Category Archives: Covid-19

Sir Hugh Platt’s Pasta

Sir Hugh Platt’s Pasta

Ayesha Mukherjee

 

Quite unlike the ingenious culinary experiments undertaken by many during lockdown, I was hurriedly making my mundane mess of pasta last week, when I remembered the Elizabethan scientist Sir Hugh Platts recipes for macaroni. Ubiquitous, unremarkable, standardised and sold in convenient packaging though it may be in our time, pasta was a tantalising promise in early modern England.  

Hugh Platt’s famine remedies, written “vppon thoccasion of this present Dearth”. Copy at British Library, London.

Especially so in the 1590s, when the country faced one of its most acute food crises. The harvest failed repeatedly, the price of wheat soared, as did prices of barley, oats, and other food. The regions of the north and midlands were worst off, and the poor began to migrate London-wards. Hugh Platt experimented diligently to find what he called remedies against famine” – mostly, coping mechanisms, making things last, finding substitutes, recycling, waste-reductive measures, and so on. He published some of these in his manual Sundrie new and Artificiall remedies against Famine in 1596, which was the third successive year of harvest failure. Among other things, this book contained many experiments with bread substitutes and various staple foods. Ways were sought to eliminate the ranke and vnsauorie [unsavoury]” taste of peas, beans, beechmast, chestnuts, acorns, and vetches, so that these might be used instead of wheat flour. Bread was also made with pompions” [pumpkins], cakes with parsnips, measures were devised to prevent mills from wasting flour while grinding, and much more . 

What could one eat in such times that was affordable and easy to preserve, wondered Platt. In his astonishing collection of experiments and recipes called The Jewell House of Art and Nature, published in 1594, when the food shortages of the decade had just begun, he had tempted his readers with the promise of A wholesome, lasting, and fresh victual for the Nauie [Navy]. He pointed out, with characteristic pragmatism, that when corn sold for 20 shillings per quarter, 8 ounces of this new food could be had for a penny to make a competent meale for any reasonable stomach. It was magically cheap and lightweight, shaped like wafers, and could be dressed to serve both for bread and meat. In his current context of food shortage, Platt was keen for this food to be eaten in households, not just by seafarers. So he boldly served pasta (as we may now call it) at his own table. It appears to have gone down rather well. For he even designed a pasta machine and printed its illustration: an Engin for the making of this victual 

Macaroni machine illustrated in Hugh Platt, The Jewell house of Arte and Nature (1594), p.75.

Sir Hugh Platts manuscripts record his repeated experiments (some dated December 1595) before he got his pasta quite as perfect as he wanted it to be. He tried to make it more nourishing, and of better taste. The flour was kneaded with aniseed, liquorice, and ginger, or boiled milk, or eggs – depending on what was available. To make it last, he tried adding aqua composita (alcoholic flavoured water), cinnamon, and wine or ale wort. Apparently, seething the macaroni in pudding skins made it tougher, and the paste of flour was driven through hollow pipes and dried. The manuscripts with these experimental recipes are preserved in the British Librarys Sloane collection. I cannot imagine how pasta laced with aniseed or liquorice might appeal to the palate … but the material sense of taste is perhaps as contextually driven as the recipes and ingredients themselves, and the eaters of Hugh Platt’s pasta may have tasted it differently. 

In Platts collection of food and drink recipes for sailors, printed in 1607, a year before his death, he described a cheap, fresh, and lasting victuall, called by the name of Macaroni amongst the Italians, which seemed useful at a time of shortage. 

From Platt’s broadside, Certaine philosophical preparations of foode and beverage for sea-men, in their long voyages (1607). Copy at British Library, London.

Platt had furnished the famous explorers Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins with his macaroni, since it was long-lasting and helped to address shortage of staple food aboard ships during long voyages.  

In the difficult decade of the 1590s, pasta had a strange renaissance in England – it metamorphosed from a foreign curiosity consumed by sailors to a domestic food, enough for a reasonable stomach” in times of dearth, and then, an item locally (and perhaps mechanically) manufactured and supplied to English sailors for survival.  

I’m not quite sure what remedies Hugh Platt would have recommended for this ….

Pasta sold out at Tesco, Finchley, London

“Pasta sold out at Tesco, Finchley, London”, during the Covid crisis, March 2020. Wikimedia Commons. Philafrenzy / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Ayesha Mukherjee is Associate Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture in the Department of English, College of Humanities, University of Exeter. Her book on Hugh Platt and the 1590s food crisis in England is called Penury into Plenty: Dearth and the Making of Knowledge in Early Modern England (2015) and she is the Principal Investigator for the AHRC projects Famine and Dearth in India and Britain, 1550-1800 and Famine Tales from India and Britain

Colours in the Time of Corona

Colours in the Time of Corona 

By Sarbajit Sen

 

The ideation of my Phullara story for Famine Tales had taken rather long to acquire shape. But once it was done I felt cool. So cool that I let one full month roll by, my mind diverted by other tasks, without doing anything about the final artwork for Phullara. The entire script was already there in my mind – graphically set – almost frame by frame. So there was no need to worry.

