Toward the final pages of Taste: the story of Britain through it’s cooking by Kate Colquhoun, the author raises the idea of memory and food.
Idea? Her argument is that, in the UK, memory and food is generally barely even as substantial as a spectre.
Which set me thinking: what food-related memories are there from my own life?
Back here, I wrote about my grandfather: food was involved in the memories – going down to that harbour in the Isle of Man with him to buy fresh herrings off the boats, and podding peas for supper on those far-away holidays.
I don’t remember ever eating the fish at all – the peas I remember: great piles of them, served just with butter and salt (possibly bread too, but I don’t remember that).
So I’ve been trying to think; to reach back and find more.
Holidays do seem to feature quite regularly, for some reason or other.
Not just the Isle of Man, but later too, on ‘holidays’ in such exotic sports as Todmorden and Ravenglass, where I went shopping on my own when my father was drugged up and aggressive, or where we harvested vegetables from the vast garden.
We holidayed in Cornwall a couple of times: I vaguely recall a hotel in Falmouth where we ate in every evening. I only remember my sister, who was three years younger than me, not wanting to eat something, and the rest of us having to sit there while, through tears, she was made to eat it.
I have vague ideas of similar experiences myself, with oxtail and/or neck of lamb. Although these really are all but lost in the mists of time.
There was also a self-catering holiday in Bournemouth that was a nightmare because we lost hours of holiday time while my mother shopped for food, dragging us all in her wake.
And like any self-respecting English family, we had a picnic hamper at one time. It wasn’t used often, but it was there. Like that self-catering holiday in Bournemouth, however, getting a picnic ready would always be a Herculean task for my mother. She could never simply throw a few things into a bag. And for much the same reason, we never really had friends around – she wanted to be fully forewarned and given at least a fortnight to prepare.
There were other trips too: swimming classes, for instance. We’d go on a bus from primary school in Mossley to the baths in Stalybridge on Friday mornings, and we were expected to have something to eat on the journey back after our exertions – I seem to remember a ‘sandwich’ of Ryvita with some Dairylea spreadable cheese between halved crispbreads, plus a custard cream. And on school trips to exotic places like Chester Zoo, packed lunches would always include a hardboiled egg, with a little bit of salt and pepper in a twist of kitchen foil.
Then, of course, there were school meals themselves. My mother tried to avoid this for some years – indeed, one school report had a teacher asking me to be allowed to have school meals in order to have the opportunity to mix with my fellow pupils.
I got a clip around the ear from the headmaster at primary school in Mossley – for talking during grace. Since I was innocent of the charge, the sense of injustice was huge. And the meals themselves? I remember finnan and haddock, which I hated. Mashed potato and over-boiled cabbage. Then sago (‘frogs’ spawn’) or semolina for pudding, usually served with a dollop of strawberry jam in the middle, which for some unknown reason, you weren’t supposed to whirl it into the rest of the dish.
And little bottles of milk, before Margaret Thatcher snatched it.
There were also occasional family trips to Blackpool, where I’d indulge in the sophisticated delights of scampi before we went to see the legendary clown, Charlie Cairoli, at the circus.
There’d be other occasional treats too – a glass of pop, once every Preston Guild. A man used to deliver large bottles of Tango: my mother used to have some, but we rarely had it. I don’t think I tried Coke until well into my teens – quite late, if memory serves.
And fish and chips sometimes too, when my father would drive down to the chippy on a Saturday lunchtime and return with the real stuff, in the days when chip shop chips were still handcut and the mushy peas were really mushy. And if you were really, really lucky, there’d be ‘scraps’ – bags of the dredged bits and pieces of batter from the fish frying; drained and drenched in salt and vinegar and sold for a copper or two.
And at football on freezing Pennine Saturdays, oxtail or tomato soup, served in a polystyrene cup, that burnt your mouth – but it was welcome because it reminded you that you were still alive.
And so to home cooking. It’s part of the whole food and memory thing, isn’t it, that your mother’s cooking was always the best?
The more I think about it, the more I realise that, by and large, my mother’s culinary efforts accorded with her mantra of: “We don’t live to eat – we eat to live,” her warning against sensual pleasure.
Most of what she cooked was what could be described as ‘plain cooking’. Not that that’s a slight. She worked hard to provide us with nutritious, reasonably balanced meals.
I fondly remember her sausage pie – skinned sausages in mashed potato with tomatoes in it. Pork pie – very finely chopped pork with some rehydrated dried onion (she’d never have the real thing in the house), baked in a short crust and served with crusty bread. I tried to reproduced that some years ago and it was incredibly dry.
She’d do steak and kidney occasionally – never skimping on the kidney, thankfully: she’d never make it as a pie, but cook the meat in a dish and then serve it with a piece of rolled-out and cooked pastry on your plate.
There’d be eggs and chips on Monday evenings – washing day. Or sometimes I remember she’d get individual pork pies from a very good little local baker – uninventively called Cakebread, if I remember correctly – warm them through and serve them with baked beans and crusty bread.
