I was going to have a stab at my self-development essay but this is what springs to mind. If we consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs then food is on almost every level. At the lowest, food is a basic necessity to keep us alive and there may be little pleasure in subsistence eating. The further up we go the more it can become about the pleasure of eating good food whether alone or with others. We may enjoy and/or share the preparation. It may be symbolic of belonging to a culture or faith, cooked and eaten as part of a ritual, or simply a birthday cake.
We have hang ups about our food. We may always clean our plate through fear of whether there will be a next meal. We may rush our food because someone else might take it. We may crave certain foods because we never had them as a child. There may have been forbidden foods due to parents’ culture or for health reasons. Attitudes to food vary across cultures and continents and between families. Books have been, and will continue to be written that explore our complex relationship with food.
All of which is a lengthy introduction to my food memories.
My paternal grandmother baked her own bread. The anticipation, as a child, of waking up in her house to the smell of home-made bread, and bacon that would go under the grill once I got out of bed spurred me to get dressed quickly. My mouth waters at the very thought. Wensleydale cheese was always present and went very nicely on her bread too. She was a good plain cook who didn’t make a fuss about food but just got on with it. I loved her steak and kidney pie or pudding, although I wouldn’t normally eat kidneys but not much else sticks in the memory. She made chocolate fridge cake which my children still love and what is now called millionaire’s shortbread. She was very un-snobbish about food. We would always visit the fish and chip shop and it was way into my teenage years by the time they replaced the fish counter that my father couldn’t see above as a child. Being in Yorkshire, it was all cooked in beef fat and there were scraps (or bits, depending on where you’re from). We would also walk down to the local ice cream dairy and get slabs of vanilla ice cream that we would eat between wafers or occasionally a cornet but the pleasure was in walking slowly back home, enjoying our ice cream and joint pleasure in it. We’d also enjoy eating them in cold weather (which made them last longer) and watching passers-by express surprise in their faces as they saw us. We did drink tea by the gallon and it would take me several weeks after a holiday to return to merely drinking it by the pint. She would always have a small jar full of Midget Gems, a chewy fruit gum, that she didn’t mind me enjoying even when I didn’t have a tickle at the back of my throat.
From Yorkshire we travel to the south of France for a very different attitude to food from my maternal grandmother. She grew most of her own food, pretty much everything she could to supplement a small pension and I learned to enjoy simple fresh food that was grown under perfect conditions. We got baguettes from the local bakery which made the best crunchy, chewy holey baguettes (and occasionally burnt) and croissants or pain au chocolat on Sundays. That was breakfast and when I was very small I would bring people breakfast in bed. Then, if I wasn’t paying attention, sometime between 10 and 11am my grandmother would cry out that she was feeling faint and needed help so I would go and pour out the white wine and we would have a glass or two while finishing off the morning chores and getting lunch ready. Lunch would be tomato salad, with “our friend Basil” if he was growing well, another salad, fresh bread, cheese, pate, rillettes and the much loved saucisson. It was a table spread full of ordinary local food that tasted fantastic. Unless too hot we would always start with my soup as my grandmother made the best, sometimes with vegetables going from earth to saucepan in a very short space of time but always with a lusciousness that attests the quality of home grown ingredients. Dinner would be much of the same, or especial favourites like black pudding (boudin noir), green beans and scrambled eggs. She wasn’t much of a meat eater and would only cook it if we were there. We drank red wine with our meals that came from the farm across the road who only made enough for themselves and a few neighbours. It varied in quality from rough to vinegar but it was what we drank. I remember as a child the price going up to a franc per litre and becoming aware of inflation. They would also bring over an occasional rabbit, skinned, considering my grandmother a softie for asking them to cut the head off first. If corn was being grown (for the cattle, not for humans) we would ask permission, get everything ready and then go and choose our own cobs, getting them into a pan to cook as fast as we could. We would spend hours round the table, sitting, chatting, drinking, discussing everything. Food was important to plan for as my grandmother was used to a visiting van which diminished from twice a week to once a fortnight and there were no shops within walking distance so we would consider food markets and supermarket trips a necessity of any holiday that would also help her stock up. We would have one gourmet meal out each holiday that may involve confit, magret, foie gras, rognons but we would also go out for more ordinary meals (although in that region, no food is ordinary) and go to Routier cafes where you get whatever they are cooking and one hotel restaurant we went to each year for the best cream of mushroom sauce ever until the proprietors died. Food was hugely important but it was part of life, interwoven with daily habits and views. Living in the agricultural countryside meant being aware of the rhythm of the seasons and growing your own food gave that personal and practical insight and awareness. A favourite book of my grandmother’s, Philip Oyler’s The Generous Earth, puts all this perfectly.
And so to my parents. All of I sudden I don’t want to write any more. They were fussy about food, talking about it at length. They liked European and Mediterranean/North African food and still do. They were adventurous within quite those quite limited boundaries. There were childish foods that were frowned on, like mashed potato, ice cream other than “adult” flavours of pistachio and coffee, junk food such as fish fingers, burgers take away pizzas etc. Having said that my mother and I used to have Toast Toppers for lunch. My father loved lemon so lemon sorbet, lemon tart, lemon anything was always good. We would have Chinese, kebabs or Indian takeaway, and of course fish and chips. If we had roast my father would say two helpings of meat is enough and then sit and pick at the joint for himself which I always felt very unfair. I could fill up on potatoes and veg, not him. He would always assume that if he was full, we would all be full and was at times amazed if one of us was still hungry. Mostly we talked or sat in silence and sometimes they did the crossword and I read a book. I learned to eat quickly and quietly and to not complain if I didn’t much like it. They taught me to value good food, whether it’s fancy or plain, to look at the quality of ingredients rather than the number of them. She did host dinner parties and I would always help, eventually being left to make pudding by myself and it was always my responsibility to set a nice table. After a supermarket shop my mother would at times treat me to a fast food burger and chips whilst staring at me in surprise that I took pleasure in eating it. I cannot actually think of dishes that my mother cooked that bring up the warm memories that I describe above from my grandmothers. I remember lemon meringue pie, crumbles, bolognese, cottage pies, roasts and later cassoulet, waterzooi but very few specific dishes and she made an enormous variety. That says something.
What have I retained; what have I passed on to my children?
I had joy in cooking until I had to do it every day for a variety of taste buds and lost it. Now I rarely spend more than 30 minutes preparing a meal) but I try to pay attention to what I want to eat and what I like, rather than what I feel I should. There are foodstuffs from my childhood that I absolutely yearn for, and others I am happy to have let go of.
I feel that food is the one area that I completely blew with my children although they are now making better food choices. My eldest enjoys cooking and experimenting. The second is not particularly bothered as long as there’s plenty of chocolate in some form and a minimal amount of veg. The third has more of an adult palate and shares my joy of salad, as long as there is feta. My youngest eating is very limited and he will get very stubborn about not eating foods he doesn’t like, which includes all fruit and veg. And yet he still grows.
I suppose what I have taught my children most food-wise, is that they are allowed to choose, to refuse, to like different things, to not clear their plate, to eat between meals, to have pizza for breakfast and muesli for dinner. I encourage them to try different/new foods/dishes but I don’t force it. I think they all recognise the difference between eating food as fuel because you’re hungry and eating something that gives pleasure to the senses as well. Between us as a family we eat chips with mayonnaise, ketchup, or vinegar, but never a mix.