Bath, chaps?

Ah, bath chaps… Does anyone remember bath chaps? Before you answer “how could I forget those steamy nights in Istanbul?” and possibly cause yourself more embarrassment than necessary, please allow me to explain. According to a survey published last week, bath chaps is our traditional dish most under threat of extinction due to being forgotten by a new generation that prefers burgers, pizza and curries. Newspapers lamented the imminent disappearance of this and other dishes from the culinary landscape last week as if they were talking about poachers cruelly thinning out the vast herds of bath chaps roaming across the Serengeti, causing many commentators to cheer: “fight on little bath chaps, fight on!” I instinctively feel that anything with such a ridiculous name deserves to die. But it may have more to do with what they are. And what they are is pig cheeks in breadcrumbs. Which, I think you’ll agree, is a tough one to sell.Other wonderful delicacies about to get pushed out of the national consciousness in favour of more prosaic fare are jellied pig’s head, jugged hare (served in a sauce of its own blood and port and with a name that conjures up more unpleasant images than chaps), squirrel casserole and a pie with mutton kidneys and neck at one end and jam at the other. Yum. The obvious argument is that if you want to eat sheep’s neck, pig’s face or chicken-feet, why not buy a kebab or burger? Another is that, like wrongs people have committed against you (and the Alamo), some things are better forgotten.

At least that is the argument of many in Spain who were angered last week by moves to resurrect the memory of atrocities committed by the nation’s former dictator, Francisco Franco. Why, they argue, when Spain is getting along so nicely, must we dredge up the past and turn the fascist leader’s tomb into anti-fascist museum and information centre? “Opening old wounds” is the phrase used by those opposed to the moves. It is also the phrase used last week by some relatives of the victims of September 11 while talking about Oliver Stone’s new historical disaster movie, World Trade Centre. While it may not be important to retain the memory of frankly revolting-sounding food from the past (or indeed the present), perhaps it is good to remember our darker past, both personally and nationally, not to beat ourselves up, but to learn from our own history.

Which brings one to the strangely familiar episode in history that was feautured on the BBC last week. Fifty years ago, on 26 July, Egypt nationalized the Suez canal, a symbol of western prestige in a country where British officials were not subject to its laws and a site of great economic importance to many countries. Britain, France and Israel made a secret pact to work together to force Egypt out under the guise of preventing a war. Israel occupied the Sinai peninsula and, as part of the plan, Britain and France ordered both Israeli and Egyptian troops out of Suez. Egypt’s charismatic leader, colonel Nasser, refused and British and French forces had the excuse they needed to bomb Egypt. History does not remember the incident, which US President Eisenhower called “one hell of a mess” kindly. The plot failed. The template for tensions in the Middle East was in many ways set. A Prime Minister’s career was ended and British honour and prestige were badly damaged. Are there lessons to be learned here? If there are, they are likely to be just as hard to swallow as pig cheeks.

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