Thursday, 31 March 2011

Back on planet Earth

It cannot, of course, always be a day of dazzling cuisine.

And today, incapable of managing any enthusiasm for lunch from the deli or Pret, I resorted to the sort of fodder that cannot disappoint, since you expect nothing of it except some calories and the quick rush of salt and sugar and artificial flavours.

Mind, I have made the interesting discovery that Cheesy Wotsits are clearly not made with those who wear dentures in mind: what starts out as nice and crisp, turns into a mush that clings to the plastic and blows raspberries at your tongue's effort to sweep it away.

Tomorrow is a day of TOIL after working last Saturday, so I have three days in which, yet again, to attempt to plan packed lunches for the following week. Because the current situation is, frankly, poor – and I have only myself to blame.

To start with, I'm not really much of a fan of sandwiches. That's not a statement of sandwiches not being any good or anything, but simply a subjective preference. With the exception of a recently-discovered pleasure in cucumber sandwiches (white bread, proper butter, organic cucumber and good salt), others are, by and large, convenient.

Pret's sandwiches often seem crammed with rocket – and I got bored with the British fetish for rocket some time ago.

Perhaps rather oddly, I do have a habit of picking up a prawn mayo butty from M&S or Boots when I'm off on a train journey.

Thinking of sandwiches, though, it’s funny how memories come back to you. In recent weeks, a mental movie has been flickering its way into my consciousness.

It’s the north west of England in the 1970s, and the women of the church are making sandwiches for some social event.

They take bags of sliced, white factory bread and, with a practised movement, a sweep of yellow spread goes on one way and, with the knife’s return, is almost all whipped right off again, the fleeting promise of fatty generosity blown away.

It’s a team effort as they stand next to each other, all floral housecoats and tightly permed heads bobbing in chatter, piling sliced bread into a new tower, ready for filling.

I don’t remember what happened next. I cannot even really be sure that this is a real, personal memory – although I can’t think of the collective cultural memory that it would be part of.

It’s probably present now because I’ve been making sandwiches for The Other Half to take with him ‘oop north’ for Rugby League matches in recent weeks.

He might prefer an olive oil spread to butter, but I am not as stingy with it when spreading as those women were.

As I see them in my mind’s eye, the housecoats were all various shades of pink. My mother had one. They were nylon and had that quality of giving off static electricity.

There would have been tea – my mother, who doesn't like that drink, long complained that it was so hard to get a coffee at church events, and in the those days, her idea of a coffee would have been limited to something out of a jar. NescafĂ© was the brand of choice, I recall: given her snobbery about a whole range of small things, it occurs that Maxwell House was probably the ITV of instant coffees.

Packed lunches, if she had to make them for school trips, would invariably involve sandwiches. The only filling I recall was from those pots of meat or fish paste that you can still find in shops today, although there might be a single triangle of Dairylea cheese.

I think, if memory is serving me correctly here, that that was the limit on cheese for us until we were much older: cheese – like coffee – was for grown ups.

So lunches will not involve sandwiches, that much is certain.

I read a suggestion somewhere, earlier this week, that all you needed to do was make extra dinner the night before and keep some of that to take with you. That evening, I was cooking mushroom risotto. Some dishes improve with keeping. That wouldn't.

It will have to be salads – possibly with tinned sardines (there are tons in the cupboard – or goat's cheese or even the contents of dinky tins of meat I bought in France last year and sometimes lavish on toast for an indulgent breakfast when I'm not at work. The art form, though, is the dressing. Too much and everything gets soggy and the box leaks; too little and it's dry.

The thinking cap will have to be unpacked and tried for size.

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