AUTHOR’S NOTE: All dialogue attributed to my mother should be read in a comedy Northern accent.
I grew up living with the kind of physiology that could devour any amount of food without putting on one ounce of weight and let me tell you it was great. I used to love watching big-boned women (as my mother used to call them) slavering as I tucked into mountainous piles of mashed potatoes and slabs of steak the size of my head, knowing that just a morsel of what I was eating would put pounds onto their hips.
My mother used to try and set me up with the daughters of her friends and as soon as she told me they were big-boned I knew exactly what she meant.
“She’s just big-boned, Stephen,” she would say.
“You mean fat, don’t you mum.”
“No . . . well, it’s just puppy fat; she’ll grow out of it.”
“But won’t her bones be too big for then?”
“You cheeky bugger; you never listen to what I tell you. She’s a right nice girl, she is; too bloody good for you, that’s for sure. I don’t know why I bother.”
The food that I described above would never have been prepared by my mother; she was a reluctant cook. In fact, I would go as far as to say that she actually loathed cooking. When he was younger and lived at home my brother worked as a drayman. He would spend long hours lugging heavy barrels of beer down into the cellars of the pubs in Blackpool and he would return home tired and hungry. I remember him coming home one time and as he walked through the door my mother shouted, “Your tea’s in’t kitchen. You just need to warm it up.”
Regarding what my mother said in the preceding paragraph, I must offer (before I continue any further) some form of explanation as to its meaning. If you are from the South of England you may, at some point in your life, decide to make the perilous journey north and visit Lancashire, Yorkshire or Cumbria; any adventurous travellers from London who decide to make the arduous and potentially dangerous journey to Scotland must make sure they pack their passports and a plentiful supply of jellied eels (as they are unavailable that far north). Once you have left the safe and insular world of the south there is a possibility that you may look upon Northerners with a certain degree of suspicion; if you do feel this way don’t worry – it’s a perfectly natural reaction and it does take some time to accept the fact that people you don’t know can be helpful and friendly towards you for no apparent reason. But apart from the odd gang of clog-wearing youths roaming the streets with woad-painted faces whilst playing the Hovis theme on brass instruments, our only real difference is that in the North we have dinner at lunch time and tea at dinner time.
I thought what my mother had said was strange as I had not seen her enter the kitchen at all that day and, indeed, when my brother stepped into that rarely used room his olfactory senses were not greeted by the aroma of freshly cooked food.
“Where is it, mum,” my brother called from the kitchen, “I can’t find it.”
“It’s right next t’cooker,” my mother called back. “You can’t miss it.”
My brother looked next to the cooker and there it was – a tea fit for a king. It stood proudly on its own as if to say ‘Look at me – I am the cornerstone of any nutritional diet’. It was a Batchelor’s Pot Noodle, and propped up next to it, placed there by my mother’s own fair hand, was a fork.
My mother’s idea of a square meal was an OXO cube.
All the really good food I remember as a youngster was cooked by my grandma; cottage pies, Lancashire hot-pots and (my favourite) ham shank cooked in a thick pea soup. I always had two choices for every meal – take it or leave it – and if I left it, my grandma would cover it in foil and it would sit in the refrigerator until the next morning, when it would be served up cold for my breakfast. I soon learned that if I wanted to avoid congealed food for my breakfast then I had to eat everything on my plate the night before.
There was only one thing I wouldn’t eat – gooseberries. I hated gooseberries and I still do. Whenever I try to eat one it feels as if someone is pulling my face inside out. Gooseberries make my teeth itch. When I was living with my grandparents I had an illustrated book about a boy who used to pull faces all the time.* His parents told him that if ever the wind changed then his face would stay the same. Of course the boy didn’t believe them and when the wind changed while he was pulling one of his grotesque faces he couldn’t change it back. After reading this story I was terrified of eating gooseberries in case the wind changed as I was eating them.
(The book I described above is not When The Wind Changed by New Zealand author Ruth Park, which was not published until 1980. I distinctly remember reading this story when I was living with my grandparents in the late 50s and early 60s. If anyone my age has any idea what the book is called and who it was written by please let me know by commenting on this blog.)
My mother cooked almost exclusively out of packets or tins. My stepfather (formerly Uncle John) was the same (not that he cooked at all when he and my mother were together) but when mum left home for about a month after one of their many blazing arguments, leaving me behind with him, we ate nothing but beans on toast for every meal until she returned. I hated my stepfather and I hated living under the same roof as him without the protection of my mother.
He was not the brightest of men and when words failed him he quickly resorted to violence. I remember one time when I took two crusts of bread upstairs to my room because I was so hungry and within seconds of entering my room my stepfather burst through the door and began punching me because I had apparently stolen them. The irony of the situation was that he had lost his job as a bread and confectionary delivery man at Sutton’s bakery because he had been part of a criminal enterprise there that had been stealing loaves and cakes from the backs of delivery vans for a third party to sell at Blackpool market. When their marriage finally disintegrated it was one of the happiest days of my life because I knew that I would never see this lumbering bully of a man again, but it would be a long time before I could eat beans on toast without thinking about the violence he arbitrarily doled out to me and my mother in order to vent off the frustration and anger caused by his limited vocabulary.
