On Tunisian Dates

I’ve just returned from a rather damp excursion downtown.  First to the public library, where I returned the due books that drew me all the way down there; then to Pete’s Frootique, a delightful Halifax grocery store with butcher, fishmonger, cheesemonger, and a goodly wealth of imports as well in it.  Its atmosphere reminds me rather of the tone of a speech the eponymous character makes to a grocer in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, by G.K. Chesterton:

“I know the temptations which a grocer has to a too cosmopolitan philosophy.  I can imagine what it must be to sit all day as you do surrounded with wares from all the ends of the earth, from strange seas that we have never sailed and strange forests that we could not even picture.  No Eastern king ever had such argosies or such cargoes coming from the sunrise and the sunset, and Solomon in all his glory was not enriched like one of you.  India is at your elbow,” he cried, lifting his voice and pointing his stick at a drawer of rice, the grocer making a movement of some alarm, “China is before you, Demerara is behind you, America is above your head, and at this very moment, like some old Spanish admiral, you hold Tunis in your hands.” Mr. Mead dropped the box of dates which he was just lifting, and then then picked it up again vaguely.

Pete’s is not quite so elaborately presented, but you have a sense of the coming-together of cultures and food and the wondrousness of bringing such comestibles and luxuries the whole world over.  I like the idea of the local diet, and try to buy Maritime produce when I can, and fully intend to start growing as much of my own food as possible starting this summer.  (The tomato seeds are planted!) Much as I enjoy asparagus in midwinter, I know that the chain of events and people required to get it to Halifax from Peru is ultimately unsustainable; and the more so for the more perishable fruits and vegetables.

But I have zero problems with purchasing certain things, like spices and jars of preserves and cheeses and olives and wines, that may have come half the world round to me.  Why not take the dates of Tunis?  (The Medjool dates were there at Pete’s today, though I didn’t buy them.)  Why not take great delight in pepper and saffron and salt, knowing they have been carried by that chain of people and transport as they have always done.  Should the entire world fall away from modern civilisation and lose its oil-based transport, people will go still carry spices and wine and tea by camel and sailboat.

The Venerable Bede left peppercorns to someone in his will.  Those beautiful ancient Athenian amphorae in red and black ware are usually found in Italy, as a classicist told me recently.  I have many views on the benefits of producing a great deal of food locally; but I can still rejoice in that cosmopolitan ability to hold Tunis in my hands.

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