On Thin Ice

My refrigerator broke down. Hubby went to the shop to ask to get it repaired. They said sorry your warranty just ran out, there’s nothing we can do about it. Hubby said are you serious, do you just want me to throw it away? Can’t someone fix it I can pay for it you know? They said we’ll send someone over! The repairman came and pushed a button on the back of the fridge. It started working again. One hour later it stopped. This was one week ago. Their latest suggestion was to switch it off for a few days to defrost, maybe the fan is frozen in place. Maybe?! So here I am writing a food blog during the first week of Ramadan in this scorching heat without a fridge.  It feels like I’m walking on thin ice… come to think of it I could actually use some ice right now!

Trying to make sense out of a bad situation I started to wonder how my grandparents, and those before them, managed through the summer months without hi-tech cooling devices.  If they could survive surely I can.  This reminded me of something I had read in the published diaries of a Libyan writer from Derna.  Mohammed Al-Mufti, the author of Conversations in the Market: Shayeb’s Shop*, wrote about growing up in Libya from the mid-twentieth century onwards.  On the topic of refrigeration he writes (I have translated from the original Arabic):

The daily vegetable supply of tomatoes, onions, potatoes, zuchinni, pumpkin, radishes and mint … for fifty dirhams… and we had to buy vegetables daily as refrigerators were unavailable… which first made an entrance into the homes of well-off Libyans around 1958.  Eggs were sold by the hara (four) or even singly…

During that period tea and sugar were sold as “sugar with tea” … for example, half a kilo of sugar with 100 grams of tea. As was the tomato paste, sold by the 50 or 100 grams on a piece of thick brown paper.

Before supermarkets people relied on the corner shop, farmer’s markets and living off their land.  People were frugal, buying what they needed when they needed it. Waste was virtually non-existent. Those who could afford to had ice boxes, and bought ice delivered daily from the factory.  Others had underground stores or cellars that were natural kept cool all year round.  The rest had to make due with salting, jamming, drying, pickling, and storing in fat.  Two of our national treasures couscous and gideed (dried salt lamb) came out of this necessity to preserve food.

A typical Libyan corner shop at the first half of the twentieth century. Artist Awad Abeida.

I have never had a big kitchen or a pantry so I don’t have much of a stock-pile mentality.  I buy enough meat for the week and enough fruit and veg for a couple of days. The fresher the produce the greater it’s nutritional value, so no point eating wilted vegetables.

Up to the beginning of this century, it was difficult to buy things in small quantities.  If you wanted a good cut of lamb, the butcher would sell you the entire shoulder.  At the green grocer’s everything was supposedly sold “by the scale”, but their scales seemed to be gauged at quarter kilo intervals, so you could only buy a 1/4 or 1/2 or 1 kg etc. of whatever it is you wanted.  Let’s say you wanted to buy a single banana as a snack (as is the norm in the rest of the world). The vendor would look at you with pity and, exasperated, would ask you how he was supposed to value just one banana. Maybe if he felt sorry for you he’d give it to you for free. There was no dignity in healthy eating.

I think this behavior came partly out of the motive to sell more, but it also made it easier for the not so mathematically apt to calculate prices without a calculator or cash register. The fact that coins were discontinued for a period during the 90’s only made things worse.  The smallest note was a 1/4 dinar (250 dirhams) which made it difficult for shopkeepers to give back exact change.  If there was no faka (change) at hand you’d be given some candy or chewing gum in return instead. How encouraging!

With freshly minted coins back in circulation and a large influx of single expats living on their own, the demand for buying in small quantities is back on the rise and many shops are now accommodating for these customers.  Not everyone has a dozen kids to feed anymore, and we are no longer living under the restrictions of sactions and embargos.  Hopefully less waste and better eating will come out of this.

هدرزة في السوق: دكان الشايب – تأليف محمد محمد المفتي*


5 Comments Add yours

  1. tarek a says:

    The name of the Libyan artist is Awad Abeida

    1. Thanks Tarek i’ll be sure to add that. Ramadan Kareem

  2. Desert Rose says:

    Lovely Painting but what isnt captured is the sadness that was on their faces which was quite evident in past photos due to the famine – sad but true.

    As for the buying in bulk phase during the Jameeya days crisis ,let alone the sanction era which encouraged people to buy even goods that where of no need reason being due to an obsession of fear from not having what would be in question….
    I thank you for sharing a great post. Blessings.


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. Salam

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