(I write another blog called A Life In Cheese, which one week featured a recipe for Gourmet Beans on Toast, taken from a book that I made up called Cooking From A Can by the fictional author Claire Friteuse. Claire is based on someone I know from New Zealand who has never really got to grips with cooking real food. She is also based on my mother (the lack of culinary skills bit at least) and just to make the recipe more interesting I attempted to write it in the style of Nigella Lawson. If you would like to read the recipe, follow the link on the picture below.)
|Click here to take you to A Life In Cheese|
I finally rediscovered real food when I joined the Royal Air Force at the tender age of sixteen. There were boys who I joined up with who complained all the time about how bad the food was but for me it was exactly the opposite. When I first walked into the Airman’s Mess, having spent years eating from packets and tins, it was like mining for gold and hitting the mother-lode. Not only were there about five different choices of meal I could also eat as much of it as I wanted. I could go back for seconds or thirds or even fourths if I so desired.
At the start of my training at RAF Hereford I weighed just seven and a half stone; a year later at the end of my training I had gained three stone.
The problem with giving up packet and tinned food is that you tend to become like one of those holier-than-thou ex-smokers. You know the ones – the born again non-smokers who have puffed their way through forty un-tipped Capstan Full Strength every day for the past thirty years but now they’ve stopped and they’ve become almost evangelical in their loathing of people who either don’t have the will-power or inclination to quit.
This is what happens when you stop eating packet and tinned foods. My wife and I were invited to my friend Danny’s house in Winchester for a meal. Danny and I were both on the same creative writing course at Winchester College and we got on well with each other because of the stuff we used to write. The tutor was a very prim and proper lady who blushed whenever we read out anything that was a little risky, which obviously encouraged us to write stories that became increasingly ruder as the weeks wore on. We both found this hilariously funny and when he invited me over to his rather large house in Winchester I gladly accepted. His wife had cooked a fish pie, which looked and tasted delicious . . . right up to the moment when she told us that the mashed potato topping was in fact made from Smash (the powdered potato mix that was successfully advertised in the 60s by robots who laughed about us humans using real potatoes and mashing them with our steely forks . . . ha ha ha). Suddenly the fish pie was not as delicious as it was moments beforehand and we began to pick at it like two spoilt children. It was a horrible thing to do and I sincerely regret feeling that way. We never mentioned this to Danny or his wife and if they ever do read this blog I would like to say from the bottom of my heart that I am truly very very sorry.
|"They mash them with their steely forks . . . ha! ha! ha!"|
(On the creative writing course one week we were given a homework assignment that was to “Describe a member of your family – real or imaginary”. I was very proud of what I wrote, but it was a million miles away from what the tutor was expecting. If you are interested you can read it by clicking on the tab The Policeman’s Son at the top of this post. Fittingly the tutor did not ask me to read aloud anything else to the group for the remaining few weeks of the course.)
A few years later we were living in a small village in Cambridgeshire where we met a very nice American family. Stacey was a Warrant Officer in the US military and worked at a nearby airbase and his wife Lisa worked in the Disney Store in Cambridge. They had three kids and we got on with the family very well. The year before Stacey was posted back to the States he invited us over for Thanksgiving. I’d never been to a proper Thanksgiving dinner before and was looking forward to it immensely as I had heard that there was always a vast quantity of food to be eaten.
Now, we British are fairly reserved when we talk about the size of things. For example, when we talk about a vast quantity of food what we really mean to say is that there was rather a lot, but not so much that we couldn’t finish it. When an American invites you over for Thanksgiving and he tells you that there is a vast quantity of food he really means that there is vast quantity of food. There were twenty people at Stacey and Lisa’s Thanksgiving dinner that year but there seemed to be enough food to feed twenty thousand. To give you an indication of the size of the spread that was set before us I only have to tell you that the turkey was bigger than my five year old son.
If you’ve ever observed a dog eating its food you will have noticed that it is very different to the way a cat eats. Cats eat very slowly and gracefully; they leave food in the bowl when they have had enough to eat and then they go off somewhere and clean themselves. A dog on the other hand can’t eat its food fast enough. It wolfs it down whether it’s hungry or not because it still hasn’t been domesticated enough to understand that it will always be fed on a regular basis. It’s hard coded into them, part of the genetic make-up passed onto them by their distant ancestors. Strangely it’s also the way I was thinking when I was presented with the mountainous table of home-cooked food on Thanksgiving; I looked at it and my brain automatically reminded me of the days when my mother cooked exclusively from packets and tins and my subconscious mind shouted, “Eat! Eat! Eat! You may never have this opportunity again!” My brain shut down everything in my body that may have distracted me from eating and I began to hoover my way through tons of turkey, heaps of mashed potatoes, piles of vegetables and huge wedges of pumpkin and banoffee and pecan pies.
By the time I had finished eating I felt like Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life; if I had eaten another thing I would probably have exploded. The only word that left my lips during the four hours that I was lying on the floor after the meal was “Yum.”
I woke up the next morning and weighed myself, discovering to my delight that I was the same weight as I had been the morning before. I looked in the mirror and saw that my figure had returned to its normal shape and realised at the same time that I was ravenously hungry.
As I ate my way through the four Shredded Wheat that I had fixed myself for breakfast an advert for Shredded Wheat appeared on television that featured the England cricketer Ian Botham who set a challenge for me: “Bet you can’t eat three,” he said.
As I had already successfully eaten three and was now hungrily tucking into my fourth, Botham’s statement was both redundant and stupid. Did the makers of Shredded Wheat know this? Were they aware that two Shredded Wheat were never nearly enough to satisfy my hunger even on a normal morning?
Oddly though, when I typed in the phrase four Shredded Wheat a green line appeared beneath it and when I did a spelling and grammar check I was told that it was a Number Agreement and that I should Consider Revising.
Does this mean that Microsoft Word also thinks that the maximum number of Shredded Wheat anyone can eat at any one time is two?
Apparently Shredded Wheat is good for the calcium in your body, which means if you eat enough you can develop stronger and bigger bones.
Maybe my mother was right about those big-boned girls after all.