From the heart of dark, deep forests to old Chinese restaurants, from colonised lands to uncommunicative deserts, food wrote Neruda and Neruda wrote food. Reads Pritha Kejriwal
Green is the colour that traps light from the sun to produce the most fundamental food of nature… green was also the colour of Neruda’s ink… and I have travelled this territory for years, returning each time, to breathe the most transparent air in the world… to forge the most primal ties with the earth – with tender hearts of artichokes, with oval, firm, smooth and unblemished chestnuts, with lemons smelling of exasperated love, with cheerful tomatoes and with onions, more beautiful than birds of dazzling feathers…
Once, while reading and translating Neruda’s poems, the Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg, scolded him saying, “Too much root, too many roots in your poems…why so many?” While recounting this episode in his Memoirs, Neruda wrote, “It’s true…the frontier regions sank their roots into my poetry and these roots have never been able to wrench themselves out. My life is a long pilgrimage that is always turning on itself, always returning to the woods in the south, to the forest lost to me…” Neruda, essentially, had the soul of a tree, a giant Rauli tree from the Chilean forest – his roots, buried deep into all that was most fundamental to the everyday life of his people – making him one of the most important writers to contour mankind’s most intimate relationship – the one that he shares with his food.
The House of the three widows
Neruda’s childhood was filled with all the magic and mystery of the fascinating chaos of untamed nature…Once he went for a visit to a threshing high up in the mountains… he had lost his way and had ended up at the house of three French women – a white house in the middle of nowhere, lost among the trees. That night, in the middle of that virgin forest, the three widowed sisters served Neruda the most exquisite and resplendent dishes – recipes of their beloved France, and vintage wines aged by them in the special French way. They had preserved a file for each chance visitor— twenty seven in thirty two years— and had saved the menu for the day, so as not to repeat even a single dish if those friends were to ever return. Years later, while thinking about their fate in Memoirs, Neruda wrote, “Perhaps the forest devoured those lives and those rooms that took me in, one unforgettable night. Yet they live on in my memory as in the clear bed of a lake of dreams. Honour to those three melancholy women who struggled in that wild solitude, with no practical purpose, to maintain old world elegance. They defended what their ancestors had forged with their own hands, the last traces of an exquisite culture, far off in the wilderness, at the last boundaries of the most impenetrable and lonely mountains in the world…” This experience from his adolescence stayed with him forever, and perhaps sowed the seeds of his deep reverence for all the unjustly neglected, small worlds of people – lit up, only by what they could put on their tables
Tomatoes and Onions
His years in exile took him all over the world, and throughout his travels, Neruda carefully documented food, recognizing it as the strongest metaphor for everything that bound humanity together through histories, geographies and cultures. Thus wine became, “the community of man/ chorus of discipline/ abundance of flowers”…the tomatoes were, “deep, inexhaustible suns filling the salads”, the onion was “the star of the poor, fairy godmother”, the artichoke was “the warrior vegetable, with peaceful flesh in its green heart”…During one of his visits to China, he describes dinner in an old restaurant in Chungking in great detail, “In the evening, Ai Ch’ing takes us to dinner in an old restaurant, home of the most traditional kind of cooking: a shower of cherry blossoms, a rainbow of bamboo salad, hundred-year old eggs, lips of a young she-shark. Words can’t do justice to this Chinese cooking in all its complexity, its fabulous variety, its extravagant inventiveness, its incredible formality. Ai Ching gives us some pointers. The three supreme precepts for a good dinner are: first of all, flavour; second, aroma; third, colour. These three elements of a meal must be respected to the letter. The flavour must be exquisite. The aroma must be delicious. And the colour must be appetizing and harmonious. In this restaurant where we are going to eat – Ai’Ching said –another virtuoso element comes into play: sound. To the huge porcelain dish surrounded by delicacies is added, at the last minute, a small cascade of shrimp tails falling onto a red-hot griddle, they produce a flute like melody, a musical phrase that is always repeated the same way.” By the end of his voyage on the Yangtze however, Neruda got tired of such exotic fare, it started to get “stuck in his throat” and he longed for food that reminded him of home. His birthday happened to be around that time and his wife Matilde decided to treat him to a “Chicken roasted in our way, with a tomato and onion salad fixed in Chilean style to go with it”…On that July 12, Neruda had the most satisfying meal in a long time, “Roasted chicken…a couple of tomatoes and slices of onion brightened a small dish. The huge table stretched on beyond it, embellished, as it was everyday, with dishes gleaming with luscious Chinese food”…all of which went untouched that day…
In Elemental Odes Neruda went on to pay homage to the everyday…to tomatoes and onions and lemons and salt…
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
with a mouth smothered
by the earth.
I shivered in those
when I heard
in the desert.
the nitrous pampa
(Ode to Salt)
The Great Tablecloth
Neruda was elected senator in the March of 1945, to represent his people from the desert mining regions of copper and nitrate, “The mere act of facing that lunar desert was a turning point in my life. Representing those men in parliament – their isolation, their titanic land – was a difficult task. The naked earth, without a single plant, without a drop of water, is an immense, elusive enigma. In the forests, alongside rivers, everything speaks to man. The desert, on the other hand, is uncommunicative. I couldn’t understand its language; that is its silence…” He walked for years with his people to understand and interpret that hunger and silence; his poetry suffered terrible pangs, coming out of its solitary cocoon to find itself on town and village squares and under factory sheds singing to his people…
When Western Imperialists had started waging their neocolonial wars in Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile… all kinds of invaders had taken over the productive regions, giving them company names, imposing their own currency, preventing assembly of people, banning political parties and people’s press. During this period Neruda worked furiously at his magnum opus – his most important book, Canto General – three hundred and forty poems, which captured every beat of the great heart of Latin America. One of the most famous poems, The United Fruit Company searingly exposed the ruthless exploitation by the American corporates:
“The Fruit Company, Inc.
reserved for itself the most succulent,
the central coast of my own land,
the delicate waist of America.
It rechristened its territories
as the ’Banana Republics’
and over the sleeping dead,
over the restless heroes
who brought about the greatness, the liberty and the flags,
it established the comic opera:
abolished the independencies,
presented crowns of Caesar,
unsheathed envy, attracted
the dictatorship of the flies,”…
During such dark times, the faith of the huge working class of the Latin Americas rested in the communists, and Pablo Neruda, the communist poet, emerged as the most beloved poet of his people.
In his poem, The Great Tablecloth he wrote,
Hunger feels like pincers,
like the bite of crabs,
it burns and has no fire.
Hunger is a cold fire.
Let us sit down to eat
with all those who haven’t eaten;
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.
For now I ask no more
than the justice of eating.
Times have changed and what we see today is the privatization of the ‘social’ itself, as we seek newer and more abstract concepts of justice, look for new labels to protect ourselves within new post-modern, post-ideological frameworks – but for once, if we could sit down and fold our legs before the great table cloth, perhaps, we would know, that the only kind of justice is the most universal one – where each one of us is united and intermingled – sharing the wholesome generosity of a single table.