The theme of food from past and present proved to be a powerful memory trigger this week. With our eyes closed, Jolene invited us to not only picture but to smell food from the past. Our subsequent conversations included many memories from childhood of food being grown, shopped for, cooked and of course, eaten! Our reflections went far beyond the meals themselves, being intertwined with memories of our parents or grandparents, their skills and the efforts they made to provide for us.
Food is so vital to our lives that my mind is full of so many memories about it.
My earliest recollections of helping my mother to prepare our Saturday lunch are very vivid. It followed a set weekly routine. Before having my breakfast, I would be tasked with lighting the gas oven, putting two heaped tablespoons full of plain flour in a Pyrex mixing bowl with a pinch of salt, an egg, and just enough milk to combine the flour and egg. I then had to beat the batter and let it stand on a shelf in the cool pantry until dinner time, when water would be added just before the mixture was poured into a large tray of blue haze hot fat. The Yorkshire pudding was served on its own at the start of our Saturday lunch, with lashings of gravy made from the juices of the braised beef.
Next, I prepared the rice pudding in an oval enamel dish, made with the addition of full cream unpasteurised milk. It was cooked in the preheated oven for a long time along with the joint of meat, so it developed a tasty skin on the top. As a special treat, my twin brothers and I used to take turns to scrape out the rice pudding dish. We were not as keen to wash the dish when it was our turn to do the washing up, rather than drying the pots, at the end of Saturday lunch!
I then peeled King Edwards potatoes grown on my uncle’s farm round the corner from our house. We used to help pick the potatoes each October half term which was known locally as potato picking week. These potatoes were kept in a large sack on the floor of the small pantry.
My father grew vegetables in our long, narrow garden. He did not enjoy gardening but took pride in his plot, regarding it as a necessary chore to feed his family. I enjoyed looking for photos of my father’s vegetable garden, but sadly they were all too poor, as indistinct backgrounds to family occasions. This is one of my Uncle Irving’s vegetable plot. He lived three doors away and I spent many happy hours with him. As did my daughter who is in this photo.
Everything was seasonal. Peas were my father’s favourite vegetable, which he would grow in sequence to prolong the harvesting. On his return from work, he used to go up the garden to check to see if the peas were ready, and if they were, sample a few before coming into the house. When his strawberries were ripe, we had them for breakfast, dinner and tea as we had no fridge or freezer. He had no success making strawberry jam, it was always too runny, but was much more successful with blackcurrant jam. He enjoyed making preserves, pickling onions, red cabbage and piccalilli, but I found the acrid smell of the preserving vinegar mixture very unpleasant.
My mother’s speciality was delicious apple pie. Her pastry was very light, and the apples very tasty with the addition of nutmeg. I can remember it so well.
I was born and brought up in a small Yorkshire city called Ripon. My grandfather had been a tenant farmer but had died by the time I was born. My mother, being the eldest in a large family, was a good basic cook. The food she cooked was roast dinners on Sunday, leftovers on Monday! Throughout the week stews and similar food that we might have today.
My father grew all our vegetables and we had a large garden with fruit trees. The shops in the city comprised of a good butcher and fishmonger, two large groceries, one a Co-op and the other privately owned, a bakery, and of course many small general family-owned shops. So shopping was fairly easy. Nothing was prepackaged like today, and butter, sugar and everything else was weighed for you on the spot whilst you waited, which as a small child I watched with great interest.
It needs to be said that we didn’t have much food imported, although bananas were, however this was halted when the war came and the boats were sunk in transit. When the war ended, I had forgotten how bananas tasted as I was still only 10 at the end of the war.
How things have changed! We are now able to buy so much both fruit and vegetables out of season, and coming in from exotic locations. A very different world.
How evocative thinking about food is, and such a reflection of social history.
Chicken was an expensive treat when I was child, reserved only for Christmas dinner, so on Sundays we usually had a small joint of beef or lamb. Beef would have been very much fattier than would be acceptable now, and dripping would be left behind with a layer of brown jelly. On Sunday evenings we would have bread (white of course) spread with dripping, including the brown jelly, sprinkled with a little salt. We were told it was good for us, so no argument! Similarly good for us according to my mum was tripe. Apparently both beef dripping and tripe are considered delicacies again today, as you can see from the beef dripping recipes on the BBC web site and this recipe for tripe and onions from The Real Lancashire Black Pudding Company.
As someone who has not eaten meat for more than 30 years, these are not entirely happy memories!
