A movie set in the Middle East

Somewhere, someone’s filming a movie set in the Middle East. It’s not the Middle East but we’re led to believe we’re there, in a crowded marketplace, waiting for something to happen. Does that scare you? It’s supposed to. Does it frighten you too? The way documentaries used to?

A criminal mastermind sits in a barbershop, being shaved. This scares me, too. An underling brings bad news. The criminal mastermind waves the barber away, pulls off the white smock, the shaving cream still smeared all over his face. His face half-shaved. I’m scared of that, too.

I no longer frequent markets. I stay home at night, the curtains drawn. It’s like I’m dreaming, or underwater but I’m scared, that’s all. I’m scared of men. This world. Their bright lies dressed as ideas. The rain that makes night. The train that doesn’t stop. That scares me, still.

The questions we refuse to ask. The dreams we refuse to remember. The planes I refused to see streaking across the desert sky. The taxes I ignored as shopping lists slammed into hillsides. Does it scare you? The way documentaries do? I’m scared of the things we pretend we don’t do.

Are you scared yet? I am. I’m stuck in a movie set in the Middle East. Something’s about to happen, but I don’t yet know who to. I look around, and all I see is fear. When the blast comes I’m scared I’ll miss it. I always miss it. People call me timid, but perhaps they’re scared of me too.

From the Archives: “He Carried Oranges”

I have absolutely no idea what this prose fragment was supposed to be about but I do know that it’s been fifteen years or so since I cared one way or the other. I was probably reading too much Borges at the time.

Aldo said, in his very own voice, meet me here at half to nine in the morning – here at the top of the stair, by the locked door, when the sunlight creeps through the street doorway below, at the bottom. I am here now, here in enough time to see my normal self rushing across the square, gripping a perfect orange in my hand, my satchel thrown roughly over my shoulder, my hair still wet, the water freshly drawn from the well.

That is not myself, merely an imaginary person. Aldo is also imaginary unless he turns up now. The wooden stairs creak beneath my feet, the passageway in semi-darkness.

The table in the house, scratched and scorched by the years, my mother seated by the window, smiling as I place the orange in my bag, along with my books, along with my secret books. She calls me to her, holds my head in her hands: everything will be fine now, this is our new home, this is where we will stay. We can smile now. Go. Peace to you, she says, touching my cheek. I return: Peace.

Then walk out the door, wishing I had said the better word.

Half to nine, ahead of time, I watch the village wake. I head for the square, where the old church, with its catechisms and seasons, has been abandoned. The Town Hall replaces it in the people’s consciousness – a clock has been installed there, the only one for miles around.

Only here does time really exist. Here, in this sunlit stairway, by the locked door, the cobblestones faintly visible through a door downstairs.

The day awaits me, stirring half-excitedly like dogs in the street. My aunt’s dogs, wrestling in the dust in front of her house. She sits reading beneath a tree as wizened as herself; reading to me, from the book. My mother need not know of my tuition, nor of the old words I am learning.

When my father returns from the war and I am able to greet him in the old fashion, imagine how much greater my mother’s happiness will be. Reunited with her lover and with the ties that bind her to me and to him and to my aunt.

There is nothing I want more than to make my mother happy. So I sit and I read; so we sit and speak to each other in what for her are half-remembered mutterings stolen from elsewhere, such as my father and my uncle also used.

Some time in the past, yes.

Learning to copy the strange symbols scrawled in the books she has stored away beneath the winter clothes in her trunk, by the stove in the kitchen, beside the pile of wood I have chopped for her.

My uncle’s cold, blunt axe.

Today, after I have finished here, I will go to her house. We will sit beneath the old tree and I will listen, we will talk, we will read, I will write in the dirt at her feet. I read with enthusiasm; my aunt tells me I am progressing well.

My mother does not talk to my aunt.

Her brother is dead. She is all alone. She is waiting to wake up.

I often sleep. Often she will let me doze until mid-morning. I wake to find her sitting at the window with a faraway expression on her face. But today I have not been dozing; the sun has not been crawling across the room towards me. The boy with the orange clasped firmly in his sweaty hand is not me today. It is not yet the time for me to be late.

I hear the bells strike the half hour. At the same time Aldo’s boots begin stomping up the stairs.

But it is not Aldo. It is an old man I do not recognise. He rests for a moment at the top of the stairs, unaware that I am standing by the door.

You must recognise him! He is the old man whose teeth are cracked and yellow. He sits every day by the woodpile, wearing an old grey suit that is too short in the legs. He wears a yellow flower in his lapel and at night he wanders through the village, prowling.

