Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A Story of Reuse and Fermentation

This is another post written by Emma Schmitt, the Conserving 'Curiosities' project summer intern.

1886.1.1367 Paddle, Tonga

This carved wooden paddle from Tonga was listed by George Forster in 'The Catalogue of Curisoities Given to Oxford' as No 81 “A spatula of wood to mix up their paste of breadfruit with”.   

The form and shape of this object suggests that the object may have had a prior role as a dance paddle, used by men of high rank in a dance called me’etu’upaki (Kaeppler 1978). This term means ‘dance’ (me’e) ‘standing’ (tu’u) ‘with paddles’ (paki). The Forsters did not see this dance being preformed and thus probably had no knowledge of it. Cook, however, saw and described the dance during his third voyage:

‘It was a kind of dance, performed by men and youths of the first rank; ... Any number may perform it, there were in this one hundred and five, each having in his hand an Instrument shaped something like a paddle of 2.5 feet in length, with a small handle and thin blade so that they were very light and the most of them neatly made. With these Instruments, they made many and various flourishes each of which was attended with a different attitude of the body and some different movement or another They at first ranged themselves in three lines, and by different movements and motions each man changed his station in such a manner that those who were in the rear came in front. Nor did they remain long in the same form, but these changes were made by pretty quick movements; they at one time extended themselves in one line then formed into a semicircle and lastly into two square Columns, while this last was performing, one of them came and danced a harlequin dance before me with which the whole ended.’

Broken handle of paddle lashed together with plaited coconut fibre

The Pitt Rivers’ paddle has been carved from native hardwood, and it is deceptively lightweight.  It was damaged at some point, the handle breaking away from the blade completely.  It was mended using braided coconut fiber to secularly wrap the break and hold the two pieces in place.  Chips to the wooden blade are on the edge of the blade, possibly indicating a long period of use.

Tip of paddle, showing damage

This pattern of damage indicates that the paddle may not have ended its time on Tonga as the prestige item it was first meant to be.  How can an object move from a prestige object used by elite men to a utensil of daily use? In simplest terms, the very fact that this was a prestige object is what saved it for repurposing.  The time, energy and material that went into creating such and object meant that, if it could be repaired it should not be thrown away.  It was probably no longer appropriate to be used during dances, but it could be used for another task, in this case the preparation of breadfruit paste.  The spatula’s role in the preparation of breadfruit paste is difficult to discern.  Methods of paste production have been documented, though not thoroughly, and tend to vary between the islands.  

The breadfruit tree grows throughout the south pacific and was a main source of food for the population of the islands Cook visited; it was also one of the products he traded for to keep the crew of the ships provisioned.  The fruit was out of season for some portion of the year making preservation of this staple imperative for the island communities. And earlier post here provides Joseph Banks’ description of the process as well as his opinions on taste: 

Banks’ opinion aside, the description he provides is helpful, but does not give any indication as to what a spatula may have been used for.  More modern discussions of the fermentation of breadfruit provide a fuller description of the later stages of the process.  

After the breadfruit has been buried, the period of time the fruit remains in the pits is variable, from a few months to years.  In fact in the 1980’s a pit was uncovered that was believed to be over 300 years old and the paste inside was deemed “still in edible condition” (Pollan, 2013).  It must be said that this was a rare find and the definition of  “edible condition” may very between people, however, the general thought is that breadfruit paste gets better with age.  

Overall, the management of these pits differs. In some cases fresh fruit may be added to the pits, or old paste mixed with new.  In other places, paste from year to year was kept completely separate (Pollock 1984). 

The paste, when eaten, goes through a preparatory process that involves mixing it with water, kneading, and baking.  Descriptions of the fermented paste indicate that is dry and possibly hard in its fermented form.
No direct reference is made to where in the process a spatula may be used, however, there are many times with both the fermentation process and the food preparation that such a utensil may have been put to use.  These include, but are not limited to, removing the paste from the pits if old and new paste were to be layered together or if paste was needed for food.  A spatula may have also been useful while mixing the paste with water before the kneading process.  

Objects like this are incredibly important because it makes us think differently in terms of use and reuse.  Had the Forsters not recorded what they saw as the use of the paddle we would be seeing it as a completely different object, not related to food preparation at all, but to the male members of society and the role of dance on the island; completely different cultural practices that wind up coming together in this simple object.  

Beaglehole, John Cawte, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780, Hakluyt Society, Extra Series, 36, 1 u. 2. vol. 3, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1955

Kaeppler, Adrienne L, ‘Artificial Curiosities’ Being An Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook RN [Exhibition catalogue], Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1978

Pollan, Michael  Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.  New York, The Penguin Press 2013

Pollock, Nancy J. Breadfruit Fermentation Practices in Oceania.  Journal de la Société des Océanistes, Vol 40 Issue 79, 151-164.  1984.