A few weeks ago I read the brilliant memoir, Hungry, by Grace Dent. I loved the book especially her nostalgic trip back to her working class childhood in the 70s and 80s where she shares her recollections of the food that we used to eat back then. It got me thinking about what I used to eat as a child. I’m a few years older than Grace and whereas she grew up in the far north of the country and for me it was down south in Bristol, there are similarities in what was put on the table for breakfast, dinner and tea. And no, I haven’t muddled the order of our meals. Lunch was always dinner and dinner was always tea. Supper was something we ate as a snack just before we went to bed. Snacks as we know them these days didn’t really exist in my childhood unless it was pocket money Friday or Bonfire night.
I grew up in a two bedroom house on the edge of Bristol. Mum and Dad had saved hard to buy their own house but in order to pay the mortgage both of them had to work and money was tight. Mum’s housekeeping money had to stretch the week and quite often ran out the day before Dad’s payday and we often resorted to eating sugar sandwiches or dripping on toast. My problem with the sugar sandwiches was that I hated marg so there was nothing for the sugar to stick to. Most of my sugar ended up on the plate and I was just left with a folded slice of Mothers Pride! Sugar was never in short supply. We mixed cocoa powder with sugar in a cup and ate it with a spoon and dipped Dad’s home grown rhubarb into it to take away the sharpness. We liberally sprinkled sugar onto our Shredded Wheat, Rice Krispies and Puffed Wheat, our staple breakfast cereals. I was jealous of my friends who were allowed Frosties, Sugar Puffs and Ricicles and especially envious of anyone who could choose their cereal from a Kellogs Variety pack. That to me was the hight of decadence, as was chocolate Ready Brek. Whilst we are on the subject of breakfast, Mum always cooked Dad a fried one on Sundays. She still does even now. I’m used to a fry up now consisting of two rashers of bacon, two sausages, eggs, tomatoes, beans, mushrooms and fried bread. Pretty much the full works. Mum’s very pared-down version was usually just a fried egg, a rasher of bacon and a triangle of fried bread cooked in lard. Everything was cooked in lard back then. I would wait eagerly for my dad to finish and pounce on the bacon rind which was left on his plate. Chewing on that rind was one of life’s little pleasures. I chewed and chewed it until all that was left was a rubbery string.
Mum’s pride and joy in our tiny kitchen was her freezer. She had a freezer long before aquiring a fridge. Perishable food was kept in the larder in the corner of the room. Not that there was much to keep cool in it. Milk was delivered by Reg the milkman daily and nearly everything else was either frozen or tinned. I don’t remember eating much in the way of vegetables but I’m sure that mum must have bought the odd carrot from the greengrocers up the road but we did eat a lot of peas. To be precise, Batchelors tinned processed peas. I think that Mum must have had shares in them! My nan used to serve frozen peas dripping in butter when we went to her house for Sunday dinner and not really liking them much. I’m still not that keen on them.
Mum’s freezer had drawers fronted with coloured plastic strips. The drawers would be full of sausages, pork chops and faggots. Faggots featured heavily in our diet. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that the Brain’s factory was in the next street. I grew up smelling faggots from morning to night. Sometimes there would be a joint of beef but rarely chicken. Chicken was expensive and only eaten on high days and holidays. Occasionally we ate roast pork but tales of pork flukes squirming their way through the flesh put me off it and I would pick at it much to my mum’s annoyence. Sometimes there would be a block of Neopolitan ice cream that we would have as a Sunday tea treat. My sister and I would stir it until it had melted and created a mud coloured creamy puddle in our bowls. Somewhere in the drawers would be packs of Birds Eye Super Mousses. They were a staple pudding along with Ski yogurts.
I remember an occasion when for some long forgotten reason, mum was given half a frozen pigs head complete with an eye and teeth. She put it, still in a plastic bag, into the oven to defrost but forgot it was there and turned the oven on. The smell of melted plastic and cooked pork permeated the house for weeks. Needless to say the piggy head ended up in the dustbin. Another disaster was when mum bought us all an avocado pear from the greengrocers. Thinking they were a new variety of pear she gave us the rock hard avocados to munch as you would an apple or pear. I don’t think Mum has bought avocados since then.