He is the type that mothers tell their children not to talk to.

Take the image of this man, by whom you are so repulsed, and explode it. Posit him in a narrative, along with yourself and as many of your friends as you wish, until it becomes unbearably complicated.

When he looks up, his face is flushed and unshaven. He sees me and is startled – then smiles and walks towards me.

So you’re the young man. More a statement than an expression of curiosity.

Mandarin seeds on the window, the rats dancing mainly in the drain. The new moon last night was slowly making itself apparent. The fonts were full of Antiqua.

Never trust the story-taker, tour-guide, lie-maker. There’s a dead man, look at that! And a monkey, strapped in Parliament.

They buy coconuts in the marketplace. Why? They change the language. Why? They build water fonts all over the place. Why?

In every town square (why?), in every courtyard (why?), in every.

Do not buy coconuts, do not prance in the marketplace. Your fonts are filled with rust and your blood will wither.

Father! I exclaimed, you are now real.

Mother, I thought, do not cry, I am progressing very well.

UPDATE: the good folks at Going Down Swinging have cross-posted this piece on their site.

From the Archives: Aussie Eats

“I wonder how many of our young district people could tell me what Nardoo is. No doubt most of them think wheat was the first thing ever grown in this district from which bread was made. They forget the Nardoo which still grows and is not even noticed. A new people populates the land and knows it not.”
“GREYBEARD”, Gow & Gow’s Quarterly Gazette, (Barellan, NSW), No. 1, January 1924

CLINT MALVERN couldn’t help sighing when he walked into Aussie Eats. He took off his hat and let out the biggest sigh he could muster, then he sighed some more. It was no use, though. The place was empty. The Galaga machine offered an occasional melancholy beep to the two stools squatting like reversible salt and pepper shakers in the corner. The insect-like spaceships hovered over the glass window of the bainmarie, casting an alien shadow on the trays of lettuce, tomato and cucumber. As the demonstration game came to its predictable conclusion, Clint looked on glumly. The tractor beam carried the fighter off into outer space, from whence it would not return, unless he (or someone else) put twenty cents in the slot. The countdown wound its way down to zero. Game over.

The smell of oil emanating from the deep fryer, as if in response to the absence of truckies and kids, occupied literally every cubic inch of air. The rotating fan suspended from the ceiling did its best to keep the odour moving but it had been too hot that Friday afternoon to make much difference. Everywhere, chickens stood still in their coops; fleas, in search of cooler climates, emigrated from dog pelts; and altar boys refused to attend Mass, judging (wisely) that they would surely boil to death in their pre-Vatican II outfits.

Clint looked away from the game and saw the oil-spattered Chiko Roll advertisement on the counter; beneath it, on a metal tray, a stack of potato scallops, pre-cooked.

— Hi Clint, called the young girl, Sam, from the kitchen. I’ll be with you in a minute.
— Sure.

Clint peered through the bainmarie glass to the spot where Sam shovelled flour into a huge mixer. He admired its steel stirrers, its important-looking controls — speed adjusters, pulse and the like. Suddenly the coolroom door opened. Out strode Old Mrs Liebermann, Sam’s aunt, dragging a giant sack of potatoes. Clint waved to her.

— Hey Auntie Coral, they for me?
— Ha ha, good one, boy. Come through and make yourself useful. I’ve got something for you.

She stood up, groaned and exited through the side door, presumably heading for the back office, from which her father, Old Laurie, seldom ventured nowadays. Clint looked at his watch, shrugged and squeezed past the counter, stepping carefully across the greasy floor of the kitchen. It was a transgression not of personal, familial or proprietorial territory – rather, a familiar ritual, performed at various times by virtually every man, woman and child in Dulton.

Clint picked up a tea-towel and began drying the bainmarie trays with a nonchalant air. Sam grinned.

— You’re a natural.
— Yeah, right.
— Where’s your dad?
— Next door getting drunk, last I heard.
— Ah.

The old bastard’s pissing the family fortune up against that crawling vine out in the beer garden at the Commercial, thought Clint. Family fortune, indeed. The Commercial Hotel! Full of deadheads and alcoholics, not to mention the crazy bastard who couldn’t say anything except “Go the Bombers! Windy Hill! Go the Bombers!” over and over again. He used to barrack all the way up and down Farrar Street, a white line of froth at his mouth.

— So, Grog Malvern, Jnr. got sent to buy chips for his daddy, did he?

Sam pouted as she spoke, teasing Clint while she poured water into the mixer. She grinned again and he couldn’t help smiling back.

— Got it in one. Catch.

