Food and drink: The leanest times, the fattest times . . . and all the suppers in-between: 'Roasted flour and water: you try it sometime'

THIS week we print two extracts from Loaves & Wishes, a book about food in all its aspects. It is a compilation of 20 pieces by some of the most successful female writers of our time. Inspired by famine or feast, by fear of cooking or by fun, each shows how central food is to our lives.

Loaves & Wishes celebrates the 50th anniversary of Oxfam, whose field workers are today facing the immediate crisis of feeding millions of starving people in Africa. None of the writers asked to contribute questioned the ethics of writing about food to help the starving. Some took their cue from it, such as Germaine Greer, whose piece we reproduce here. She writes unsentimentally of her experiences among starving people in Ethiopia.

Our other piece comes from the world of our daily experience. It is by Margaret Drabble, who writes a witty and honest account of the anxieties she feels when faced with the daily burden of providing good meals.

Loaves & Wishes is published by Virago on 24 September (pounds 7.99). A percentage of the proceeds goes to Oxfam's literacy projects around the world.

'If they're that hungry,' said the man from the American relief organisation, 'they'll eat anything.' He was wrong, of course. Hunger is the best sauce only until it turns into starvation. Starving people are not hungry. Starving people have no appetite at all. Hunger is healthy: most of us need to feel it far more than we do. Starvation is sickness in mind and body. Pathogens that the healthy body kept at bay overwhelm the starving body while terrible grief and shame set up their camp in the soul. The worst insult that you can fling at a peasant is to call him 'starveling': 'morto di fame'

is still in rural Italy a term of the deepest contempt. To be dying of hunger

is to have failed everything and everyone: to watch the people you love growing more ghastly and skeletal day by day is mental torture of the most exquisite kind.

I had asked the aid official why the people of Wollo were expected to eat their pancakes without salt. The pancakes were made of wheat flour, 'Gift of the EEC to the People of Ethiopia', according to the sacks. (As there was a dire shortage of sacks those words appeared on much more food than the European Community ever sent, but no one accused us of making false claims.) Even if the people of Wollo had grown wheat, they would be hard-pressed to make something edible of nothing but wheat. In fact, they often just roasted wheat kernels, and very good they were. But the flour had to be made into something, something that weak, sick, dispirited people could manage to chew and swallow. The result was a pancake; try it sometime. Try mixing flour and water and roasting it in a hot pan. The Ethiopians who manned the communal kitchens, for there was too little fuel wood for people to do their own cooking, even supposing they were strong enough to carry firewood and water, did their best; but the pancakes were hard and leathery. People died with segments of uneaten pancake in their carrying cloths. I bethought me of our butter mountain which could so easily have been turned into a ghee lake. And I remembered a famine relief effort of a very different kind in Salt Lake City, behind Calcutta in 1972.

The Indian government relief effort was different because, first of all, it was in time. Nine million people were helped before they became unable to help themselves. And the relief effort was run by people as poor as the refugees, who knew what was important to them. At Salt Lake I was amazed to see that people were issued, not just with their sack of wholewheat flour (much more useful than the bleached and refined stuff we would have given them), but a small onion, a cardamom and a clove. A row of makeshift booths had grown up along the main concourse, and there the people bartered the day's spice for a different spice, for a spoonful of turmeric or a few grains of black pepper, instead. The fare was frugal, but they could vary it, so that it had the scent of home.

The stuff that was cooked up in the communal kitchens at Bati was what Australians call damper, a flat bread made of flour-and-water dough and roasted in the open fire. Aborigines now mix the dough with a can of Foster's and a very large quantity of baking soda. White bushmen salt it, but Aborigines are - or used to be - unique among the world's populations in that they do - or did - not use salt. The original damper, the Aborigines' flat bread called ntara, was not made out of flour, but of all kinds of seeds, especially grass seeds, ground between two stones. The nomads did not carry the stones, which lived in the places where the seeds grew, to be used by all who passed by. The 'Afghans' (who were really Pathans) who brought their camels to central Australia, soon learnt how to find the stones and how to incorporate the local grains in their chapatis, which is why they thrived in the deserts where the white man died of hunger. It is a great irony of history that if Australia had been settled by Asians instead of Caucasians, the landscape would not have been destroyed by hard-hoofed animals and rabbits and ntara would still figure on the world menu.

If Australians ate ntara, the Ethiopians might not have had to gag on their EC flour pancake. On my third visit to Ethiopia in 1985 I saw famine victims given the food they love, which they call by a name strangely like the Aborigine name for damper, n'jera. I was travelling with a bus load of settlers down from Wollo to Asosa; as many of the people, having never ridden in a motor vehicle, were travel-sick, the buses did not travel overnight. Paramedics checked each passenger, pulling aside ragged cloaks and peering into wizened faces. The sick, who protested loudly, terrified that the convoy would go on without them, were taken to special tents and bedded down on deep straw. Over the hill came the good matrons of the town, their immaculate white cottons billowing around them. Each one carried a plastic bucket and in each bucket trembled fold upon fold of grey spongy n'jera. The people smelt it before they saw it. When the tin plates were put in their hands and they saw the wobbling folds with their own eyes, their faces lit up with real joy. And they ate. They ate as I had never seen anyone in a famine shelter eat. They were a people transformed. They were themselves again. Especially if we are a peasant people, we are what we eat.

The people of that town had made a sacrifice, for the n'jera they made for the settlers was all t'eff: elsewhere people were eating half and half. Eragrostis t'eff is cultivated only in the Ethiopian highlands; the harvest that fails year after year because of exhaustion of the soil is the t'eff harvest. Only the Dutch, to my knowledge, have made any attempt to grow t'eff in order to provide the Ethiopians with new seed stocks. If we grew t'eff we would quickly undersell and outproduce the Ethiopian farmers, so that our attempt to make up their shortfall would eventually ruin them. Unless. Unless we became connoisseurs of n'jera and paid as much money for the real thing as we are happy to pay for a wine grown (from American grapes) in a certain part of France. Unless Ethiopian cooking became one of the great cuisines of the world.

One of the best meals I ever had in my life was the simplest Ethiopian meal of all, n'jera wat, the n'jera of Lent. If good cooking is a question of proportion and balance of scent and texture, that meal of n'jera with a spicy lentil stew and a raw tomato was perfection. I had grander meals in Ethiopia. I was once hand-fed in the traditional Ethiopian fashion by a gold-encrusted colonel in the Ethiopian army, who tore off pieces from a square yard of n'jera, packed them with choice morsels of meat marinaded in birberi and poked them into my mouth, which was forced to gape so wide to accommodate them that I felt like a fledgling. The dishes were brought to the table by a succession of the most beautiful young soldiers that ever wore uniform. But I remember more vividly the small cafe where the waiter brought a bucket of water and soap so that patrons could wash in the yard, where the patrons prayed before they ate, and where a perfect meal cost me sixpence.

Germaine Greer is Australian. After convent schooling and graduating in Australia she came to Britain. Renowned as a feminist writer and scholar, she is also a courageous and curious traveller and a skilled and original gardener. She lives near Cambridge.

(Photograph omitted)

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