I had no inkling how my complacence would be smashed and replaced soon by an unsettling sense of restlessness and despair with the arrival of a diabolical, invisible monster named Corona. The world around us was thrown out of gear in no time. Our familiar life patterns went for a total toss. Our collective psyche took a weary dip in a vast ocean of soap bubbles and sanitisers with countless foams of do’s and dont’s from WHO (and who not!) on the crests of its dark waves.

Kolkata’s iconic Howrah Bridge, usually packed with traffic, stands eerily empty during lockdown. Source: VisionMakers

The tentative deadline for my final submission to Famine Tales was also knocking at the door. But it was becoming too difficult to concentrate on the artwork. I was distracted and my thoughts were diffused. Mild, friendly reminder mails were also coming at times. And, to make things worse, I suddenly discovered that a particular drawing ink which I badly wanted to use for my story was simply not there in my stock. A total lockdown had been clamped down on us by that time. The shops were closed. Amazon too was lost in thin air. But I badly needed to do a lot of nib sketches in brown, since I never wanted to solely depend on black – for this story, at least. All this added to my unrest.

Suddenly, I thought – how about trying to make my own drawing ink? A few attempts at mixing whatever Fuji transparent colour paper strips were still left with black drawing ink proved futile. I did not get that special brown tint I wanted. Eventually, I consulted an artist friend. He suggested kattha, one of the principal ingredients used in the preparation of paan from betel leaves. It is popularly known as cutch or Acacia catechu, which is widely used for dyeing clothes.

Acacia catechu, known as cutch, kattha, or khair. Source: CPR Environmental Education Centre, Chennai database

A young friend further helped me by bringing some hard chunks of cutch from a local paan shop owner who still kept his shop open.

Cutch (khair) being used in paan.

I followed my friend’s instructions – dipped a chunk in some water and left it for one full day.

The colour looked rich, but it had to be used on good cartridge papers, that too, only in brushstrokes. It was not yet strong enough …

… I needed it to hold on to a nib. And the lesser the water the darker the colour.

To be precise, the darkness or brightness depended on the amount of water used. A good amount of water gave the work a certain soft, suave tone.

I was now determined to go ahead with it.

I don’t remember how long I had to wait before I could book an order for commercial paints online. Corona has made many of us lose count of time. A set of the required ink bottles took some time to come, and when they did, they landed up like a boxful of angels.

But by that time, I had already created some of the artwork using my traditional colour source. The entire exercise had also been intoxicating for me. As if it was a kind of rediscovery of memories of the many accounts I had read of inventing mediums in times of necessity. The sight of the first small bowl of pigment carefully prepared by my wife in our small kitchen was sheer love. I had felt like an overjoyed Florentino in these weird times of Corona! How could I have even thought of forgetting them once the crisis was over – though only for the time being?

I decided to give those drawings their due place. They have been incorporated in my story. The warm brown in the early artworks will forever be a celebration.

Sarbajit sketches and paints with his cutch colours.

 

Sarbajit Sen is a well-known graphic artist and filmmaker in India. His graphic narratives have been exhibited at the Barbican in London, and in Kolkata, New Delhi, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Widely published in India and abroad, Sarbajit is also an editor of Longform, an anthology of graphic narratives, published by Harper Collins, India.

Community Kitchen Initiatives in UK and India

Community Kitchen Initiatives in UK and India 

Towards a transformative politics during the time of Covid-19

By Rishika Mukhopadhyay

From BBC News, 15 March, 2020

The week before the official lockdown in the UK, we knew something ominous was coming because the supermarket shelves were emptying fast. The first advice I had was to secure grocery to survive for a few weeks. Within a few days, the shelves were replenished and there was no shortage of food in my life here. A strange calmness engulfed me in this little town of South West England. Sitting in the comfort of the four walls of my room in Exeter, I hardly realised how Covid-19 ravaged people’s lives elsewhere. I was allowed to go out once a day for exercise, to use that time of walking attentively and mindfully, soak in the nature around us. My well-wishers were concerned about my health and wellbeing. I focused my energy on creating ideal working conditions, as ‘work from home’ became the new norm. It was alright, until one day when I encountered the image of Indian migrants’ ‘long march home’.

From Times of India, 27 March, 2020

My reality transformed drastically as a virus-hit world once again exposed glaring inequalities and showed how few of us are granted privileges. From the very beginning, every government decision designed to prevent the spread of this virus, in the UK and India, was taken keeping in mind people like us: who have a safe home to stay in, endless water supply to wash their hands, whose vocabulary includes “hand sanitiser”, and who can afford to think about “social distancing” while working from home! I  felt terribly unsettled by these pandemic mitigation policies where a whole section of the vulnerable population was rendered silent and invisible unless they decided to walk thousands of kilometres to reach their home!