He threw the tea towel at her head and bolted for the still-open coolroom door. Sam evaded the flying cloth easily, watching it slap into the wall next to her. Putting on a kung fu fighter’s voice, she peeled the towel off the wall and wound it up, intending to use it as a whip. Slowly, with soft meow sounds, she crept towards the coolroom doorway, where stood Clint, shivering and laughing.

— Wanna fight … he challenged.
— Fight me … Sam purred, grabbing a handful of his shirt.

All of a sudden Clint’s face was tense and hot. Little did he know but Sam was just about to try and kiss him full on the lips.

— Samantha! Leave the poor boy alone! shouted Aunty Coral, reentering with a tray of something.
— Auntie, Sam moaned, exasperated.
— I’ve got no time for your mischief today, young lady. Now go out and check on your grandfather.
— Sieg Heil! Sam shouted, petulantly.
— Samantha!
— See you at the basketball, Clint?
— Ah, maybe.

What just happened, Clint wondered, his mind racing. I have absolutely no recollection of what just happened.

— Gee, don’t get over-enthusiastic or anything.
— Oh yeah, and it’s so exciting to watch a bunch of amateur girls dropping balls. Yeah, can’t wait.

Why did I say that?

— Well, it’s better than playing with model aeroplanes!
— Shut up, the two of you! yelled Mrs Liebermann.

The walls reverberated with the echo of her booming voice.

— Now, she continued, passing Clint the tray, give this to your father and tell him it’s a gift from Laurie and myself. And this, she said, drawing a string of rosary beads from her apron, is for your mother.

Old Mrs Liebermann slipped the beads smoothly into the pocket of Clint’s ice-blue Midford school shirt with a meaningful look. Then she plomped herself back on her stool and resumed the potato peeling.

— Well then, see ya, Clint said, though he didn’t know exactly who he was addressing, not to mention why.

The Invention of Marzipan

Readers familiar with William Shakespeare’s dramatic works will recall Act I, Scene V of Romeo and Juliet, wherein the first Servant, whilst clearing away plates, says:

Away with the joint stools, remove the court cubbert, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane; and as thou loves me let the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell. Antony, and Potpan!

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

That this ‘piece of marchpane’, a confection known today as Marzipan—but also marci panis, march payne, martiapanes, panis marcius, marzepaines, mauthaban, marzapane, mazapán, massepain, martaban, martevaan, mawtaban, matapan, mazapan and marzapanetti—should hold such high value for a Servant clearings scraps speaks volumes about the peculiar mystery of this particular Stuffe but also the vicissitudes of human hunger.

In 1926 the German novelist and future Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann made a speech on the 700th anniversary of his home town of Lubeck, Germany, in which he too discussed Marzipan:

Now if anyone wishes to vent a little spite against me, or take a casual swipe at me, I can count on his bringing up my Luebeck origin and Luebeck marzipan. If some ill-wisher can think of nothing else, he invariably thinks of connecting me with comic marzipan and representing me as a marzipan baker. Such stuff goes by the name of literary satire. But it does not bother me … And I certainly do not feel in the least insulted about the marzipan. In the first place it is a very tasty confection, and in the second place it is anything but trivial; rather it is remarkable and, as I have said, mysterious … And if we examine this sweet more closely, this mixture of almonds, rosewater and sugar, the suspicion arises that it is originally oriental, a [Haremskonfekt] confection for the harem, and that in all probability the recipe for this barely digestible delicacy came to Luebeck from the Orient by way of Venice … And it turns out that those wits are not so wrong as they themselves think, that Death in Venice is really ‘marzipan’ although in a deeper sense than they ever meant it.

Thomas Mann, ‘Lubeck as a Way of Life and Thought’ (1926)

I discovered the text of this incredible speech serendipitously, while searching for a copy of Death In Venice in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne. The speech, given on the occasion of the seven hundredth anniversary of Luebeck’s founding, can be found in the 1980 Knopf edition of another of Mann’s novels, Buddenbrooks, which describes the daily lives of a prominent Merchant family in Luebeck. Mann’s reputation in Luebeck, it is said, suffered a downturn upon the publication of the novel, when various real-life Luebeckers recognised themselves in the book’s cast of characters.

Mann’s descriptions of the drowning city in Death In Venice were echoed by a late-20th-century historian, Peter Lauritzen, who provides the following description of the Church of the Gesuiti in Venice:

The Gesuiti’s pulpit is an elaborate confection swathed in the heavy folds of a voluminous brocade curtain . . . This white curtain decorated in a handsome green damask pattern is in fact made of marble; all of the walls of the church are covered with this same white and green imitation damask made of verde antico inlaid in slabs of white marble. The illusion is extraordinary.

