Sunday, 13 November 2011

Meat & two veg

I sometimes feel that I spend more time listening to people talk about food than eating it, although the uncomfortable squeeze that I’ve felt recently putting on my trousers belies that idea.

The fact that I’m a vegetarian often excludes me from some of this culinary conversation where my moral choice is often viewed with a certain amount of suspicion, anger and definitely as a self -induced affliction, but more of all that later.

Well I just want to make the point that I wasn't born a veggie. I caught it. Probably from the cows that almost brought me up, (if you’ve read my earlier posts you’ll understand that one). 

Anyway, my parents were from Hull so fish in all its varied forms flowed through their DNA and as I was born and bred in Lincolnshire, which it could be argued is like a rural food factory or in trendier terms a giant farmers market, food and it’s fuelling for activity were always high on my agenda.

Even though the shop had closed, Aby was always well served with a different delivery van for all of our food needs. There was the bakers, the butchers, the fish, the greengrocers and on a Thursday night, the grocery van, my favourite. The excitement of when the shop keeper opened the doors of his big blue Volkswagen van to reveal a motorised pirates cave, stuffed to the roof with sugary bounty still makes my mouth water and my teeth ache. 

Now I couldn't possibly talk about food without talking about mum.

Delicate and dainty were words that couldn't be used to describe her or her cooking, she only cooked meals that would feed a minimum of 8 even when there was only 3 of us left at home. Freshly baked, roasted, boiled, fried or steamed, we may have been as poor as peasants but we ate like kings.

I don’t ever remember a time when I saw her relax, but also I never heard her complain about her lot that much either, things were the way they were and you just had to get on with it, though when I think back and even though flour fingered glasses often obscured them, there was a hint of sadness and distance in her eyes, which I guess is often the case with those whose formative years were stolen by bombs and blackouts.

I don’t think she ever realised what a sofa or chair was for, her back never graced the comfy bits, she was always ready to jump up to do what ever we bade. In fact in later life I would always try and get her to relax by pushing her back into the sofa but it was like trying to level a rocking chair, too long had she held that position.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, she was physically strong and while it took a while to make her loose it, her temper had you running for any door with a lock.

I remember seeing her and my mad aunt leaving a group of street fighting combatants in a state of shock and horror at Hull fair as they were battered about their bodies by these crazy warrior women wielding coconut laden bags, screeching that they shouldn’t be fighting because there were kids about. 

I was always of the opinion that fragile bags full of cannonball like coconuts being wheeled like medieval maces, were probably more of a risk to any children in the vicinity than the testosterone fuelled struggles of youths, but I suppose it could have been worse it could have been the goldfish we’d won.

I suppose through circumstance rather than planning, my parents had a make do attitude but even when times had got better, this attitude teetered on the insane. We had what must have been the first ever electric kettle, brown enamel and looking exactly like the type you put on top of a stove. This weird electrical hybrid's element would burn out every couple of months  meaning a trip to a strange little shop as old as the kettle to get an expensive replacement.   

When we finally got a fridge, it was giant, second hand and probably from the 50's and something I always opened with a slight sense of trepidation after the time I had come face to face with a live crab.  Even though all of these objects would be very stylish and trendy now, at the time they were a real embarrassment.

Once I came home from school to find mum cooking our tea wearing industrial rubber gloves up to her armpits and dad's wellingtons, when I questioned this new look she pointed out that it was because she kept getting electric shocks from our ancient cooker when she pricked the sausages.

However, the scullery may not  have been well appointed but oh the wonders she could produce there. All her dishes were of the peasant variety made from whatever was to hand or left over, nothing was thrown away. 

Huge stews in her old tin pot, the size of a washing up bowl, the scrumptious sea of thick meat and vegetables obscured by a sky of fluffy dumplings. 

