GYPSY FEAST BY CAROL WILSON

Many cookbooks–all worthy of my attention–are stacked alongside the computer, and I have neglected them simply because I haven’t been able to get WORD to work properly. For the past few weeks, I have been struggling to work without WORD. Then I wondered if I could type a draft on Verizon, like an email message. Why not?

One of the books that particularly captivated me is titled is GYPSY FEAST, Recipes and Culinary Traditions of the Romany People, by Carol Wilson. (Then, today, my daughter in law came to change my ink cartridges – and SHE figured out how to open a clean page in WORD for me! Voila!!)

I have good reason to be fascinated with Gypsy Feast; my older brother has often speculated that we had gypsy blood. Our paternal grandmother, Susannah Gengler Schmidt, liked nothing more than spending a Sunday aboard a street car, later a bus, with a twenty-five sent Sunday pass, to explore downtown Cincinnati–and given the opportunity to go on an annual vacation with her daughter, our Aunt Annie, and Annie’s husband Al, to Florida–and I think she was with us whenever the family took a vacation—which wasn’t often–and the car was crowded with my two parents, me, my older sister Becky, two younger brothers Biff & Bill–and Grandma.

I think my little brother Billy was small enough to squeeze in between mom and dad. (I didn’t learn until decades later that my brother Jim deliberately stayed away from home when we were going on a vacation–to escape going along–but he and I discovered our own enjoyment of taking trips in the 80s and 90s. His job took him to a number of places on the West Coast; I’d take vacation time to go along with him. We went to San Diego twice, twice to Palm Springs, to Reno once on business and another time for the USBC Bowling Tournament in Reno; we also went to Las Vegas a couple times and once to San Francisco. During those car trips we often talked about our childhood experiences–a revelation in many ways).

The relatives we spent a week with in Detroit when I was about nine or ten were cousins on Grandma’s side of the family. There was a daughter about my age, named Pat, with whom I began corresponding — she was my first penpal. I think the family may have been second cousins of my father’s. I have no memories of where they put us at night or how Pat’s mother coped with all of us at mealtimes–I vaguely remember a large pool (maybe a lake?) that we spent a day at and I remember all of us crowded in the car–my dad only owned Chevrolet four door cars back then–possibly they were roomier. And no air conditioning! My father would have loved having a RV back then!

But I digress. My brother Jim often speculated that we had Gypsy blood and even though the Romany people do not appear on the DNA results that my brother Bill obtained–the general DNA lump sum of 67% Europe, West, could very well have accounted for some gypsies.

From Gypsy Feast dust jacket, I learned that the Romany people are descendants of the ancient warrior classes of Northern India who trekked westwards around A.D. 1000. Although they were, and still often are referred to as “gypsies” their correct name is Roma. Their migration took them through Persia and Armenia, into Europe and later to the Americas. Today, the Roma live scattered throughout the world.

Roma foodways were traditionally determined by their nomadic way of life. Thus, the cuisine came to include whatever was readily available, such as wild fruits and vegetables, berries, herbs, flowers, fish and shellfish, and wild game. Today, few Roma continue to live as nomads and their traditional cuisine has largely been replaced by that of the mainstream society.

Gypsy Feast, the publishers write, “evokes a memorable picture of the old Romany ways, including recipes, information on feasts and celebrations, marriage and funeral customs, and a unique way of life that has almost disappeared.

Carol Wilson provides recipes that have survived the centuries, frequently undergoing adaption to meet the tastes of a particular time or place, Today, as modern life encroaches on the traditional Romany customs, the old ways of life are rapidly disappearing. Gypsy Feast records many of these fading recipes and culinary traditions. (From the dust jacket to Gypsy Feast).

And I want to say that little more than a hundred years ago, pioneers trekking from Missouri to California or Oregon, were temporarily nomads as they headed west seeking a better life and land, or for the lure of gold, often recording what meager food they might find to supplement their food supplies running desperately short–when you think of it, the development of the USA often depended on their pioneering nomad skills) I have believed for most of my adult life that I made a journey across country in the 1800s, in a previous life.

In 1961 when my then-husband along with our one year old son, drove across country in search of a better life in California. I remember staring into the sky, filled with millions of stars at night when all you could see were stars. I thought to myself “I have done this before”. It was my introduction to past lives.