Peter Lauritzen, Venice: A Thousand Years of Culture and Civilization

Mann’s creation of a triumvirate of Confections—Marzipan, Venice and Lubeck—may well have been palatable to the guests listening to his speech. This is all very well. However, Mann’s addition of a fourth characterisation of Marzipan as a Haremskonfekt, surely, would not have gone down well in Lubeck.

For it is in Lubeck—a UNESCO World Heritage city, an island in the middle of a River, quite close to the Baltic Sea—that a strange myth, concerning the invention of Marzipan, has been propagated. According to the bare bones of the story, Marzipan was invented in Lubeck in 1407 during a Famine, or Hungersnot so severe that all there was left to eat were some almonds, eggs and sugar. When these three ingredients were combined, so the story goes, Marzipan was invented, and the villagers (presumably) escaped death at the hands of the Hungersnot.

Indeed, by implication, the Marzipan could be said to have saved the people of Luebeck from hunger forevermore, thus constituting a miraculous substance, not unlike the breadtree explorers dreamt of transporting across entire oceans, or manna flung down from Heaven.

Luebeck’s manufacturers of Marzipan have at various stages helped propagate the myth, despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to Marzipan’s origins lying much further east: towards Persia (or even further east, in India, maybe even New Guinea) many hundreds (if not thousands) of years earlier.

Therefore for Mann to describe Marzipan, or to be exact the Marzipan made in Lubeck, as a confection originating from a Harem must have sounded completely depraved to some ears that night back in June, 1926.

Today, Lubeck’s makers of Marzipan (including the Carstens and Niederegger companies) freely admit to the improbability of the Luebeck Marzipan myth. Their company websites, which in the mid to late 1990s spoke about the Famine in Luebeck and the invention of Marzipan as though it actually happened had, by the turn of this century, been toned down somewhat:

Today, everyone agrees that Luebeck is not the origin of Marzipan. Simply the fact that within our northern climate there is, understandably, a lack of almond trees, demonstrates that this is not the place to look for its origins. Even so, due to the high level of awareness of “Luebecker Marzipan”, one is tempted to associate its origin with Luebeck … some ancient accounts state that the recipe for Marzipan came via Italy directly to a Luebeck merchant. However there are no documents or other form of proof for this or for the many anecdotes and sagas.

Carstens GmbH, ‘History of Marzipan’ (2003)

and:

The origin of marzipan is now known to be the Orient where the delicate almond-sugar mixture was served at the Sultan’s table as the crowning of a meal. Through Arabian rule marzipan reached Spain and Portugal, and during the Crusades spread through the rest of Europe via the trading port of Venice.

Niederegger GmbH, ‘Lubeck Marzipan conquers the world’ (1999)

Some people just can’t help themselves, however. The following text from the German-language website Marzipanland has been translated using the Babelfish translation engine:

Everywhere on earth one knows Luebecker marzipan. The mad taste is simply unmistakable! There one does not think at all of the emergency situation, from the marzipan developed. There are several stories, but the probably most well-known one means that during a hunger emergency at the disposal were to the bakers of Luebeck nothing different one than almonds, sugars and rose oil, in order to protect the citizens death. From this the bakers developed “the Marcus bread”, our current Marzipan, is subject to which strict regulations and high quality requirements. Only marzipan, which consists to 60% of almonds and at the most 40% sugar, may call itself Luebecker noble edel-Marzipan.

Marzipanland, ‘Marzipan’ (2002)

In 2002 I visited Luebeck, an act which would effectively bring me full circle in my investigations into the Stuffe, a journey of some ten years now, and counting. Inside a store in the centre of Luebeck I discovered a museum dedicated to the Stuffe, featuring a table at which sat eleven statues, each composed entirely of Marzipan.

I found a Santa Claus (or Weihnachtsmann), a Nun, J.G. Niederegger (the founder of the Niederegger company), Thomas Mann himself, a Merchant (Burgermeister Jurgen Wullenwever), a Baroque novelist by the name of Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, the Emperor Karl IV, his Mother Luise Charlotte, a child, an Apotheker and a Persian.

The photocopied notes accompanying the exhibit suggested that each of these figures (or figurines) had played a key role in the history and development of Marzipan, in Luebeck at least.

The Niederegger Marzipan table (detail), featuring Thomas Mann et al.
The Niederegger Marzipan table (detail), featuring Thomas Mann et al.

When I saw this astonishing scene, I experienced the kind of feeling one suspects historians seeking confirmation of inexplicable connections or correspondences must enjoy. Almost a decade before I had set out to write a novel about Marzipan, beginning with a small child sleeping inside a box.