Sunday roasts were feasts that featured some of my most favourite things 'crunchy dumplings', the same as she used in the stews but placed by the meat in the oven so they would be crispy on the outside and as soft as clouds on the inside. Giant golden yorkshire puddings that drifted across roasting tins, crispy at the edges but slightly squidgy in the centre. Roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, sausage stuffing and vegetables created mountains on our plates that thick onion gravy ran down like lava. 
She did wonders with pastry, whether puff, flakey or short crust it was tasty and thick, creating a perfect home for every conceivable filling. These pies would come in a variety of shapes and sizes, like some kind of culinary Russian doll set, until all the pastry was used up. One of my favourite was egg and bacon, every thick slice was a rough mix of yellows and whites punctuated with juicy pink pieces of ham.

There always seemed to be scones on offer which was nice, but what was even better was when she made a version of bread & butter pudding with them, spongy and sweet, perfect for thick yellow custard. Everybody's favourite cake was her ginger Parkin, the recipe is still debated and searched for by the family like a lost treasure. It was moist and sticky. Perfect with milky sweet tea.

Strange as it sounds the biggest treat and the thing I miss most is her bread. The timing had to be just right as she said it wouldn't rise if you didn't feel well, but when she did, the gorgeous baking smell would have me running from whatever, tree, den or hiding place I happened to be in.  These hot flat cakes had a thick crust that when cut open revealed a luna landscape just waiting to be filled with melting butter.

The food we ate would probably be seen as fashionable now as the archaic equipment it was prepared on, never processed or packaged, the meat was fresh from the bone, vegetables from the field, and fish straight from trawlers, but as a kid schooled in the advertising of the 70's where fresh meant frozen, meat was in plastic pockets, chips were crinkle cut and sausages neat and tidy, I sometimes longed for the uniformness of these everyday items.

 Our sausages were from the butchers, great big black spicy exploding Lincolnshire ones, ham came from the hocks that seemed to be forever bubbling on the stove, even the mushrooms (one of the only vegetables I didn't like as a child) were giant field mushrooms that turned black when they were cooked, not the small button type you saw been flicked into  pans on the telly.

But isn't it always the case that you don't know how lucky you are at the time and even though I'm happy being a vegetarian, the idea of going back to gorge on this food as left my taste buds distinctly nostalgic. 


  1. Wow - your writing is amazing. What a fantastic tribute to your Mum. Actually made me really love her but it didn't portray her sentimentally as some angel.
    This stuff would make a brilliant book.
    Probably along the lines of Toast.
    Are you going to do a follow up telling us about the time when you became vegetarian?
    Thanks for this. Lou.

  2. What wonderful memories. I want to know more, I want to read more. Fantastic post.

  3. Oh Viking! I have just been reading this while drinking my morning cup of tea.

    I have really enjoyed reading your memories, remembering the tastes and the smells too. If only my mother had thought about the rubber gloves and the wellies when she used to get shocks from her old cooker!

    I had forgotten what an exciting thing it was to have the grocery van visit every week and even though my memories are from an earlier time, and a different place, you transported me through time and space with your own recollections.

    Double value. Double delight. I know I am going into rhapsodies here - but it really is a lovely post. Like the others, it has left me wanting more!

  4. What wonderful memories, it was a lovely piece to read. It made me laugh that your mum put on the wellies and gloves, no one I know is made of stuff so stern these days.

  5. i came over from dom's. it was wonderful reading about your memories, and your mum sounds like an amazing woman. you have a beautiful writing style btw, it reminds me of the way roald dahl described the doctor's wife's pie in the book "danny", or rather, it reminded me of the way i felt after reading about it. i felt so hungry. urgh, and it's just after dinner.

  6. What a beautifully written post. I could really visualise your mum's kitchen, mainly because my in-laws lived in much the same state, the only exception being the Kenwood Chef which was MIL's pride and joy. When we moved to the farm in 1985, MIL still had an ancient Belling cooker and one of those 'big' fridges that worked so badly it actually left ice crystals on the food. It is certainly surprising that you are a vegetarian with that kind of food heritage and Dom wafting delicious meaty treats round the kitchen, but I guess to each his own. Thanks for sharing.