collectively, these stories shape a narrative that we have, perhaps, sub-consciously created. We choose to tell some stories over others and we often choose to embellish some details and leave other details out. In the end, we are our own writer, and why we choose to tell the stories we tell has a lot to do with our motivations. Do we wish to make friends? Do we wish to get a promotion? Do we need to gain new customers? Do we need to maintain a competitive advantage?

We have been telling our stories over thousands of years, and some have been utterly fantastical that you would be forgiven if you thought you had been plunged into the Game of Thrones. None more so than a few tall tales that were spun by some Arab Spice Traders hundreds of years ago. All in an effort to keep the origin of their spices secret from an entire continent.

In the Medieval ages, Europeans loved their spices and they went bat shit crazy over it. Some have argued that Medieval European food would actually be more closely associated with modern day North African or Indian cuisine compared to modern day European cuisine. And it just wasn’t one or two spices. Cooks tended to have twenty or so spices in their repertoire.  The one spice that we will focus on, for it was about the most popular spice of the day and subsequently changed the power dynamics within our world was–pepper. And, when I say pepper I mean black peppercorns and not chili peppers which we can thank good old fuck-up Christopher Columbus for confusing us.

Europeans loved black pepper and back in the day it was expensive. They called pepper “black gold” as it could be used as its own form of currency. There is even a term for it–peppercorn rent. The reason for the high price of black pepper during Medieval Europe is the same reason why commodity prices tend to go up and down now. It is the relationship between supply and demand. To Europeans, pepper was fashionable, used medicinally, and in religious ceremonies, therefore, multiple uses to create demand. The supply, on the other hand, was tightly controlled. For being so fashionable, Europeans knew very little about where their spices came from. They knew pepper came from a place called India, which was out east somewhere over there, but they knew precious little about the country and its people and could only guess on the routes to get there.

At the time the spice trade was largely controlled by Arab traders, who were the only people that knew about every aspect of the spice trade from start to finish. The pepper farmers in India had no idea about the Europeans and the Europeans reciprocated that ignorance. This gave the Arab traders a tremendous amount of power. They could buy the spices at a very affordable price and sell it at a very high price. However, they still had to defend those high prices, and in order to do that they relied on stories that had been told for centuries.

According to our Arab middlemen pepper was grown in forests of pepper trees. Pepper was abundant. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was in the harvesting of pepper. For, you see, the pepper trees were all guarded by poisonous snakes. In order to harvest the pepper, farmers had to set fire to the trees and drive away the snakes. It was the fires that turned white peppercorns black and gave them their dry and shriveled appearance. After each burning, the trees would have to be replanted which required money and time adding to the price. This myth survived hundreds of years. In actuality, pepper is a climbing vine plant, green in colour, and turns black and shriveled after it has been dried and white after it has been soaked in water. Pepper, also, was certainly not the only spice that carried a myth. Cinnamon grew on inaccessible mountains and in order to retrieve the cinnamon you had to trick a type of bird, who happened to make their nests out of cinnamon. Locals would leave heavy pieces of meat out for the birds, the birds would take the meat to their nests, the weight of the meat would then break the nests, and the cinnamon would fall to the ground to be gathered. I’m guessing that’s not exactly how it works.

These myths were always doubted; however, weren’t completely dispelled until a Portuguese explorer found a sea route to India in 1498. In was only when ignorance about a people, a place, and a spice was turned into knowledge and the spice trade monopoly was dismantled that the prices decreased and the spice trade normalized. It also just happened to be the beginning of European Imperialism. Not such a good thing.

Stories and myths only retain power when knowledge is absent and facts are unknown. We can tell our own stories to control our image and brand. Yet, it only takes time for our quirks to inadvertently be revealed, good or bad, and for the reality to seep out. This is the truth for most things. Once we see it, once we know it we no longer believe the stories.