I first read about the Luebeck Marzipan myth in 1997, using Internet search engines, drawing inferences and connections from translated materials, as well as various Cook Books, confectionery histories, books for children (including Virginia Arpadi’s delightful story of a Marzipan-coloured cat), vague hunches and a pinch of the imaginary. Here, before me, was a sixteenth Century novelist holding a strange object out in front of him, made entirely of Marzipan! What more confirmation did I need?

Under normal circumstances, this tableau alone might have proved sufficient stimulus for a writer wishing to reconstruct the events surrounding the fabled invention of Marzipan in Luebeck, substituting this table of statues for the presumed star or stars of such an historical drama — that is, the real inventors of Marzipan, who may well have been Dutch invaders, Venetian monks, a wily Apotheker, a snow storm, a well-fed Merchant or some desperate Bakers.

The accumulated knowledge with which I arrived in Luebeck however constituted an accumulation of fragments, sinews and bones. Here, finally, positioned behind a long flat table, was a set of bodies within which to insert the few historical fragments I had found, like relics of saints embedded in plaster.

Furthermore, inside the Marienkirche in the centre of Luebeck I experienced the full majesty of the Gothic culture in both architecture and painting which has produced such extraordinary monuments as the reconstructed Totentanz (‘dance of death’), an elaborate stained glass tapestry of skeletons and townsfolk engaged in not so much a dance as a grim tug of war, alternating panels in which either the villagers or the skeletons have the upper hand. At its base, the glass panels burn red, with the famous Luebeck spires engulfed in flames. Meanwhile, two of the skeletons kneel in prayer over the baby Jesus.

All of these scenes, tableaux, snippets of information and direct experiences informed, to some degree, my master’s thesis. It acknowledges the many stories about Marzipan propagated in other parts of the world. It nods its head at the island of Sicily, where Almonds have a rich and deep connection with that sandy piece of earth. It extends a hand of faith to the Orders of Nuns throughout Europe whose clandestine manufacture of Marzipan continued almost without pause throughout the Middle Ages, due in part to St Thomas Aquinas’ famous dictum that the ingestion of this exquisite Confection did not break the fast.

Nevertheless, even St Thomas would have resigned himself to the inevitability of secrecy surrounding the exact details of the Nuns’ exact Recipes for Marzipan, and would surely have noted also the practice within such orders of hiding such Recipes inside the mind of the Mother Superior, to be passed on only at the instant before death, via the ears of her successor.

In my Confection, Marzipan is assumed to be composed of three basic ingredients: Eggs, Almonds and Sugar. Some recipes substitute honey or rosewater for sugar, egg whites for eggs – but it is the Almond that gives Marzipan both its bittersweet taste and its creamy colour.

Marzipan is remembered differently elsewhere. Charles Butler’s The History of Bees contains the following recipe for Marchpane:

Marchpane may be made after this manner. Boil and clarify by it self, so much Honey as you think meet; when it is cold; take to every pound of Honey the white of an Egg, and beat them together in a basin, till they be incorporate together, and wax white: and when you have boiled it again two or three walms upon a fire of coals, continually stirring it: then put to it such quantity of blanched Almonds or Nut-kernels stamped, as shall make it of a just consistency: and after a walm or two more, when it is well mixed, pour it out upon a Table, and make up your marchpane. Afterward you may ice it with Rose-water and sugar. This is good for the Consumption.

Charles Butler, The History of Bees (1634)

Fourteen years later, in 1648, poet Robert Herrick immortalised the Stuffe in verse:

This day my Julia thou must make
For mistress Bride, the wedding Cake:
Knead but the Dow and it will be
To paste of Almonds turned by thee:
Or kisser it thou, but once or twice,
And for the Bride-Cake there’ll be Spice.

Robert Herrick, ‘The Bride Cake‘ (1648)

Although the authenticity of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Romanoff is highly questionable, one also notes with interest according to that unverified collection of his sketches and recipes that Marchpane was sculpted by (let’s call him) Leonardo into bricks and used as foundation stones for his elaborate models.

Interestingly, though the Marzipan he used was made by the Sisters of Santa Corona, Leonardo believed that only a man could be a confectioner, ‘on account a woman’s frame is unsuited to lifting great weights of Marzipan’. He supposedly went on to list the pre-requisites for attaining the station of Confectioner:

Secondly, he should be clean and clear-skinned—for little is so off-putting to those about to eat his creations as a spotted Confectioner, or one with long hairs which may have transferred themselves from his body into his confection. Thirdly, he should have studied in architecture. For without a true knowledge of weights and stresses he cannot create confections which will stand on their own and not be liable to subsidence or even total collapse.

