A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A Passion For Food: Childhood (1)

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. VIRGINIA WOOLF

I've mentioned food in passing on this blog, and have occasionally written some brief posts on the subject. But I don't think I've ever stressed how passionately interested I am in cookery and in different food cultures around the world. I'm not really sure how this interest came about but, like many things, I suspect it may have its origins in childhood.

 As was the case with most traditional English country families in the 1950s and 60s, the food on our table was simple, wholesome, unvaried and home-sourced. What wasn't home-grown was usually bartered within the local village community. My unmarried aunt who lived across the field kept pigs and chickens. So we had a constant supply of fresh eggs and always had a stock of both the mentionable and the unmentionable parts of a pig in the freezer. The field itself, which we called the 'croft', yielded an abundant crop of mushrooms in the autumn. Unpasteurised milk came from my father's small herd of Jerseys; and peas, beans, raspberries and strawberries from my mother's vegetable garden.

The only serious weekly expense was the the joint of beef which took pride of place on our dining table each Sunday. My father made a big ritual out of carving it. He'd take an age over sharpening the knife and judging the best angle of attack. Finally the knife would plunge in, and he'd laboriously question each member of the family in turn. Do you want a little slice of the outside? (I never did - it wasn't exactly burnt, but it was always rather dry and well-done.) Do you want a little bit of fat? You know it's good for you! (Again I always declined, though later I grew to love the fat on meat.) In fact I often wouldn't eat anything at all those formal Sunday lunchtimes, repressed as I was, and tense as I felt the atmosphere to be. The steaming vegetables seemed to exude the stultifying, musty odour of the chapel we'd just left - and, anyway, they'd been overcooked almost to extinction, as was the custom in those days.

I existed on a diet of salads, warmed-up stews, fried eggs and cheese sandwiches. (Although I didn't think about it at the time, this was very healthy - far healthier than the burger, chips and coke diet of so many kids now.) If I did fancy something sweet - though I preferred savoury to sweet - there were tins of my mother's home-made cakes and biscuits in the pantry. I was stick-thin. If I expelled the air from the bottom of my lungs with my diaphragm, I swear my stomach would almost hit my backbone. But most of my friends were healthily slim too. These were the days when children roamed the countryside in perfect freedom, cycled the lanes, swam and fished in the old gravel pit lakes, made dens in the woods - expending a whole lot more energy than sitting in front of TVs and computers.

Quite honestly I didn't think very much about food then. It was just fuel, and it was also associated negatively in my mind with rather tense and awkward family mealtimes. But all that was to change ...


Val said...

so sad to think that kids can no longer roam the countryside, cycle fish swim explore etc as we did. looking forward to this series; your childhood does sound veryhealthy from a dietary perspective :)

Ruth said...

Oh good, a new series here. And one on food! I've been thinking of M.F.K. Fisher lately, that I need to read her, and here I find this from you.

I smiled at the image of your father ready to carve the meat. We always had either a beef roast or a leg of lamb on Sundays. But sadly our regular fare was not home grown, much was from cans. I did not know garlic existed outside a shaker bottle, though my mom did have a plastic braided garlic hanging in her kitchen.

I don't complain though, since there were ten of us to feed.

I am most interested in your reflections on the repression and stultifying atmosphere. I'm thankful you have found freedom.

Bonnie said...

Beautifully written Robert. I could feel your discomfort at the table, and sense your rejection of what was offered as one of the only ways you could express your distaste for the atmosphere.

Like Ruth I will be interested to read future instalments to learn how your relationship with food evolved over the years.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I hope you feel a recipe coming on to share with us.

Grace said...

I wasn't that interested in food when I was a kid (I choose to put Cheese Whiz on my pasta over my mother's now-delicous-to-me spagetti sauce for god's sake!), but now I'm pretty passionate about food. I love stories that are centered around food (ex. "Like Water for Chocolate") and I just started reading "Aphrodite: a Memoir of the Senses" by Isabel Allende, a suggestive book about food . . and, well, sex--which makes for very good reading!

I look foward to your next installment:)

Loren said...

Food is an important part of my life, too, a part that constantly edges up against my desire to stay slim, and in shape so I can continue to hike as I age.

Though we lived in cities, we always had a home garden and complemented our diet with salmon we caught.

Mom always took pride in her cooking, and there was nothing dad loved more than food having been raised in home where there often wasn't enough food to go around.

I still don't think there's a better dinner than fresh-sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, corn direct from the garden, and a barbecued steak, medium-rare.

am said...

The first word my mother heard me say was "cookie."

Food certainly was important to me early on. Still is, though I haven't had a cookie in quite some time.

Currently I love putting fresh ginger root in my food. I rarely eat anything that I ate as a child. After we grew up, my mother took classes in Chinese cooking. My mother cooked splendid simple meals after that for the rest of her life. In those later years, my father had a garden, too, and contributed fresh fruits and vegetables. He grew the best artichokes imaginable! They lived by the ocean. I remember a wonderful meal with artichokes and abalone.

Ah, yes, let's talk about food!

fireweed said...

Same here, I didn't eat much or enjoy all that simple but hearty and healthy childhood food because family meals were so burdened (for me, because I was sensitive to it) with family tension. Now I love food . . . and family meals.

And yes, how thin kids used to be! When we were in NZ I had to readjust my eyes to seeing thin children, boney kneecaps and all. And they moved so quickly, none of the slug-like shuffling of Canadian school age children. It was like time travel . . . and greater physical activity can be the only defining factor there, because it certainly wasn't for wont of pies and fresh cream cakes at the bakery for Saturday lunch before heading out to enjoy the hills.

I really liked this piece and look forward to the rest.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for all these great comments. You can always guarantee the subject of food will attract everyone's interest! It's something intimate in all our lives, and we all have personal stories to tell about our relationship with it.

Vivien said...

A memory from someone a bit ancient: when I was a small child in London at the end of the war we only had dried eggs, crumbly yellow stuff in packets (which was made into scrambled eggs or omelettes, or put in cakes). Apparently, when real eggs came back into the shops after the war, a lot of people didn't like them - they were used to the taste of the dried ones!

Yes, it was a different world when children could roam around freely, as we did in the country, walking and on bikes. I wonder if part of the problem is so much car ownership - peculiar characters can get much farther afield and aren't known to local communities. Anyway - just hazarding a guess.

Interesting memoirs about tenseness at family gatherings.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your reminiscence, Vivien. I remember my mother telling me about the dried aggs. She also lived in London during the war - in Palmer's Green. She was in the searchlights. But her great joy was to escape the Smoke and visit cousins in Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire, where she loved roaming the bluebell woods. Her deep love of nature and the countryside stemmed from those times.