Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bloater Paste

The term “red herring” gets its name from the supposed use of kippers (pungent split and smoked herring) being used to train hunting dogs to follow a scent by misleading them.

While kippers are associated more with Scotland and the Isle of Man as a powerful emblem of a much-beloved but difficult food, England is home to the bloater (a cured whole herring), specifically in the form of bloater paste.

Eating a kipper requires a great deal of careful expertise in negotiating the lethal froth of needle-like bones, whereas bloater paste is simply smeared inside a sandwich. One would think the paste would have been most likely to survive the culinary softening of the twentieth-century palate, but it didn’t: it fell out of favor with the sandwich-eating public (despite the ubiquitous rise in popularity of the sandwich) and has been discontinued, whereas you can still pick up a pair of kippers for your breakfast at any fishmonger and play a kind of swallowing Russian Roulette.

Bloater paste’s demise was probably due in large part to its name; after all, no-one wants to be reminded what eating too many sandwiches (especially made on today’s yeast-puffed bread) will do to one’s stomach. Along with such antique staples as Mock Turtle Soup and Blancmange, it had its heyday in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the usefulness of food that came in cans and bottles preceded that of frozen foods.

People needed pre-packaged foods that would not spoil in part because they travelled more than they ever had. Railways and ships allowed folks to visit distant places and they needed to eat along the way. Specifically, preserved foods were a boon to explorers whose exploits could not have been possible without them. Antarctica, for instance, cannot support life, so everything needed to keep a human going had to be brought in.

From Bowers' list of ship's stores, Terra Nova 1910

For an expedition such as Scott’s attempt on the South Pole, this meant packing for at least three years. The store lists set down by his right-hand man Birdie Bowers reveal massive quantities of foodstuffs that could be found in any Edwardian pantry — including 20 dozen quarts of Bloater Paste. (also: Mock Turtle Soup = 200 ½ lb tins and Blanc Mange Powder = six dozen pints.) For kipper they substituted penguin.

100 years ago today Scott and his party died of cold, but mostly of starvation — because a starving person cannot keep warm. Towards the end his party all dreamed obsessively of food — a subconscious trait the body uses to prod one into seeking it. The kinds of food they gorged themselves on while asleep were comfort foods, as one can imagine. Perhaps they dreamed of bloater paste sandwiches. Perhaps they dreamed of kippers, warm, running with melted butter and lemon juice. Perhaps they chewed their nails or their shoelaces. Perhaps all they saw were red herrings like flags hanging from bamboo poles above insufficient depots on the frozen sea. 
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