?, Codex Romanoff

The confectioner finally speaks of his confections thusly:

I have noted, sadly, that my Lord Lodovico and his court digest the carvings I give to them to the last crumb and now I am set to find some other substance their palates shall less appreciate that my works may survive.

?, Codex Romanoff

This leads so-called Leonardo to speculate on a form of the Marzipan which his audience would not be tempted to eat. A mixture so bitter-tasting that after even the smallest nibble, the offender would be forced to put any further thought of ingestion out of his mind. One could speculate upon many ingredients for such a Confection, which would not constitute Marzipan per se but some derivative or substitute substance (e.g. persipan, a Confection containing not almonds but peach kernels).

The adaptability of Marzipan to the confectionary and decorative arts is well-documented, in both modern day and historical Cook Books. According to a source identified only as ‘Dr Cabanes’ in the Nouveau Larousse Gastronomique, the author Balzac was also reputed to have written endorsements for the Stuffe on the streets of Paris:

In 1884 a rumour began to circulate that the author of la Comedie humaine (BALZAC) had set himself up as a confectioner. No one talked of anything else on the stock exchange, in the foyer of the opera, at the [theatre] and in all the cafes on the Paris boulevardes. Several thousand copies of a curious circular [exhorting its readers to frequent a particular shop selling Issoudon Marzipan, and also containing what purported to be an extract from one of Balzac’s novels] had just made their appearance in Paris . . . This circular bore no signature, and it was inferred that it came from the pen of Balzac or that of a friend, editor or colleague. No one else had ever thought of the idea of launching a confectioner’s shop with a paragraph from a novel. After making inquiries it was discovered that Balzac, though he did not go to the length of taking a hand in the work, patronised the confectioner’s shop in the rue Vivienne.

Montagne, P., Nouveau Larousse Gastronomique (1960)

In Persia the use of Marzipan or Marzipan-like substances (in some places called Mawtaban, or King on a Throne) has been constant in wedding ceremonies and other occasions relating to fertility and prosperity. Venice, at the cross-roads between Europe and the Middle East, was naturally one of the places in which Marzipan initially became available. The situation was similar further west in Verona, if Romeo and Juliet is anything to go by.

Meanwhile in Luebeck, also known as the Venice of the North, a trading town through which all manner of goods, including boxes of what the Venetians called St Mark’s Bread (Marci Panis), must have passed — in Luebeck it seems, there was a Famine … or the Marzipan ran out … or an invasion …

One final item in the exhibition I saw that day in Luebeck was a Marzipan globe of the world, placed on the table in front of the statues. The dull sheen of its surface bore no marks indicating landmasses or national borders — just a smooth, unwrinkled sand-coloured expanse, upon which the viewers themselves could draw imaginary empires. Such a premise might have infuriated an historical character such as Clemens von Metternich, philosopher-King of the Hapsburg Empire in the time of Napoleon, who wrote in his memoirs:

I was born to make history not to write novels and if I guess correctly this is because I know. Invention is the enemy of history which knows only discoveries, and only that which exists can be discovered.

Clemens von Metternich, Memoirs (Volume VII)

While not exactly a metaphor for my own work, the Marzipan globe reminded me that some myths still have the ability to outlive their inventors, discoverers, manufacturers and archivists.

Marzipan is far more complex than the myth invented in Luebeck would have one think. It squats in a ditch, like an animal awaiting extinction. Further vestiges of this miraculous Stuffe, including Relics, lie ever beneath us, and shall one day be discovered again.

The fact that it still exists makes my task as a modern day confectioner (in Leonardo’s terms anyway) that much easier. I look forward to sharing the results of my recipes with you.


This piece was originally presented at the University of Melbourne, as part of the Department of English and Cultural Studies’ Secrecy Colloquium (2003), and later published in the refereed journal Antithesis (2004).

A Brief History of Marzipan

Introduction

In 18- the French poet and philosopher Francois de P- described Marzipan (long may its resins perfume these pages!) as a ‘barbarous relic’ of imperial colonisation that had ‘utterly undermined’ diplomatic and trade relationships across the globe. Commonly denounced today as a ‘sordid’ hallucinogenic drug with few (if any) medical applications, pure Marzipan is becoming increasingly difficult to find and even harder to duplicate. Few modern scholars are familiar with its History, though they pride themselves on their ability to reel off an incredible number of dates, creeds and manifestoes from other Histories, both religious and political.