Thinking of my own food cupboard now, how different it is from even a few years ago, and certainly very different from the food cupboard my mother would have had. Having been diagnosed a couple of years ago with coeliac disease all products now have to be gluten free. I think my mum would have found that difficult to accommodate, as would I a few years ago. Nowadays it is much easier to cater for alternative diets when supermarkets have ‘free from’ aisles. Quite a big change from then to now.
How very different it is now with our access to food from all over the world, reflecting changes in our experiences of communities and travels.
One of the most poignant memories of my mum’s store cupboard in later years was that she always had a good supply of Kit Kat and Blue Riband biscuits, and cans of coke, to give to her grandchildren when they visited. When she died, all her grandchildren commented without fail that what they remembered most about grandma was that she would sneak them a chocolate biscuit and a can of coke. A memory that was much more than the food and drink involved.
The introductory meditation this week led to a very interesting conversation about food items found in our and other peoples cupboards past and present. I was struck that the above collection of food products may well have been found in my mother’s kitchen cabinet or larder in the 1950s & 60s. Some may even have been seen in my great-grandmother’s shopping basket. The persistence of these iconic brands is another indication of the importance attached to communal memory. Obviously the manufacturers of these products recognise the intrinsic value in using the same brand names today’s purchasers will recall from their own childhood.
Jean, told a story about her mother’s cupboard which was always full of Kit-Kats and Blue Riband (yet two more iconic brands) chocolate biscuits, and how in later years her children told her how much the enjoyed a trip to their grandmother’s as they would always get a treat!
The mention of chocolate bars triggered my memory of some of my earliest City matches when a regular treat would be a half time Wagon Wheel and a cup of Bovril. (not a particularly palatable combination!)
Later the talk moved on to a discussion about differences in our dietary habits over the years. Jean reflected on the fact that there was very little exotic food available to buy and mentioned the pioneering Vesta Curries. This led me onto mentioning how in my childhood much more use was made of offal and how one of our family’s treat meals would be a sheep’s head. I feel that it is a loss many of these recipes are disappearing along with local cuisine outlets such as pie and mash and jellied eels in London and tripe and onions in the North.
We went to the greengrocers first, as it was furthest shop down the hill on the outskirts of Nelson, Lancashire, where my family lived. I remember the smiling greengrocer giving us a carrot or a slice of apple as my Mum was packing her purchases on the shelf beneath my younger sister’s pram. Then to the butcher’s shop, where we had to queue for longer, whilst the butcher chopped, sliced or minced the meat for the customers as he chatted. There was lots to watch. I remember the strong smell, the sawdust on the floor, the tiled walls with tiled pictures of sheep, cows and pheasants, and the vault-like door to the walk-in fridge at the rear of the shop. Next door was the Co-op, where my mother bought other groceries or left her order book with a list of tins and other heavy groceries to be delivered later in the week. Our unpasteurised milk came from the nearby farm, which did its own bottling, and on Saturdays, the milkman would leave a sweet on top of each bottle for me and my two sisters!
We must have shopped fairly often as we didn’t have a car till later, or a fridge until much later still. I was a sociable child, and enjoyed the trips. It must have been hard work for my Mum though, pushing the 1950s coach-style pram back up the hill with the shopping, and me too at times if my legs were tired! I was delighted to find the picture below which shows the pram alongside a toy pram which I hadn’t remembered. I would have been just over two when the photograph was taken, as we moved to Nelson from Blackburn in the summer of 1957.
Fast forward to now, those warm memories from the past bring me sad feelings for today’s young children. They’re getting used to seeing adults wearing face masks, learning to cross to the other side of the road to avoid people approaching on the pavement, keeping two metres away from others and not seeing smiles or having hugs outside the home. There’s much worse than that for some children too, and no knowing when it will end. I hope we find ways to build back better.
As Jolene invited us to recall our memories from different times in our lives, going back to childhood and into our present day, my mind ran wild flitting back and forth. It stirred up many emotions for me some good and some not so good. Who knew food was such an evocative subject?
In my break out room I spent a pleasant twenty minutes chatting with Linda. Our conversation started in a different direction but she skilfully brought us to focus. She told me of her childhood and how she was allowed the job of preparing the Yorkshire pudding batter on a Saturday which sat to “rest” in the pantry from early morning, as they didn’t own a fridge. This has made me wonder if we had a pantry when I was a child, I will investigate this. She also spoke of an Aunt who was a big part of her family life and ate many meals with them. As a thank you she would take them all to a prestigious hotel every Easter Sunday. Linda has such fond memories of these outings and could easily bring details to mind that she has revisited as an adult.
