Thursday, April 23, 2009

Food for Thought

Ali Carew sent another snippet about gooseberries. According to the Shorter Oxford ‘the old gooseberry’ was a colloquial term for the devil. I am taking time out from reading Massey – it’s that sort of book – to read Nigel Slater’s Toast: the story of a boy’s hunger. Slater was born and grew up in Wolverhampton. (I’ve met a distant relative who worked there maintaining and servicing the royal railway coaches). Slater’s memoir is based around boyhood memories of food. His beloved mother died when he was nine from asthma and he disliked his tyrannical father and even more his stepmother.

It got me thinking about my own childhood food experiences. Each night before school Mum made sandwiches for our lunch, mutton, jam or marmite. As we got older Doug and I took over this chore. Mum spoke longingly of oranges and pineapples, but despite the war there was plenty of seasonal fresh food. We called our meals breakfast, dinner and tea, eaten off the oil-clothed drop-leaf table. If guests came Mum put a cloth on. Breakfast in the winter was usually porridge, Creamota from the packets with Sergeant Dan on them, in the summer Kornies, "everybody's breakfast" the radio ads told us.

Most meals consisted of mutton, either hot or cold, mutton soup all winter, fried chops often, neck stew. Always with mashed potato except for the Sunday roast. People ask if such a daily diet of mutton and spud wasn’t monotonous. Certainly at the time it did not seem so, it was what people ate. Uncle Tom killed a pig for Christmas and Easter, so pork became for me the symbol of celebration. Mum made brawn, chopping the cooked pigs-head apart with a sharp tomahawk. Pop always ate the trotters. When the young roosters got three-quarter grown it was axe time for them, Mum and Granny saving the feathers to stuff cushions. Sausages were a treat, whenever Pop or Mum went through to town, as was corn beef. When Mum married Dick on the new farm there were ducks and geese. Goose became our Christmas dinner. Mum stirred carefully hoarded threepence pieces into the Christmas pudding. One year young Bruce my half-brother swallowed all of his.

In late spring Uncle Tom's black-currant bushes would be laden, for a couple of days we couldn't use the bath, Mum would be making jelly, the juice oozing through the muslin bags hung over large basins. Other neighbours possessed gooseberry bushes. In autumn we would collect large field mushrooms in a bucket while during the summer we would harvest watercress from the creek margins. Another autumn activity was picnics picking blackberries to be made into jam. Mum planted apple trees, granny smith, red delicious, cox's orange, lovely names. All summer we dug our own potatoes, red dakota mainly. Then in autumn one bagged up the rest of the crop for winter. She always planted a lot of peas, her two sons loved to eat them raw. My lunch pack over summer always contained several pods. Tomatoes grew well, turned into sauce and chutney to be used all year. Pop loved spring onions and radishes. While he was drafting he'd send me to his garden to pull some and rinse them under the tap. Chewing happily, he sorted the sheep, his pet cockatoo screeching advice from a tree above.

Another bonus was Aitken's orchard. Between his house and ours was his orchard. - the second best in Little River. Coops who'd established the mill had the best. That orchard was the perfect place for children - lush grass to burrow through, well-established trees to climb, make-believe tigers to stalk or be stalked by; furthermore he didn't mind our playing in it or picking the fruit. Several large plum trees grew close to our fence and there were prolific apricot, pear and apple trees. As he never sprayed the peaches they did not do too well but otherwise there was nature's plenty. There was more fruit than his household or ours could eat, all summer the aroma of decaying fruit wafted from the orchard through our house. In the fork of the gigantic plum tree one could sit and gorge, the fresh juice sticky as it ran down one's chin. Mum and Thora would bottle and bottle, and us five kids would climb and gorge, climb and gorge. The only place we had to ask permission and get the key for was the cherry cage - about twenty trees surrounded by wire-mesh. Balancing near the top of a cherry tree, my face streaked with red, marvelling at the miracle that could turn sap and sunshine into such a delicacy, the ripe fruit all around me, is a very pleasant childhood memory. We could eat our fill and take away buckets full. We did both.

Ice-creams at the local shops cost a penny or threepence. After the war there were liquorice straps.

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