An Exchange of Small Gifts
John Berger's The Red Tenda of Bologna, a menu and recipes, and eating notes
Hello! My name is Rebecca May Johnson, I am a writer and cook and this is my Substack. This week’s newsletter is about John Berger’s text The Red Tenda of Bologna and recipes given in the midst of life, a menu from this week with recipes, and eating notes.
An Exchange of Small Gifts
One of my favourite pieces of writing is John Berger’s The Red Tenda of Bologna, a 56 page paean to a beloved uncle and to the city of Bologna. The first sentence, which is also the whole of the first page, is quite astonishing –
I should begin with how I loved him, in what manner, to what degree, with what kind of incomprehension.
His uncle was a ‘failure’, ‘according to the standards by which [Berger] had been brought up’. He was ‘hard up for money, unmarried, unprepossessing, apparently without ambition’. But Berger loved his ‘shabby and royal intransigence’. The uncle loved to write and receive letters, to travel, and he and Berger showed their affection for each other through the exchange of small gifts, which ‘conformed to the same tacit, unwritten law: any gift had to be small, unusual and addressed to a particular appetite known to exist in the other.’ The Red Tenda of Bologna is also filled with such gifts. After his uncle’s death, Berger visits the city and wanders the streets, sharing gift-like fragments of memoir, art, architecture, food, people, lines from Pasolini, and red tende linen. Then, an unexpected offer of a recipe for pasta with precise quantities, as if Berger had known and addressed my ‘particular appetite’ as a reader –
In the Via Caprarie we are going to find a kilo of passatelli in a paper bag, that looks as if it were made to hold truffles. After Easter, during the summer heat, the Bolognese stop eating lasagne and tagliatelle and move on to passatelli, a pasta in brodo. You want the list of ingredients? 400g white bread crumbs, 240g Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon of flour, 6 eggs, 1 small nutmeg, 50 g. butter?
Of course, we the reader are implicitly there all along reading Berger’s text, but his sudden turn to camera with – ‘You want…?’ – explicitly acknowledges our presence. We become a fellow in conversation and it is as if by giving the recipe, Berger responds to some keenness we have expressed physically as he is telling us about the seasonal shift in pasta. The passage exemplifies that moment when people, often near strangers, are compelled to tell you a recipe in the midst of a conversation. The shift from narrative into an instruction that we can take into our own lives reveals the will to nourish and to distribute knowledge that feeds — and which inevitably imparts a sense of time and place, of life, too.
I am writing about Berger’s recipe because I was given a recipe in an unlikely setting yesterday. I live 300 yards from the sea and after three years of not getting round to it, I went out in a sailing dingy, crewing for a man in a race round some buoys just off the beach. We had never met before, but someone had told him that I write about food and he told me about five years when he lived on an island in Orkney where his wife was working as a nurse. He did all sorts of jobs, as is required on an island with a few dozen inhabitants, and one of these was to run a cafe. He made mutton pies using meat from sheep that get fat eating seaweed thrown ashore in winter storms, and gelato using milk from local cows, and ricotta and spinach pies with ricotta he had made. In response to my great excitement about this, he told me his recipe for the mutton pies – we had to pause during its telling when there were gusts of wind or we had to tack round buoys: mutton mince, mace, nutmeg and seasoning and his own hot water pastry. He wrapped the pies in greaseproof paper tied with string and baked them. Afterwards when I was drinking a pint of Doom Bar and telling my name to other sailors for the first time, he appeared with a bag of frozen mince from the seaweed-fed sheep in Orkney. That evening, he emailed me a full recipe. I did not know him before yesterday, but he gave me his recipe and a bag of mince. I will tell You about the pies when I make them.
Recipes and eating notes from the week below