A couple of things recently have got me thinking about food (again!), and the stories and memories we all have around it – although I’m always interested in food and need little excuse to think or talk about it, share or enjoy it!
I was talking with my adult daughter about food costs, and how we both create meals in similar ways when we’re short of money – she learned from me, and I from my mum, although we all put our own spin on those lessons from childhood. The tools over the years may change, along with the ingredients, but the basics of thrifty shopping, batch cooking and freezing, using the whole oven, slow cooking, and so on, haven’t changed much since my mum learned (probably) similar lessons from my grandparents.
The conversation awoke food memories from my childhood, connections across time between the 50-odd year old me of today and my childhood self – happy, sad, funny, they’re all worthy of remembrance, because they’re part of what made me.
When I cook familiar meals from my childhood, the chopping, stirring, and smells are a form of wizardry, culinary alchemy if you will, conjuring up visions of the tiny kitchen of my childhood home. Here, my sisters and I learned how to peel vegetables and bake, we ate breakfast at the tiny table, especially when my dad was away working. I can close my eyes and I’m transported back to my seat at our bigger, living room table: setting it for dinner or tea, occasional extra places if we had visitors, waiting for mum to bring the food in. Mum could make a meal from seemingly empty cupboards – creating healthy (and filling!) meals for three hungry little girls was no mean feat with next to no money!
There were amazingly happy meals, full of laughter and daftness, where we stuffed ourselves silly, but also ones filled with tension, anger, or sadness, when we were too choked up to eat. There were favourite meals and treats, and also food that I hated then, and loathe to this day, even with my mum’s amazing cooking skills. Liver and onions? Fried black pudding? Absolutely not! THE best soups I’ve ever had in my life? Home-made raspberry or bramble jam, on freshly made bread? Yes, please! The occasional roast chicken on Sunday, with crisp, slightly salty skin, that we fought over, followed by the rice pudding – whose skin we were happy for our parents to fight over!
We didn’t have a fridge until I was 11 in the late 70s, so mum bought fresh meat on the day and kept it in cool in the cellar, or sent one of us to the shop for frozen fish fingers just before tea – these were a rare treat indeed! Having a fridge with a tiny freezer meant that she could then shop when she liked, and keep said fish fingers for another day. Mum sometimes tried other food novelties in the 70s, but we usually preferred her cooking!
This brings me to the other thing – an interview with Lemn Sissay on the BBC, where he was asked about his life in five dishes. As a fellow Northerner, a couple of these resonated, but it was the way he wove those food stories around his life experiences at the time of eating each dish that got me thinking. His description of arctic roll was filled with such nostalgia for me, too – have a listen to the interview, only half an hour but it will leave you longing for a chip butty, jerk chicken, or that arctic roll, even if you’ve never eaten them!
If we had to do the same – choose a handful of dishes that meant something to us throughout our lives – what would each of us choose?
Would you pick the safe, joyful food memories – the birthdays, celebrations, Christmas, weddings? Or would your choices be more painful, or sad – the mealtime when your parents fought, a loved one’s funeral tea? The first meal you cooked for a boyfriend or girlfriend, or the first one as a newly-single person? Is one more comfortable than the other? Maybe we could embrace all of them, surrender to the sad as well as the glad, remember the lost people AND the weddings, the uncomfortable situations AND the laughter.
If we sit around each other’s tables, share food and stories, tears and laughter, be vulnerable and authentic, then maybe we become stronger together, more connected. Maybe keeping the stories inside, unspoken and unshared, gives them a bigger hold over our memories – bringing them into the light of the tea table (yes, I’m a Yorkshire woman and we have dinner around 12-ish and tea about 5!) could diminish some of the pain or sadness when shared with others around that table.
Lemn said that ‘food simplifies matters’, and that neatly sums up what I’ve rambled about a little here – maybe we can’t solve the world’s problems over dinner or tea, but we can share each other’s pain and joy somewhat over a home made meal. I’d love to create spaces for people to come together with me, to share our favourite foods and our unspoken stories – definitely an idea brewing!
What five dishes would you choose to tell part of your life story? I’d love to know – please do share with me on any of the platforms where I have a seat at the table. Next blog post, or somewhere online, I’ll share five dishes that mean something to me – although I’m sure I could pick many more, as could we all!