Amongst this civic paraphernalia, Marzipan squats in a ditch, like an animal awaiting extinction; like its familiars – those historical characters who manipulated, counterfeited and deregulated it. Relics of this miraculous substance are rumoured to lie, buried and silent, beneath us, a series of bombs that shall one day go off. Until such a time, this Recipe for Marzipan shall have to suffice. As ye will hopefully come to appreciate, while de P- may have been right about Marzipan’s shady reputation in the colonial eras, there yet remain some practical uses to which Marzipan can be put, at little or no expense to any, for the enjoyment and edification of all.

Ahem

Though much of History is anecdotal, one thing we know for sure is that the great scientist and explorer Captain Cook discovered the island continent of Ahem in the year 1769. The exact sequence of events is blurred, however it seems certain that this discovery acted as an imperial order, or command, whose spirit would one day be reflected in the national anthem of said continent, “Advance, Ahem, It’s Bare” (see sep. entry). For Cook also made a second discovery — namely, that Ahem was a wild and inhospitable country, conveniently devoid of inhabitants, save one — his doppelganger, the elusive Captain Terrence Nullius.

Despite its great aura and obvious floral and faunal diversity, Cook refused to believe that Ahem might indeed be the Great Southern Land (that fabled Terra Australis explorers from all over Europe had long been searching for), choosing instead to name it in honour of the Great Excuse Me. Historians writing in eras less enlightened than our own have claimed that Cook was actually thinking of ‘a hem’, as in a border or rim, when he named the disappearing continent; this and other fallacious rumours have contributed to a revisionist version of history, in which Cook supposedly had no real idea what he was doing in the Newer World.

To which aye respond: not so. Cook was born at a time convenient enough for him to have learnt a great deal about the geography of the world — both from those brave few who reappeared over the horizon and the letters, journals and relics of those who had not, perhaps, been so fortunate as to return — and ancient enough for him to have learnt his trade, or at least the basics of it, aboard the ships that took coal to Whitby. May it give us strength in these times of political strain that Marzipan was discovered by him!

The Discovery of Marzipan

I mean, probably discovered by Captain Cook, in Ahem, during his first voyage there in 1769. For although Cook later swore, under great duress, that he had found the Marzipan in the ground, he was unable (or unwilling) to reveal the exact location of the X-spot where he had ‘found’ it.

Cook was so stubborn, in fact, that when asked whether he had conducted scientific analysis upon the Marzipan, he replied (somewhat facetiously) that he was an explorer, not a scientist. We now know that he knew full well Marzipan was (and still is) composed of almonds, eggs and sugar, plus a fourth element of unknown (possibly alien) origin. All the Jesuits could torture out of Cook on that sad occasion in Venice in 1797 was that although he had discovered both the Marzipan and an island continent, both these wondrous objects had since been dispersed, by a variety of means he again refused to elaborate upon.

Instead of deflating his Inquisitors’ interest, as Cook had hoped, this delectable rumour inflated and inflated, until it resembled (in size, at least) that giant Balloon which had disrupted those astronomical and meteorological forecasts of his back in Tahiti. It seems, in hindsight, that Cook might have been better off not saying anything at all about Ahem and the Marzipan when he arrived in Venice – for then, ironically, Ahem might not have been rediscovered and we might know more about the initial colonisation and destruction of said country.

Indeed, many more of Ahem’s singular charms might have endured had Cook not bothered to discover the Marzipan there in the first place. Regardless of the what-ifs, however, we can say with confidence that had it not been for the timely intervention of the Society of Cook, all that we take for granted today in the way of historical information might well have been lost.

The Cuckoos

In 1778, a Society dedicated to preserving the great store of knowledge Captain Cook (following in the footsteps of Marco Polo) brought back from China was established, inducting its first members, in a series of clandestine ceremonies in Venice, under the banner of the Society of Cook, or colloquially, the ‘Cuckoos’.

This absurd nom-de-plume has, unfortunately, stuck to the saintly Brotherhood, who of course endure it to this day with the utmost humility. It should be remembered at all times that Cook too was labelled insane and a pretender up until 1828, when his discoveries were verified by a second uncovering of Marzipan in Dulton, in the Land of Eggs.

Therefore to dismiss the Cuckoos as mere quacks would be to do them a great disservice, by failing to mention their years of selfless worship; their determination to disseminate Marzipan throughout the world for the sake of all mankind; and their magnificent documentation of confectionery history in The Cook Book, the first edition of which was printed in 1798, just one year after Cook’s return from China and the East.