Returning to GYPSY FEAST, in the preface, the author notes, “the seeds for the book were sown when I was about ten years old and even at that early age, intensely interested in food and cooking and the kinds of food that people ate and why. I was fascinated by the Romany way of life. As a child growing up in the suburbs of Wakefield, in Yorkshire, England, my friends and I watched, enthralled as the Gypsies arrived I their gaily horse-drawn and motor caravans to set up camp in a local meadow every summer….”:

Wilson writes that even though they were called gypsies, their correct name is Roma. “Rom” means in the Roman language and the word to denote people is ROMA. She explains how the Roma made money seasonally such as fruit, vegetable and hop picking. Their labor was an essential part of the local economy and every year, large numbers of Roma traveled to the same fields, orchards and farms for employment…”

Wilson also explains that “the relentless onslaught of modern technology has had an enormous effects on Romany throughout the world as modern technology encroaches on their traditional way of life, their ancient customs are in decline and in danger of being lost forever…” The integration of many Roma with non-Roma cultures has also diluted many traditional values and beliefs. Many young Roman have largely forgotten the old traditions and culture. She says that many Roma are now settled in hoses and few if any travel through the country in colorful wagons.

In the Introduction, Wilson writes that it is difficult to establish with any certainty the world population of Roma today but estimates indicate there are about twelve to fifteen million worldwide and about ten million live in Europe, with an estimated one hundred thousand living in the United Kingdom. Most Roma today live in Romania, Bulgaria, Spain and Hungary.

Wilson notes that “a nomadic people, their gradual migration from India in the fourteenth century led them to become scattered throughout the world. The reasons for t heir exodus are unknown but their migration took them through Persia, Armenia and eventually into Europe. As they traveled they absorbed man aspects of new foreign cultures, traditions and language into their own culture…”

The appearance of the Roma caused something of a stir in the United Kingdom in the fifteenth century—their burnished copper colored skin, glossy black hair and flamboyant colorful clothes, obscure language and almost magical knowledge of herbs and plants, led them to being greeted with suspicion, even hostility wherever they traveled. Wilson writes, “their swarthy looks resulted in a general belief that they were from Turkey or Egypt, and they became known as Egyptians or Gyptians which later became Gypsies. (Interesting to learn how the world “Gypsies” evolved, isn’t it? – sls)

Some record of gypsies in Britain can be found in the early 1500s but in 1530, suspicion and fear of vagrants led Henry VIII to make it an offence to be a gypsy and ordered their departure within forty days unless they chose to abandon “their naughty, idle and ungodly life”

However, writes Wilson, by the time of Elizabeth I there was estimated to be around ten thousand Gypsies I England and although their presence was not exactly welcomed, they were accepted as part of the community.

There is a great deal more of the Introduction to be found in Gypsy Fare but if I keep going, we’ll never get to foodways of everyday life of the Roma.

In her chapter titled Everyday Life, Wilson writes that “Traditionally, eating habits of the Roma was dictated by their nomadic way of life, and their diet consisted largely of what was readily available and in season, such as wild fruits, berries, leafy plants, herbs, flowers, fish and shellfish, game and small mammals which were free for the taking in fields, woods, meadows and streams. Foods were also often traded along the road. Boys as well as girls were taught to cook so they would always be able to look after themselves in the wild. The value of food is difficult for us to appreciate nowadays as we are used to easily accessible to shops and stores which offer a great variety of food…”

Wilson also notes that wild foods were vital for the survival of the Roma and the people developed a phenomenal knowledge of these—which were edible, which were poisonous (even lethal) and where to find them.

Under Everyday Foods, Wilson provides recipes for Berries, sweet with nuts cherry pudding, Bread and Fruit Pudding, Damson Cobbler and others—the one I especially want to try is a recipe for Blackberry Butter. (My Oregon friends have wild blackberries galore on their property). Blackberry Tart would also be great to try.

Generally, we don’t think of flowers as being edible; Wilson notes that flowers are now enjoying something of a renaissance as a fashionable ingredient—these can be sprinkled over salads and even added to stews for their bright color and flavor. Wilson writes, in the chapter titled Edible Flowers, that the practice of using flowers in cookery is very old. Medieval monks cultivated flowers such as marigolds and lavender in their kitchen gardens, alongside herbs and vegetables—Wilson provides a detailed list of what flowers can be grown for use in cooking.

The next chapter is titled NUTS – and since I have cookbooks dedicated to various edible nuts, I’ll skip this except to note, per Wilson, the use of acorns in cooking. We know that Indian tribes used acorns (to make flour, I think) but I don’t think you see much of this in American cookery nowadays.

There are many more chapters—and recipes in Gypsy Fare—but I have written a great deal from the Introduction and this is already fairly long for a review.

I found Gypsy Feast listed on Amazon.com and Alibris.com; both have a starting price of $12.95 for either new or used copies. Amazon.com also has a Kindle edition for about $12.00. This book is valuable for historical reference as well as simply for your enjoyable reading.

Review by Sandra Lee Smith

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