It is not the virus alone that is a threat. Extreme hunger and starvation are threatening the lives of millions of people. The world food program (WFP) has already estimated that 265 million people are suffering from acute food shortage due to Covid-19. The chief of the UN food relief agency cautioned that famine can devastate 30 countries in the developing world. The picture is bleak in countries like the UK as well. The Food Foundation report reveals that during the first three weeks of the lockdown in the UK, three million people were hungry. In these trying times, food insecurity is not limited to those who have lost jobs and are therefore economically distressed. Rather a significant section of our demography, including families with children who used to get free school meals and the aged population who are alone, have been affected severely. In India, migrant workers who are daily wage earners, waste-pickers, casual workers in small enterprises, hawkers, and artisans are at the receiving end of this humanitarian and food crisis. Administrative effort to reach people who are going through deprivation and starvation with food and ration is scant. Reporters have found out that children are eating grass in some parts of the country after enduring extreme hunger for days.

From National Herald, 27 March, 2020

Nevertheless, these are times when people often come together to foster a sense of solidarity, compassion and a hopeful future. Soon, I heard some friends and teachers from my previous University in Delhi had set up a community kitchen to distribute cooked food to various industrial clusters in Delhi, where migrant workers now live a precarious life without income and food. The Worker’s Dhaba was not the only one; across the country many citizen’s initiatives started to consolidate efforts and reach people who are in dire need. These active interventions by ordinary citizens give me optimism and strength amidst this global pandemic. I will talk about four such initiatives, two from India and two from Exeter, to understand how citizen’s actions can lead to a transformative politics.

Workers’ Dhaba, New Delhi, India

Workers' Dhaba

For over a month Workers’ Dhaba, run by three cooks and volunteers is regularly cooking and distributing meals twice a day to about 2000 people across Delhi. It came together under the banner of Citizen’s Collective for Humanitarian Relief (CCHR). The Center for Education and Communication (CEC) helps them with operational guidance and technological outreach. Many civil society organisations, like press club, and café lota, are partnering with them to distribute food widely. They are also providing dry rations, milk, and baby powder in slums, settler camps, and squatters. In the true spirit of community collaboration, a second kitchen has been opened away from the university space. The idea was to localise food production and include the community. Here, community members of two slums are cooking together and distributing food to other areas, showing extraordinary resilience, support, and cooperation. Praveen, the researcher who was responsible for distributing food in this area and later made the collaboration possible told me:

“We aren’t doing any charity or philanthropy which is premised on the inherent structure of hierarchy and power. We are all in this together! The collaboration was a result of community feeling. With a little help and support, people have immense potential to rebuild their lives. It was amazing to see people from both the Jhuggis coming together and volunteer themselves for cooking and distribution.”

The effort of decentralisation and moving into more neighbourhood-based kitchen initiatives run by local communities is a prominent future plan of this collective.

Quarantined Student-Youth Network, Kolkata, India

Quarantined Student-Youth Network

Another friend from Kolkata shared with me how they have built the Quarantined Student-Youth Network  run by students and alumni from universities in West Bengal. Koumi said, “We are now joined by so many who believe in the principle of physical distance and social solidarity. We work in parts of West Bengal and some areas in Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad.” They joined hands when they realised how inadequate the response of the State has been in identifying, locating, and reaching out to the affected population. Their operational framework enables people to make use of digital technology efficiently during lockdown by identifying their location on the map where relief from the Public Distribution System (PDS) hasn’t reached. Each local district volunteer then verifies the complaint and reaches out to people in that area by delivering ration or other requirements. For homeless migrants living in temporary shelters and pavement dwellers in the city, delivering cooked food is the only measure, whereas in villages they run People’s Kitchen. Wherever needed, they deliver soap, sanitary napkins, masks, sanitiser and medicine. Similar to the idea of the Delhi network, this group firmly believes that they are neither running a charity nor acting as benefactors. Debojit, another member of this network, says passionately: 

“It must be noted, those we are trying to assist continue to further our society and civilisation without receiving adequate compensation for their labour. Thus, this solidarity is their right, it’s not a donation.”

Treating the vulnerable population with respect and dignity is one of their guiding values; another is their outreach to remote corners of Bengal, not just limited to the state capital, Kolkata. The helping hand of the local community – farmers, fishermen, and workers from all sorts of backgrounds – have helped to strengthen their feeling of being a commune. Through non-monetary exchanges, such as receiving unsold vegetables from farmers in exchange for rice, pulses, or fish, and forming cooperatives, this student initiative carves out a space of hope for an alternative politics.  

