Saturday, July 24, 2010

On bees and stories

Most of the writers in the Novel Spaces group are novelists; that is, writers involved in book-length works of fiction. But it took a conversation with my husband only this morning to highlight the importance of writing, regardless of type or length.

We were talking about honey and its relative price. Here in Malaysia, we get honey from Australia, New Zealand, China and some local producers. It seems a pretty innocuous subject, right? We spoke about the taste of it and whether the Chinese honey, so much cheaper than the others, is real honey or synthesised.

"You can synthesise honey?" I asked.

"Oh sure. Used to happen in Poland a lot," my husband replied. "Mix some syrup with a bit of colour, add in some real honey and pour it into a jar. There were always little tricks sellers would get up to, especially those from the villages and smaller towns. They'd load up their carriages and come into the cities. Of course, looking at them, horse, carriage, the whole bit, you'd assume everything was fresh from the farm or hive. But that wasn't always the case."

Agog, I listened to him as he told me the things to watch out for when buying from honey-peddlers. How sellers would mix generic, store-bought cheap honey with the strong, throat-roughening stuff from their own hives (the real deal, in other words) and dilute it down.

It's easy to get around that trick, you might say. Just taste the honey. Ah, but there are tricks there too. Like tasting, then buying, honey from large clear glass jars rather than coloured glass. That's to get around the "layering" trick where the top of the bottle (where you get a quick taste) contains real honey and the rest of the bottle contains synthesised or poorer-quality product.

"My grandmother had a special spoon she'd use when the peddlers came around with barrels of honey instead of jars," J continued. "There'd be a tap at the bottom where they'd pour out the honey and you'd buy it by weight. A lot of people would taste the honey from the top, but my grandmother had a spoon with a very long handle and she'd sink it till it was right at the bottom, then pull it up and taste it. Just so she'd be sure of what she was buying. But of course she used to buy a kilogram of honey at a time, not just one little jar, so she thought she had the right to taste it in such a fashion."

I have been married to my husband for more than a decade, yet this was the first time I'd heard such fascinating stories about the kind of life his grandparents led. This is part of my children's heritage, I thought. Wouldn't it be a shame to lose stories of such experiences?

And, because I can't think of a science-fiction story to slot this kind of experience into, I thought I'd put it down here to share with a wider audience. How many history-laden stories does your family contain? Wouldn't it be great to dust them off and bring them out every now and then, just to tickle and delight the younger (or marriage-related) family members?

Somebody should write these down, you're thinking. Well, why can't it be you? Wouldn't that be something wonderful to add to the collective family memories?

I'll be encouraging J to come out with more such stories. They are so different to what I experienced, growing up in south-east Asia then Australia. And, hopefully, the kids will enjoy them too.... And maybe generations after that. You never know.

Honey peddlers. Who knew?


Charles Gramlich said...

Rotgut honey = Rotgut Whiskey. Indeed, who knew. Very enlightening.

Farrah Rochon said...

Who knew I'd learn such an interesting tidbit on this Saturday morning. The story of the honey-peddlers. Fascinating. :)

Kaz Augustin said...

Yep, it was news for me too! Can't wait for J's next little tidbit. :)

Liane Spicer said...

Kaz, you never know indeed! I started the process some years ago with an essay called "My Grandmother's Prayers" (she's my great-gran, actually, and she's been gone for thirty-some years) because I'm becoming more and more aware that there's a lot that's going to be lost forever if someone doesn't write it down.

I no longer get impatient when my mother launches into her 'back when' stories that I've heard many times before. I've started listening with my writer's ear.