Special occasional foods

Today, many special and once rare foods, such as ham, turkey and hot cross buns, are available for too long and are no longer treated with respect. And we are worse off for it!

By Jeremy Ryland


In last week's Yellow Letter, I wrote about bread: Bread, our staff of life. One of my pet peeves is that you cannot get good bread at many places and, when you do, they take it away too early.

Now, another of my pet peeves is that many of the special food festivals we used to enjoy are being lost to commercialism and convenience. For example, hot cross buns, once only available as an Easter treat, were for sale this year in the supermarkets on 29 December – four months before Easter!!

Hot cross buns are originally thought to be a pagan symbol, baked at the beginning of spring (in the Northern Hemisphere) to honour the goddess Eostre, the origin of the word Easter. The cross represents the quarters of the moon and the spring equinox.

The Christian Church initially attempted to ban them, but seeing how popular they were, adopted them into the church with the cross as a representation of the crucifixion and the spices inside the buns, symbolising the spices put on the body of Jesus after he died.

In 1592, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it was decreed that hot cross buns could no longer be sold on any day except for Good Friday, Christmas or for burials. They were simply too special to be eaten any other day. People got around this by baking their own buns; however, if they were caught, they had to give up all of the illegal buns to the poor.

Once these delicate tasty buns were special, but today we can now enjoy them for three or four months of the year, and consequently, they lose their significance and their special value in gastronomy.

Food is more than just fuel, it plays a significant role in our social and psychological lives, helping to define and commemorate special events and ceremonies, as well as the passing of time. The food we eat helps define who we are and bestows our own unique place in history.

Moreover, this lack of special treats also contributes to the obesity problems of today. Foods that were once only consumed rarely or in moderation are now available all-year-round, and most of us are unable to resist the sweet flavours of hot cross buns, chocolate, fruit cakes, ice cream and other delicacies – consuming too much and too often.

Modern food processing and transportation have also diluted the seasons. Fruits and vegetables, once only available when they were fresh, are now available all year round. Such produce, after being held in cold storage, modified atmospheres and been transported around the world, is not always great quality, losing flavour and nutrition: apples become floury; potatoes become starchy and lose their vitamin C content; tomatoes and oranges lack flavour, etc. Our appetite for out of season produce is also bad for the environment. The cost of fuel, energy and greenhouse gasses to transport food is enormous. It is said that the average plate of food in the US travels 2500 km to the table. This is probably much more in Australia.

Eating local in-season foods not only helps the environment and our local farmers but will generally be cheaper too. And, of course, since it will be harvested at its peak, it will taste better and be better for you as well.

Today’s consumer is time poor, lazy and mostly unaware of where our food actually comes from. Today the “commercial machine” has diluted the events so that once rare foods, such as ham, turkey, hot cross buns, chocolate and fresh stone fruit, etc., are available for too long and are no longer treated with respect.

And we are worse off for it!

Gastronomy is, as Brillat-Savarin described, nearly 200 years ago: “The reasoned comprehension of everything connected with the nourishment of man”. But by nourishment, we also mean nourishment of the mind and the soul, for gastronomy, and good eating is about the psychological as well as the physiological appreciation of good food and wine.

Food is more than just fuel or sustenance. Food is about life and has different meanings in different cultures and societies. Gastronomy, in a practical day-to-day sense, means good food, good wine, good company and good conversation. It is about reflective eating and is a celebration of life and all that sustains us.

But let’s not forget that local festivals and celebrations also need to be preserved to ensure we understand who we are and where we come from. For without history, we are nothing.

Food is part of this cultural heritage. Feasts and celebrations are also seasonal: spreading them out too thin dilutes their significance, and if we dilute these special occasions through commercial greed, we lose a part of own being.

So, go see where your food comes from; talk to the farmer; eat less but better; eat “in season”, buy only what you need; rediscover some old fashioned foods; and share the special times with friends and family.