She’d make fruit salads and salads, but the ingredients were basic and unchanging.
And there was her kidneys turbigo, which (as I understand it) she’d got from her own mother. This involved kidneys and sausages in a really quite rich and utterly scrummy dish. A few years ago, I found it in a French cookery book – it’s named for a battle site in Lombardy, Italy, where Napoleon III’s troops routed the Austrians in 1859 during the Austro-Sardinian War.
It’s not quite the same – the ‘real’ one includes whole button onions or shallots, plus button mushrooms, but the essence was there. I now do it a few times each winter (giving the offal-disliking Other Half more sausage and no kidney).
You start by browning sausages and kidneys, then the whole onions/shallots, in oil and butter. Remove them to a plate.
Mix approximately equal amounts of plain flour and sherry together, then add some beef stock and a generous squeeze of tomato purée. Stick it in your pan and use the boozy mix to deglaze (add more stock if it gets too thick – but you want this to be pretty thick), then return the meat and the onions and mushrooms to the pan, bring to the boil, stir, pop a lid on and reduce the heat, and leave until cooked (around 20 minutes). Garnish with a sprinkling of chopped flat-leaf parsley.
The sauce is the proverbial bees’ knees. I still do what my mother did and serve it with plain boiled rice – you want something to soak up that gorgeousness.
So, one dish of quite sophisticated provenance. But for all my mother’s inclinations to an almost puritanical simplicity (and like others of her generation, being a child in the war hadn’t helped), she wasn’t immune to food fashions of the era – or even the merest hint (albeit watered down) of Elizabeth David’s influence.
We’d have had a big Sunday dinner after my father got back from wherever he’d have been preaching (as a slight point of interest, I can recall no memories of roasts). And before he went out to take an evening service, my mother would make ‘tea’. Usually taken in front of the television – in summer, watching the cricket, accompanied by the dulcet tones of the wonderful John Arlott.
Sometimes, there’d be vol-au-vents, those small cases of puff pastry (bought ready made) and stuffed with assorted fillings: I particularly remember a creamy mushroom mix. There would also sometimes be neatly squared pieces of toast with either scrambled egg or tinned sardines on – the latter being just a hint of the Med and another thing that I still occasionally do for myself.
Later, she did find a version of sweet and sour pork in a book that she’d make occasionally, but anything any spicier was a step far too far.
It’s funny now, looking back like this, to realise just how meat-centred and simple it all was. I don’t really remember her cooking fish much – possibly fish cakes (with tinned salmon), although I do know there was a fish stall at the weekly market and that she used to go there. She cooked bacon in a small, enamelled dish, under the grill. Once it was cooked, you might get to wipe up the juices with a piece of bread. And sometimes cheese, melted under the grill on milky bread.
My mother didn’t bake much. Cakes occasionally, including the traditional fruit cake at Christmas (plus her mother’s recipe for Christmas pudding). Christmas itself would be an agony for her: it had to be roast turkey, stuffing balls and chipolatas, with roast potatoes, sprouts and carrot on the side, plus gravy. How often she, my sister and I would be left sitting around, waiting for dinner, while my father failed to turn up from taking a second Christmas morning service.
I used to love the left-over stuffing balls and sausages – and to be honest, I preferred the turkey sandwiches, made later that day – particularly if I got the dark meat. I remember – I was possibly around 13 – being allowed to stay up late on Christmas night, sitting in a new dressing gown and slippers, eating turkey sandwiches and watching my first ever Humphrey Bogart film in BBC2’s Christmas night classic movie slot. It was The Big Sleep and my childhood crush on John Wayne was blown into dust.
At around the same time, visiting my mother’s widowed mother in the autumn, we’d collect crab apples from her garden, which my mother would make into a lovely jelly to serve with sausages. It’s pretty much impossible to find crab apples any more. Which is a very great pity.
We didn’t really get to cook with her – she gave us chores in the kitchen (not ‘fun’) such as scraping new potatoes (although I can actually enjoy that), podding peas, cleaning sprouts, stirring gravy and drying the dishes. She stopped me doing ‘domestic science’ at school quite quickly, viewing it a waste of time and money. I’m never sure where she imagined people learnt any basic kitchen skills. Perhaps she pretty much viewed it as being something you’d ‘pick up’ when you needed it.
But the memories are running dry and, reading back, most seem to have little to do with linked events. There are different memories from adulthood – but for these, looking at them, laying them down, the blandness seems to be the dominant theme; the unthreatening, unstimulating blandness of it all.
My mother cooks differently now. She’ll even eat peppers if she’s eating out. She’s still never had a proper onion in the kitchen, though, ad you won’t find a trace of garlic (she can smell it on me when I visit, even if it’s a couple of days since I last ate any). She relies a lot on M&S for ready meals. And if not, she slaves away in her poky kitchen for two hours to make something that, for the life of me, I cannot work out how it could take much more than 30 minutes.
But that, it seems, is what you get when you assert that: “We don’t live to eat – we eat to live.” And it’s really rather a shame.