I never went out for a meal with my family as a child, hotels didn’t exist in my world. I lived in a newsagents from the age 2 until I was 11. My mother worked extremely long hours in the shop and my memory of any family meals is non existent. I have spoken to my eldest brother about where we ate as children and he doesn’t remember meals times either. He did indicate that they wouldn’t have been happy family occasions though. A conversation for another time! He did mention my friend Brenda, where I stayed at every opportunity. Here I remember being very well fed and having the most beautiful Sunday Roasts, which have remained my favourite meal to this day.
We didn’t have a fridge until after we moved house in 1966. From this time I remember we ate more as a family because Mum no longer worked. My Dad was an ice-cream man and I do recall we ate much better in the summer than in the winter! They became excellent at roast dinners too.
Lots of memories which flashed in and out included: meat and potato pie with gravy after swimming; my Dad cooking at the stove with a length of ash hanging from his cigarette and being petrified it would fall in my food, but being too afraid to mention it; my Mum’s amazing meat and potato hash; and, sadly, some harsh memories but these are for a different space.
So many many more memories up to the present day and all the celebrations we’ve enjoyed around eating. However, not enough space for them all here. I think we could all write a book!
Growing up on a dairy farm, I was surrounded by family and my grandma was very much the matriarch. She kept herself busy most of the day in the kitchen, preparing big cooked dinners for all of the farm workers. During the school holidays we children, too, would all gather round her big kitchen table, but after that the workers: there were far too many people to fit in a single sitting!
Wednesday was the highlight of the week: Yorkshire puddings and gravy for starters and then a roast with vegetables for the main course. On Friday, Grandma got a day off, as a fish and chip feast was ordered to feed the masses. Grandma was equally known for her baking: scones, biscuits and, in particular, bilberry pies. We picked the berries ourselves from the woods above the farm.
Years later, when I was visiting from university, grandma would thrust a bag full of frozen goodies, in particular bilberry pies, into my hands to take back with “over the tops” with me to Manchester. One evening in my second year, when I’d pushed the boat out and was eating something other than beans on toast for tea (indeed, I’d cooked a roast, if my memory serves me correctly), I knew a bilberry pie would finish off the meal nicely. So I heated it up, smothered it in custard and sat down, my mouth watering and my housemates looking on in envy. It was only when I took a bite that I knew something was wrong. That wasn’t the taste of bilberries among the custard – no, it was a chicken pie! I had not expected that! Being a student, there was no question of it going to waste. I separated the pie as best as I could, and luckily I had a banana – perfect for the custard. The chicken pie did nicely for tea the next night.
My grandma died in January this year and her cooking and baking was a topic that came up again and again as we shared happy memories from the past.
During the guided visualisation, I recalled strong memories of food traditions and the smells associated with them.
Saturday night was always reserved for curry in the Stephens household, my dad would make them from scratch and the whole day seemed to be geared up to making it. Dad would make the curry paste in batches to be kept in the freezer – these pungent Tupperware pots full of the rich sauce were always in the freezer. He used to put so much garlic in them that we agreed that he would tell me and my mum in advance so we could go shopping in Shrewsbury town centre to escape the smell. Our house was quite close to the bus stop so we could always smell what Dad had been up to when we got off the bus.
One time, we could actually smell this before the bus even turned the corner. When we got off the bus, there was a British Gas van outside our house. Naturally we started to worry about my brother and dad, but our fears were soon settled upon learning that the neighbours called the gas board out because of Dad’s infamous sauce! This actually happened twice more until my mum put her foot down. The curries continued religiously until he sadly passed away in 2011 – I would give anything to eat one with him now.
The other strong smell that came back to me was being woken as a grumpy teen by barbecue smoke around midday, mum would shout me to come downstairs, so I dragged myself out of bed, went downstairs and usually just sat outside until I came to. The Gypsy Kings were always playing as a reminder of family holidays to Spain and the kitchen was filled with the aroma of Delia Smith’s BBQ sauce. I had long forgotten about the smell, but about 10 years ago dad emailed me the recipe and I tried it out to take to a friend’s barbecue. The instant the ingredients hit the pan I was 12, grumpy and listening to the Gypsy Kings again. It’s amazing how smells can really transport us back to past times.