The women of the 60’s and the 70’s began to escape their roles as homemakers and childcare providers and started to go out to work. They had less time to prepare meals from scratch and the food industry cottoned on and foods was all about convenience and less about nutrition. The women of the family wanted meals that could be made with no fuss and on the table in very little time. Why peel and mash potatoes when you could just add boiling water to powder to produce something gloopy that tasted nothing like the real thing! Pies came in tins and sponge puddings in a can. If you were being very adventerous and cosmopolitan curries, chow meins and rissottos came in a box. A Vesta was such a treat. It didn’t matter that a prawn was hardly recognisable as a tiny dried up pinkish squiggle! A Vesta was posh eating! We ate our fair share of convenience food but my memories of meals sat at the table were of mainly sausages fried until they were on the point of being burnt with fried onions, pork chops and those faggots and boiled potatoes with a gravy made from Bisto gravy powder. At the weekend mum made chips served with cheese salad drenched in malt vinager and sugar. We used to drink the residual dressing with a spoon. I still like vinager and sugar combos! There was always slices of bread to fill us up and mop up gravy. Dad would slurp the gravy from the plate and we would follow his example and then get told off for dripping gravy on our school shirts. As well as the Ski yogurts and Super Mousses we often had Instant Whip for afters. There was something magical watching the milk and powder beaten together and for it to magically thicken. Oh the wonder of those chemical additives! I could quite happily today eat a bowlful of butterscotch Instant Whip or Angel Delight.
I grew up thinking that bread was only ever toasted on one side. Mum never bothered to turn it over once one side was done. We didn’t have a toaster so bread was toasted under the eye level grill on the cooker. I was envious of friends that got to eat peanut butter, Dairylea cheese triangles, Club biscuits, drink lurid coloured fizzy drinks bought from the Corona man and got a birthday cake. I can’t ever remember having one. I asked Mum once if I had such a treat and she couldn’t recall me ever having one. We ate pies from Clark’s, Mothering Sunday buns and Easter biscuits flavoured with cassia oil.
On Sundays we would have tinned fruit with evaporated milk which I hated, or tinned cream which I adored. Fruit cocktail or manderin segments were the best. Prunes or pear segments were always a disappointment. Mum sometimes made a marmalade tart. She wasn’t a baker and her cakes were hit or miss but she was brilliant at making the shortest shortcrust pastry going.
The majority of today’s children are used to eating treats and snacks in some form or other. I know that I always had biscuits and crisps in the house when my own boys were kids. Eating between meals just didn’t happen when I was little. There wasn’t the money for snacks and Mum didn’t want her girls getting chubby. We were given a six pence on Friday to be spent on penny sweets at the local newsagents. We would point out what we wanted in our paper bags to the man behind the sweet counter. Black Jacks, Fruit Salads, foam shrimps, liquorice wheels, gobstoppers, Refreshers. Love Hearts, Flying Saucers, Drumstick lollies, Swizzel lollies, sherbert pips, bubble gum, Dib Dabs. So much sugar and so many trips to the dentist for fillings!
Being a hardened crisp lover, it’s hard for me to understand why my mum has never liked crisps and would refuse to buy them for us but she relented on Bonfire Night when we were allowed a packet. Maybe it was because we never allowed them that I went off the crisp rails when I left home and ate family sized bags bought in the Kensington branch of Marks and Spencers and ate them on the Tube back to Hammersmith.
Unlike tooth decay, obesity was much less common during my childhood. This was probably due to a combination of smaller meal portions, fewer snacks and we moved about lots! Families often had no cars or just the one that dads needed for to getting to work. Without a car you had no option but to walk everywhere that wasn’t on a bus route. My primary school was a four mile round trip. I walked to school in Staple Hill but frequently ran most of the way home. Television for children lasted for not much more than an hour and so we went out to play on the streets where traffic wasn’t an issue as there was hardly any. We rarely stood still. Instead we ran. skipped, rode bikes or wore roller skates. In the school holidays we left the house with a sandwich in the morning and walked miles pretending to be on adventures. If it was raining, we just put our anorak hoods up and wore wellies. If it was freezing cold, we wore balaclavas and home knitted mittens with strings threaded through the sleeves so that we didn’t loose them. Obesity though was common on my mum’s side of the family and she was always worried that me and my sister would grow up with weight issues. At 84 she still worries about her own weight and is constantly “cutting down” despite not needing to. Unfortunately I did follow in the footsteps of her family and developed weight problems where as my sister has remained slim through out her life. Perhaps she never ate family sized bags of crisps!
My experience of food changed drastically though when at eleven I went to Austria for a penfriend exchange holiday. But that will have to wait until next time. Right now I have to prepare slow cooked Greek style lamb and chocolate mousse. Made of course from scratch.
Until next time.