The Cook Book

It is in The Cook Book that we find the first mention of that great island continent Ahem; of Cook’s scientific analysis of the Marzipan there in 1770; of the various other strains of Marzipan discovered in China; of Cook’s sojourns with the Emperor there in 1768 and 1771; and of his visionary adventures in India and Persia over the next twenty seven years. Aye cannot emphasise enough the importance of this source material to any examination of Cook’s Expeditionary Journals (and aye remind the astute reader of the extreme level of inconsistency between the various copies of these Journals held by interested parties).

The editors of The Cook Book decided early on to pursue a policy of constant revision and correction, thus making the publication a fascinating (if archaic) indicator of the growth of Marzipan’s influence upon world events. Students of Marzipan are especially advised to study the 1898 anniversary edition, in which can be found Fr. Joseph Reisenfall’s highly instructive retrospective, “A Century of Mistakes”.

In this article may be found the first frank discussion of Cook’s (even by then) legendary inability to make good decisions. Fr. Reisenfall correctly identifies Cook’s greatest mistake as his decision to establish the price of Marzipan as the bulwark of the international slave trade in 1805. In that year it was also Cook who suggested to the Jesuits that a day be set aside annually to conduct a re-enactment of his discovery of Marzipan, in order to kindle popular interest and, if possible, convert as many as possible to the cult of the strange stuff.

This suggestion was eagerly taken up by the Jesuits (or should aye say, Cuckoo elements within the Jesuit Order), who used their well-known powers of persuasion to make the day of observance a reality both in Venice and in the towns and cities within a one hundred and seventeen mile radius of it. Further, when Napoleon’s occupation of Venice continued unopposed (to the Republicans’ great shame), it was the Cuckoos who encouraged the people, as a gesture of defiance, to coat the walls of their churches and villas with Marzipan. Thus Venice hid its gold and silver from the prying eyes of Bonaparte’s henchman. The fame of Marzipan grew rapidly then, infused as it was with the reckless spirit of a magnificent Empire’s impending disintegration.

Persipan

It was through the influence of the Cuckoos that the Republicans discovered the recipe for Persipan (long may its wonders be glazed and displayed!), another useful substance which could indeed be put to many other uses. The stuff became highly sought-after, both in the Beautiful City itself and in other ports including Calais, Naples and Lübeck. Trade lines drawn hesitantly across the continent continued confidently on, into and across the seas; foreign rulers demanded large quantities and watched with interest as their subjects scrambled for the scraps; and songs were sung in its honour from Cape Town to Montreal. At no other time in the history of the world had so many Venetians been so happy.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, it must be said that these spontaneous expressions of joy were the first indicators of a malaise known today as Marzipan Psychosis, of which the great Captain was, arguably, the first (un)diagnosed case. This of course explains the rather disturbing change of pace in Cook’s Expeditionary Journals upon his reaching the River Jordan in 1788; it also explains the meticulous documentation of Cook’s withdrawal symptoms by the Jesuits in 1797 – his insomnia, the vividness with which he was able to recall his dreams and his absurd claims that he was the son of the Emperor of China. The Jesuits ended up learning a great deal about this ‘supposed’ substance from Cook, simply by administering various other drugs, the effects of which could be compared and contrasted by Cook himself at a later date, if he so wished. It was no wonder therefore that, five weeks after arriving in Venice, Cook decided on a career change and became a consultant to the Jesuit Order in Rome.

From the tragic day of Cook’s death onwards, all decisions with regards Marzipan were made by the Cuckoos themselves. So we find, in the 1835 edition of The Cook Book, the disastrous decision to raise the standard price of Marzipan from one slave to two slaves per ounce. To be fair, this resolution was based on an economic as well as a practical imperative — for, while the ingredients constituting Marzipan were by that time well-known and easy enough to reproduce, processing them to the desired consistency remained prohibitively expensive and required massive amounts of manpower. Therefore, the Cuckoos reasoned, by making Marzipan more expensive (and, by corollary, slaves less so), production would increase, thus increasing supply.

However, operators who had been manufacturing Marzipan at the old rate found that they now faced competition from new market players who, haven waited until the price rose, began to speculate heavily in Persipan, thus splitting demand. Prices sky-rocketed and violent social upheaval was of course both the logical and actual result. The effect this schism of taste was to have on the slave-trading system can be illustrated by a simple comparison between the sweet, seersucker folk tales spun by Arabian beggar men and the blander but still intriguing mythology that has grown around the so-called ‘Angel of Marzipan’, especially in the little town of Lubeck, in Germany.

In the name of Marzipan and of Persipan and of our Terror, Nullius, Ahem.

This piece was first published in New England Review (University of New England: Armidale, Australia, 1999).