If childhood memories of food seemed to be only fleeting – not something that ever really connected me to particular times and places and people, then the years that followed were to be a little different.
Not much – but a little.
With no cooking skills and possibly even less interest in food, I was packed off to college – well, polytechnic in Leicester, my first experience of even a single night away from relatives. I stayed in a hall of residence, sharing a communal kitchen with a number of other female students.
For some reason, I remember having an unillustrated general Penguin cookbook (possibly my mother’s idea of how to compensate for no skills and little interest). It got lost somewhere in the intervening years, but it included a recipe for “hot buttered crab”.
I decided I liked crab. So more than once, bought a whole cooked one from the market in the centre of the city and would cart it back to the campus. I had a little hammer that had been given to me by my father – oh, the practicality of it – and would take an age, standing in that communal kitchen at weekends, when most of the other students had gone home or to friends, bashing at the shell to get the meat out, before heating it with melted butter and popping it on toast – usually eating it on my own.
It was a peculiar year (injury saw to it that my tertiary education finished after just 12 months). Gauche and clueless in so many ways, I hadn’t a idea how to socialise with my peers. I kept well away from any parties, having had quite enough experience to tell me that I’d end up as the laughing stock. One particular occasion that stands out clearly in my mind had occurred during the three years at my final school. I’d been surprised to be invited to a fellow pupil’s bash. It turned out, though, that I was merely present to be teased by the other girls, after being so gullible as to respond when asked which boy I fancied of those from the local boys’ school who were present.
Not that that was the first time that my ‘not-of-this-worldliness’ saw me made the butt of jokes. At my previous school, a discussion of comics (my parents bought me one a week) had led me to say that I wanted to read something more grown up than June and Schoolfriends (or whatever it was at the time).
One girl recommended Playgirl. Not having a clue as to its content, I walked into a shop and picked up a copy. I was standing there, in my school uniform, with my jaw cemented to the floor, when the shop assistant came around from the counter and lambasted me for picking up something for which I was clearly not legally old enough. I fled and never went into that shop again.
So no parties. And no boys. And bugger all socialising. I’d sit in the common room in hall and watch the telly, sometimes joined by the master of hall, who lived in. A maths tutor, if memory serves, he was the sort of academic who couldn’t alter his digital watch when the hour changed. I sorted it out for him at least once.
He was gorgeous. Probably in his forties; a full head of white hair and the sort of physique that could wear crumbled white suits and look fabulous.
His room was down a corridor from mine. We walked upstairs one night after finishing watching some programme together. The place was deserted. There was an odd moment as I said goodnight at my door – nothing happened, but I’ve wondered in retrospect whether I didn’t miss a chance; whether an invitation to ‘coffee’ might not have produced an interesting result.
Later, I went had a couple of nights out in Leicester itself at nightclubs, drinking Malibu and pineapple, and eating scampi and chips out of a basket with a sex-mad mature student from Northern Ireland who took pity on me.
Once that was over, and I was living on my own in Morecambe, trying to find a job and keep my head above metaphorical water, a friend would occasionally give me a whole trout that he’d caught while fishing. This time, I resorted to one of the other few-and-far-between cookbooks I had: Floyd on Fish, from which I learned to wrap the whole thing in newspaper, wet it under a cold tap and then pop it into the oven. Once the newspaper was dry, you could remove it and, when you unwrapped it, the skin would peel away neatly. It worked too, and was very tasty.
And it was in Morecambe that I managed to find rather informal work in catering. With no job, I’d spend part of my days in a local coffee shop, lingering over a coffee, while chatting with the owner, a woman I knew through one of the myriad local drama groups. It happened without ever planning that, at times when she was busy, I’d help clear tables. That turned into helping with the washing up and even preparing food. Which should tell you something about the level of catering in that particular little shop. Vast jacket potatoes, baked in a microwave and filled with a bit of margarine and some grated cheese, with a garnish of salad on the side, was fine dining.
That job died out because she started paying me a little – just enough so that it would not legally impact on the dole rules. She couldn’t afford to employ me properly. But the unemployment people decided to start haranguing her because I’d declared the money, as one was honestly supposed to do (more naivety). They were determined to pester her into employing me full-time. Instead, they pestered her out of employing me at all.
I had discovered garlic by this stage, in a covert way, via Marks and Spencer’s garlic sausage, which various people in the main drama group that I was involved in liked to bring along to ‘Jacob’s joins’ – parties where we’d all bring food to share.
And shortly before Leicester, I’d had my first curry, courtesy of a trip to the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, with a gay male friend of advanced years, who had taken me under his wing rather.
As an aside, my mother didn’t realise he was gay and was convinced we were having an affair, finding and reading my diary to see if it revealed any salacious proof.
The play was Greek (I can’t remember what) with Robert Lindsay. And the curry, from the theatre restaurant, was so hot that I could taste it for days. It put me off spicy and hot food for years.
And oddly enough, a couple of times I did something quite advanced, under the circumstances – having tasted them in pubs, I pickled my own eggs.
But back to my coffee shop days. At around the same time. I had my first steak. And it came about as a direct result of sex.
I was helping out with another of those myriad drama groups – front of house, on this occasion. One of the senior front-of-house staff, all dolled up in his evening suit, complete with bow tie, asked me to check something or other in the upper reaches of the theatre. There we were – me, resplendent in a bottle green cord jumpsuit (yes, it was the 1980s), in the little locked room at the foot of the rickety staircase that led to wardrobe, when he caught me up in his arms (I’m trying to find the appropriate language here) and planted his lips on mine in a long kiss. By the time I’d got over the shock and realised that he was holding me really rather strongly, I was finding myself interested.
It should be pointed out that between rickety stairs, a dress suit and a corduroy jumpsuit, things were not easy. But, heroically, we managed.
Since this little episode took place during a matinee, he asked me out to dinner between shows and took me to the town’s only (as far as I knew) steakhouse for my very first steak. It was like old leather, and I was left wondering why people made such a fuss of steak. It wasn’t until a trip to Amsterdam, almost 20 years later, that I found out.
That was actually the start of a nine-month relationship – if you can call it that. He was probably about my age now when we were together – and makes me look totally ‘sane’ and ‘normal’. On the other hand, we had some good times and he managed to teach me to get over one very large barrier and say ‘fuck’.
There’s almost another food story in here: we went to visit a friend of his once, who had a house right on the beach, just up the coast. We had a barbeque on the beach – although I can’t remember anything beyond that. Possibly because I’d just tried vodka for the first time. The house had a jacuzzi in the spacious bathroom and offered the chance, we decided to give it a whirl. A Some time later, our host popped into the bathroom to see how we were, finding me very happily straddling my partner. My beau invited him to join us, but he politely declined. Drat! My first chance of a threesome come to nothing.
Some time later, I got increasingly into bodybuilding and heavy exercise. Food finally became simply fuel. It didn’t have far to go to reach that point in my mind, to be fair. Eggs with the yolks abandoned, protein drinks and piles of boiled vegetables are what stand out for me thinking back. An appalling thought.
It was a downward spiral. What with constant dieting, and probably unhelped by lack of money, by the time I cooked a meal for The Other Half for the first time, I thought that reformed lamb ‘steaks’, grilled from frozen and accompanied by tinned potatoes and carrots, was gourmet cuisine.
And that feels as though it was a million years ago.