Even though scenes of destruction in Tunisia have come to television screens around the world recently, this is actually an excellent time to dedicate writing to the vibrancy and determined growth that are part of the energy of this country. I have chosen to focus on the rhythmic joys of the changing seasons here, but nothing marks those changes more clearly than the evolving scenes at the produce stands. Every few weeks it is like a set change. Certain fruits and vegetables we were just working into our cooking are gone, replaced by many new interesting subjects. I have never lived anywhere that truly subsists on its local production like this country does. After all, it was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire and farming goes way back in their genealogy. Still I continue to be surprised by it. The wine is local, so is the cheese, the olives, the wheat and it turns out…everything. When we go to a restaurant, they are using the same ingredients that are available to me in the market and nothing more. We had turnips available in January and I used them in a way or two at home and then we were having lunch at a restaurant and they brought out a dish of house-made pickled turnips as an appetizer and I exclaimed, “Oh, look how they’ve used the turnips!”
Our spoon-feeding from the local farms suddenly dried up for more than a week during the revolution. There was nothing to buy and nowhere to buy it. It was a consciousness raising experience to suddenly realize that what you have in the fridge at this moment may be all you have for some period of time. Friends and neighbors began to share what they had in stock. Our neighbors gave us a head of garlic and some lemons from their trees. Someone else found us some eggs. We cooked strategically and wasted nothing. Even after the military took over the city, shops remained shuttered for many days and I thought that this could be the reason that might cause us to evacuate after all. And then, as if cued, and I think they were, the trucks began to come in. Only now, because many of the large supermarkets had been burned and looted, farmers supplied the produce shops dotted all over the neighborhoods and set up their own truck stands on street corners. It was like color reentered our worlds. It really was moving to me to think about the farmers in the countryside who continued to farm and keep the food supply in order while their countrymen were protesting, and then waited for permission to bring it in and provide relief. It reminded me of the time in Tunisia’s history when foreign armies were using their country as a battleground. World War II has a major chapter that took place here and the foreign cemeteries dotted all over the country are reminders of the young men who came to this gentle place and lost their lives. We were given a book last fall, written by Lillian Craig Harris, called Cemeteries and Memories, The Second World War in Tunisia. A paragraph from her preface came to mind for me at this time.
“I dedicate this book to the Tunisian farmers who, motivated by the basic need to feed their families, bravely drove their mules before the plough in the spring of 1943 as battles raged around them.”
Being from a farm, I find enormous dignity and intelligence in the growing of food and I am certain that while I will have many memorable experiences in Tunisia, I won’t have enough seasons to exhaust my interest in this country’s food.