Rachel's History - Strange Food (Part Two)

Today, thankfully, we are more likely to celebrate our differences and embrace diversity— but this was not always so.  One Island woman still remembers the shame and the pain of finding plan pilahai and cold chunks of kuumra in her school lunch-box which she ate covertly on the other side of the playground behind the lid of her lunch container and how more than anything she longed to have sandwiches like the ‘english’ children did.  At this time in our history, if you went to the food-safe after school it was more than likely to be for a slice of pilahai or a chunk of sour-milk bread with a scraping of butter or golden syrup.  When we were children our grandmother would also sometimes make green banana fritters or fried bread and dripping for an after-school treat.  Another Island woman remembers fondly the crunchy frames left by the rendering down of fat into dripping, and the wonderful soft, nourishing arrowroot porridge given to her when she was sick as a child. 

In the past an Island breakfast was often made up of left-overs; cold fish cooked in lemon and cream, pilahai, mada (green banana dumplings), cold sweet potato, yam, or taro or ‘corn’ a porridge of maize-meal, the leftovers of which were set and sliced and eaten as a vegetable, or perhaps some milk or soda bread or ‘fried flour’ a kind of rudimentary pancake.  When men set off early to work in the morning, mostly in primary industry such planting and pulling beans or whaling, working on the land, or doing public works they took with them enough to tide them over.  This would also include a large white bottle with a greenish tinge and a corked stopper filled with cold refreshing swetzl; cold, strong very sweet tea, sometimes with lemon and sometimes not.  Whalers out in the boats spread their ‘wetls’ (food) out on the tub-a-line.  When working the cookers on land the men would also skim off the ‘scraps’ (crisp pieces of whale skin which were very much like pork crackling) as they floated to the top of the boiling hot rendered down whale oil. Whale meat steaks and stew were also part of the diet of some; although others with greater choice did not always indulge.

Because there was no refrigeration and beef and pork was time-consuming and costly to raise it was not eaten nearly as often as we do today.  Many Islanders would fish daily to supplement what was seasonally to be found in their gardens, or had been gifted by, or swapped with other Islanders.  Some time would also often be spent when rock-fishing also collecting hihi, crabs and welks.  Welks are most often minced and made into fritters but there are many Islanders who have memories of the almost toothless old folk chewing contentedly on an endless piece of old, tough and most likely tasteless welk.

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STRANGE FOOD (Part One) ... by Rachel Borg

Food is what brings people the world over together; as much as it might also set them far apart.  Every day in small sea-side, jungle, or mountain hugging villages; in the tents of desert nomads and in the bustling towns and thriving metropolis of the world people come together to eat.  How they eat, what they eat and the many and varied rituals which surround this life-sustaining repast are of course very distinct cultural makers.

It is interesting to contemplate these differences.  What might evoke fond food memories in one person will invoke feelings of revulsion and disgust from another.  A child in South Africa might indulge in a thick chewy skinned, gooey-centred mopane worm, a koori child in the Australian desert might delight in a lovely plump witchetty grub and another from Thailand would savour the crisp crunchy texture of fried grasshoppers.  The eyes of a Norfolk Island child on the other-hand might light up with glee at the thought of hihi (periwinkles) just picked off the rocks and cooked in sea-water in a billy tin under a fire on the beach.  For those who cannot bear the thought of this tiny morsel so much as passing their lips you will hear these delicious sea-side delicacies referred to as akin to eating ‘snails and stones’ or relegated even further down the food chain to nothing more than lowly ‘snot’.

I had an interesting experience once; a revelation of sorts really.  We were walking with a friend through the jungles of Efate in Vanuatu, my friend was born in Papua New Guinea and as we walked along he began to pick things willy-nilly from the surrounding tangle of shrubs and vines, tiny hairy-skinned passionfruit and delicious slimy textured bright-green ‘bush spinach’.  I suddenly realised that we were walking through his personal supermarket.  I also came to a very sombre realisation that were I to become lost and find myself without this suddenly very valuable friend at my side I would simply starve out of ignorance.  It was a priceless lesson far beyond my experience in how people can and do live well without shops, grocers, butchers, malls and corner-stores.  Indeed it can be done, is still done and will continue to be done as long as humans walk this planet.

A funny thing happens also when people of diverse cultures begin to live together side by side.  In Australia in years gone by it was not uncommon out of shame for children of European immigrants to go without lunch and leave their ‘smelly’ lunch-boxes in their bags to moulder.  No matter how lovingly prepared, more than anything else these children just wanted to fit in—even if it meant going hungry.  After school they might trudge dejectedly home and beg mum fervently for vegemite sandwiches and lamingtons instead of the far too exotic but beautifully rich garlic-laden meatballs, or great hunks of spicy sausage and crisp dense bread.  This ‘cultural cringe’ felt by new arrivals extended to having the neighbours over for dinner; instead of whipping up tried and true traditional staples learnt under in their homelands under a mother or grandmother’s apron strings cooks new to a country or culture struggled to produce what they considered to be ‘culturally acceptable’ fare for their guests with new recipes and strange and exotic ingredients in order please and hopefully not repel their new-found friends.  How much richer are we all now for this wonderful array of new and exciting food that these people have brought to our doorsteps.

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A NEW 'FENUA MAITAI' FOR THE PITCAIRNERS (Part Three) ... by Rachel Borg

It is always interesting to learn what influences the general will of a people; particularly regarding something as monumental and life-changing as mass migration.  It is sometimes startling to learn that when you brush aside the politicking there are often simple interchanges at grass roots level which can heavily influence decision-making processes and markedly alter or determine eventual outcomes; tipping the balance of probability one way or the other.    Sometime one is left to wonder a little on just how different our lives might have been had other decisions been taken way back then?  

While many not recognise his name, Captain George Rennie McArthur was perhaps a small cog in that grass-roots decision-making process.  He proved himself to be a good  and reliable friend to the Pitcairners both in the period leading up to the transfer, and also following their transfer to Norfolk Island.  It is surprising to learn that in some ways he may well have influenced , wittingly or not, the minds of some and perhaps the overall decision by the Pitcairn Islanders to make Norfolk Island their new home.  Certainly there may have been some among them who had been ‘impatient for the means of removal’ and felt that the establishment a new homeland was a good decision; although perhaps as the time of their departure drew nigh their feelings of conviction were tinged with a little sentimentality and sadness.  In the main, however, most of the Pitcairners were distraught at the prospect of leaving; many most surely also felt fearful and uncertain about the future and were deeply saddened and distressed by the prospect of leaving behind the only home they had ever known.

The decision however had been well and truly made and their fate was sealed for better or worse.  With heavy hearts they set upon the task of preparing for the arrival of the Morayshire which would convey them to their new home on Norfolk Island.  

Next week we will meet Captain George Rennie McArthur, as much as we are able to meet anyone through the veils of time - a man who alighted briefly on Pitcairn Island just before the Pitcairners’ departure for Norfolk Island; a man who had recently been to Norfolk Island and had seen for himself all that it had to offer; a man who perhaps more than any other was able to put their minds a little more at ease; a man who perchance may have also served to gird their loins for the task ahead, stiffened their resolve, assuaged their fears and illuminated the way – a man who was no doubt able to reassure them more than ever that Norfolk Island, like their beloved Pitcairn Island, was also a fenua maitai (a goodly land).


The Pitcairners – Robert Nicolson (1965)

Norfolk Island and its Second Settlement 1825 – 1855 – Raymond Nobbs (1991)

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