St Thomas Food Fight, Exeter, UK

St. Thomas Food Fight

Food Donated to St. Thomas Food Fight (Source: their Facebook page)

In Exeter, quite a few organisations are working to provide free cooked meals. I have spoken to two of them to understand how, in the UK, issues of starvation, hunger, and food insecurity affect people’s lives. A member of the St. Thomas Food Fight group, Alison, told me why they were motivated to start this initiative:

“A few of us started thinking about food poverty some time ago. Students from the University of Exeter started Exeter Food Fight and gave out free hot food and drinks in the High Street. Out of that came St Thomas Food Fight. We are motivated by compassion and a desire to see everyone fed and looked after.”

Exeter Food Fight is a grassroots community group committed to raising awareness regarding issues like poverty, sexism, and racism. They reach out to not only the homeless in the city but also the elderly, disabled, lonely, young families, or those affected by substance abuse and mental health problems. During the lockdown, they started by dropping off hot food for takeaway in paper carrier bags outside Natwest Bank on Cowick Street. The initiative expanded when a charity St. Petrocks asked them to provide cooked food for 33 homeless people during the lockdown. They also get requests from organisations like CoLab Exeter to prepare meals for the vulnerable being shielded. They cook for 30 people in the community who are in food poverty or unable to cook for themselves regularly. Apart from the Devon County Council Covid Response fund, they have immense support from the local community, who bring them packaging, donate vegetables, or cook a one-time hot meal. A cycling activity group FREEMOVEMENT help them with deliveries. An organic farm Shillingford offers them vegetables from their local firm, and Exeter Food Action provide a wide range of food, including rice, pasta, and beans.

Exeter Communities Together CIC, Exeter, UK

Exeter Communities Together CIC

Exeter Communities Together CIC runs a Coronavirus Hardship Relief Project during lockdown from Exwick Community Centre. They receive support from Exeter City Council, Devon County Council, and Morrisons of Crediton, along with public donations. They not only help the elderly vulnerable population by giving food to residential care homes but also reach out to frontline workers such as NHS caregivers and the police, or anyone who is struggling financially. This organisation was established to give Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in the city greater voice. They translate important information on self-isolation and social distancing for wider circulation. Anyone in Exeter can ask for their support for assistance in shopping for essentials and medicines.

There are many inspiring stories – from women organising themselves from their homes in London to a couple turning their closed pub into a community kitchen and food bank in Melling – in the UK. In the four examples featured above from India and the UK, despite the varying scale, intensity, and nature of organisation, one common factor connects them. That is, their commitment towards a transformative and emancipatory politics through democratic mobilisation and collaboration. With the rise of divisive politics all over the world, this pandemic has brought many people closer and fostered cooperation.

Detail of sketch by Debkumar Mitra, for Famine Tales from India and Britain

Arundhati Roy has written how, historically, pandemics have been a portal to break free from the old world of lies, prejudices, greed, exploitation, hatred and violence and bravely imagine a hopeful future. We must think about what we can change when things go back to “normal.” The pause this has brought to our lives should lead us all to reimagine and rethink our everyday actions for a sustainable and just world. We have been hearing around us a call for reworlding. We cannot go back to “normal” as it was, because the way we led our lives, by exploiting and abusing nature for the benefit of a few global corporations and their political corroborators, cannot be our normal. A capitalist production regime for the interest of the few and its subsequent unhinged growth narrative must be challenged now by adopting a language and practice of meaningful living. On the one hand we need to strengthen the demand for Universal Basic Income, for labour rights, and make our governments accountable for investing more in the domains of food security, health care, housing, and accessible education for public welfare. On the other hand, we need to reorient our own priorities and consumption practices.

The way forward is not only to build networks of care, support, compassion, and solidarity around us and with the non-human world, but also to radically reimagine our future economic practices. The provocation of A Post-Capitalist future, proposed by feminist economic geographers JK Gibson-Graham is not a utopia anymore. Around the world, people are actively participating and creating a vision for another world by building resilient communities interdependent on local resources, away from the global chain of commodity production. Practices of commoning, co-operatives, building solidarity economy and community economy have started. Building a community kitchen during the time of this catastrophe is an extension of this imagination and the alternative politics it embraces. These groups have a clear vision that their work will solidify ethically driven collective efforts for justice and dignity, and embolden an idea of community beyond heteronormative family and kinship structures. To change the abysmal state of the world, we need to reorganise our lives. The possibilities are endless and diverse. It is time to reframe our ontologies of being to build a world we want to live in.

Acknowledgements

I thank my friend Ghee Bowman for directing me towards the Exeter initiatives. Thanks to Mariel for suggesting some of the articles for reading and the postcapitalist summer school in Sydney for inspiring me to think in this direction.

Rishika Mukhopadyay is a final year PhD student in Human Geography at the University of Exeter, UK. She did her Masters and MPhil in Geography from Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University.